Marcelle Sauvageot - a narrative—hovering between the genres of memoir, theory, and fiction—about a female artist whose abandonment by a lover precipitates a refiguration of her ideas on life, love and art

Marcelle Sauvageot, Commentary, Trans. by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013. [1933.]

COMMENTARY is a narrative—hovering between the genres of memoir, theory, and fiction—about a female artist whose abandonment by a lover precipitates a refiguration of her ideas on life, love and art. Sauvageot died, after many stints in sanatoriums, at the age of 34. Commentaire was highly prasied in its time by Paul Claudel, Paul Valéry, André Gide, Charles Du Bos, René Crevel ou Clara Malraux.

When, in the morning, daybreak awakens us f rom a dream, we close our eyes and remain still, trying to recreate and continue the scene. But the day's light has destroyed everything: words are without sound, gestures without meaning. It is like a vanishing rainbow: some hues survive for an instant, disappear, seem to return: there is nothing left.

In my review of the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlisted “The Mussel Feast”, back in early April, why did it take twenty-three years for a work being celebrated in its native language before the English speaking and reading world discovers it? Well if that sounds outrageous, this work, was originally published back in 1933 and has undergone NINE republications in France. English readers get to see it for the first time in 2014!! Add to that the fact that this edition from Ugly Duckling Presse had a print run of 1,250, therefore the exposure is not that high. I’m sure they are eternally grateful for the Best Translated Book Award Longlist nomination, a few more copies moved!!

Our writer, Marcelle Sauvageot died from tuberculosis aged in her early thirties. This “tale” is a monologue, taking in her journey to a sanatorium to recover from her illness:

And when I am cured, you’ll see how everything will be fine. I like speaking familiarity to you now that you’re no longer here. I’m not accustomed to it, it feels forbidden to me: it’s marvellous. DO you think one day I will really be able to speak to you this way? When I am cured, you will no longer find me bad-tempered. I am sick. You told me the sick force themselves to be sweeter to those around them: and you cited some beautiful examples for me. I do not love you when you are delivering sermons; you make me want to yawn, and if you reproach me, it means you love me less; you’re comparing me to others. The sick are sweet, but what I am is exhausted; carrying on and saying “thank you” to those who do not understand is wearing away all my strength.

The monologue then moves to her reading a letter from her younger lover who informs her that he is now married and that he would like to retain their relationship, now as “friendship”.

Tomorrow I will write to you and no longer know how to address you in this familiar way, I will write to you and will not know how to tell you everything I say to you in my heart. You who have remained there, among the living; can you understand that I am a prisoner? I no longer know how to speak. I am here, stupefied, and like a cold and certain truth I feel that, when one is here, nothing is possible anymore: you cannot keep loving me.

Put simply, this small work is a hidden masterpiece (from the English speaking world that is). A deeply intimate work, we delve inside Sauvageot’s emotions, her questioning of why “Baby’s” (her lover is never named) love for her has failed, and she’s pouring this all out onto the page on her death bed…

This corner of myself judged you, measured you; and in judging and measuring you I saw you weaknesses, your insufficiencies; where is the harm in my staying, in my accepting these insufficiencies, in my loving them? O, Man! You always want to be admired. You do not judge, you do not measure the woman you love. You are there, you take her; you take your happiness, she seems not to belong to herself anymore, to have lost all sense of anything: you are happy. To you she cried: I love you, and you are satisfied. You are not brutal; you are gentle, you talk to her, you worry about her; you comfort her with tender words; you cradle her in your arms. But you do not judge her, since you are asking her to be happy through you and to tell you that she is happy through you. But if you notice two eyes watching you, then smiling, you revolt. You feel that you have been “seen” and you don’t want to be seen: you want only “to be.” Nervously, you ask: “What are you thinking?”

A stunning example of feminist literature, the ruminations of a woman’s emotions and thinking, and a consistent thread “why always the patriarchal definitions of love?”

People say to a woman: “The man you were made for,” and to a man: “The woman who was made for you.” Can they envision: “The woman you were made for”? A man is: everything seems to have been made available to him…even somewhere in the world, a woman who suits him, whose union with him existed before her birth. These words – “you were made for” – imply an obedient and submissive adaptation on which a woman’s happiness will depend. Strange thing: the woman is made for the man and it is she who will be made happy. Can the man not be made happy, or does his happiness reside in feeling the consenting pliability of the one who is made for him? Is than man caressing a beautiful Siamese cat hoping to find out what the animal’s light eyes are saying? Or does he think that the caress itself is the only thing that can cause the animal to be moved?

An extremely short work, about 76 small pages, but very deep and amazingly moving. The only dislike I had for the publication was the introduction by Jennifer Moxley, a condescending trite rambling that gave away the whole feel of the work, was too highbrow and too clever by half. I suggest you skip it, unless you’re a student of hers, and want bonus marks!!!

We should be celebrating that this is finally available in English and I thank the judges of the Best Translated Book Award for including it on the 2014 long list as it brought the work to my attention. I can’t recommend this work highly enough, even if you simply discover that after 80 years, when it comes to love, little (if anything) has changed. We are still living in the patriarchal world. A quick warning though, I suggest you get a copy of this quickly as there are only 1,249 of the print run floating out there somewhere as my own copy is going nowhere. - Tony Messenger

Commentary is just that: Marcelle Sauvageot's commentary to and on the lover who has reëvaluated their relationship and decided to go another way. She specifically addresses him (i.e. writes about and possibly to: 'you') in almost all of these entries -- what might be letters or diary-entries, written between early November 1930 and the end of the year. Complicating matters is the fact that she has tuberculosis -- the work begins with her setting out for a sanatorium, and most of the entries are written from her stay --, a sickness that kills her soon after the 1933 publication of the work.
Complicating matters, too, is that the man she loves is a cad. She's already somewhat worried about their relationship when she hears from him:
"I am getting married ... Our friendship remains ..." I don't know what happened.
Maybe she should have seen this coming -- it becomes clear that the other woman didn't exactly pop up out of nowhere -- but blinded by her love she apparently couldn't believe that he'd settle for that other woman.
"If you love me, I will be cured", she writes early on, before he's announced he's moving on -- a lot to burden both herself and him with. "Surely he must still love me", she tells herself, as she continues to receive letters from him after she has set off. His announcement that he is marrying another woman does bring a sense of finality, and it sinks in quickly and devastatingly enough, but it takes her a while to try to work out her feelings. She explores them, almost clinically, yet the depth of her love still colors all.
Even as she addresses him, she explains: "I will not write to you, because I want to forget you." Obviously, at this point she's not quite there yet. Painstakingly, and painfully, she goes over what has and what is happening. She's not so blinded as not to recognize his maneuvers, including how:
you no longer wanted to see me as I was; and I wept to see myself destroyed in this manner. 
It's a powerful examination of ultimately unrequited love and a failed affair, written with a fine control that balances between the impassioned and the almost clinically analytical. The object of her affections seems entirely unworthy -- or, at the very least, not the appropriate partner for her -- but then love doesn't work that way, and so she gets the worst of it. Her response isn't a bitter rant (though there's certainly a bitter edge here); mostly, it's just touched by sadness. (Awareness of her fate -- "Leave me to suffer, leave me to be cured, leave me alone", she asks, and the reader knows that didn't quite work out either -- adds to the poignancy of the text.)
Padded with introductions and commentary, this edition of Commentary doesn't quite allow Sauvageot's words to stand on their own. Arguably, some background is helpful, but given how the text deals with the lover's absence -- he remains in communication with her, after all, yet is an almost entirely unheard presence -- the text is probably more effective standing all by its lonesome. Like her. - M.A.Orthofer

One thing I love about the Best Translated Book Award is that it looks at what it considers to be the best translated books, regardless of when they were first written. Regardless, in fact, of whether the author is still alive and can claim their honor (and the $5,000 prize). Consequently, on the longlist we’ll get books not only from all over the world but also from various times in the past. This year, we have a few books from authors long gone, including this one from a woman author who died in 1934: Commentary (Commentaire, 1933; tr. from the French by Christine Schwarz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis, 2013).
Another thing the Best Translated Book Award does is focus solely on books that have never before been translated into English. It’s sometimes shameful, then, to come across a book like this one and realize that for eighty years we’ve been neglecting an important, seminal text. And whether or not you enjoy this book — or this kind of book (more on that in a moment) — I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that this book is not an important piece of literature, particularly of feminist literature. Hurrah, then, that decades of neglect have come to an end, and the English-language restricted reader is now able to grapple with Commentary.
Commentary may feel somewhat familiar to contemporary readers, but I want to make the case it is only a feeling of familiarity. What we have here is unique. The text is structured as a series of reflective, perhaps furious, letters (which the authors has no intention of sending) to her former lover. In these letters/reflections, she explores her dismay, with hints of bitterness subsumed by sadness.
When the story begins, a woman in her early thirties is on a train taking her to a sanatorium. She has tuberculosis, like the author. While on the train, she thinks of the man she loves and left behind. She writes to him, even if she does not plan to send the letter she’s crafting in her head. She loves him, and in the days before she got on the train he was visiting her, as she asked. She acknowledges that he gave her no promises of love and affection upon her return:
And yet it would be so good for me, alone, going far away, to cradle myself in our love with confidence. I need it: I would like to find it again when I return, cured.
She’s justifiably worried about his “love,” though. She notes he was “nicer in Paris” and that while together he did a lot to avoid saying I love you. She is able to brush these thoughts aside, though, as she constructs a future where these will simply be signs of all they had to overcome.
A month goes by, she in the sanatorium, he writing letters that continue to worry her, until she finally gets a letter that says this:
I am getting married. . . Our friendship remains. . .”
Through the remainder of this very short book, the narrator grapples with her emotions, expressing them to a man who now will most certainly never hear the words she has to say, and yet she must address herself to him.
At first, she continues to comfort herself, even as she suffers, that whatever she felt in the past was real, that this man did/does love her. As before, she couches this false hope in false realism.
If I were very vain, I would think you still love me and that it is out of a sense of obligation to avoid injuring a young girl who believes in you that you are distancing yourself from me to marry her. But rest assured: I am not at all vain; I only smiled at a few words: “compelled,” “fear of disappointing her.” I also thought that if I were your fiancée and if I read this sentence, I would be saddened.
She is working through layers and layers of build up, here. Where this book excels for me is toward the half-way point when she begins to see what she’s doing, how dishonest it is. She’s been attempting to understand what her lover’s marriage means, what it say about their relationship, about her. But the focus starts to shift, and she begins attempting to understand what her prior attempts say about her, and, in a way, she comes to find herself: “I am less alone that I was during the days when I was looking for you.”
I am tempted to end my post there, but I don’t want to give the impression the book ends in another form of false optimism. It doesn’t. Always staring this woman in the face is the end, and it’s clear to her she will move forward alone. - Trevor Berrett

Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own crushed heart. Originally published in French under the title Commentaire in 1933, the book remains relevant precisely because the behavior of the man to whom these epistolary responses are addressed seems shockingly familiar.
Commentary is a deconstruction of an insensitive and condescending break-up letter that is sent to the narrator when she is spending time in a sanatorium. Her lover, who is only referred to as “Baby,” is in Paris, where he has made plans to marry another woman. “I am getting married . . . Our friendship remains . . .” his letter states, and from here, the narrator dives into the sadness and anger it provokes.
In her responses to different aspects of his letter, Sauvageot paints the portrait of a woman trying to understand not only a relationship that has failed, but also the nature of love in general. Baby says that it isn’t his fault she’s in a sanatorium; that he couldn’t have made her happy anyway; that friendship should be sufficient going forward. The narrator doesn’t let him off the hook. She writes:
You scoured the past for a sentence in which I seemed to say I no longer loved you: “You always told me that what you had loved in me was ‘Baby’ and you did not conceal from me that ‘Baby’ no longer existed.” And you shield yourself with this sentence without wanting to remember how you did not accept it. Now, you welcome it with glee, because it enables you to escape reproach for your infidelity. (67)
She goes on to say that, in his absurd justification for leaving the relationship, she sees “a petty salesman reneging on a deal he no longer wants to close.” (68) Her assessment of this man is honest, apt, and fair.
Along with her assessment of the relationship is her attack on the gender dynamics at play. “Is a woman in love not delighted when a man chooses her as a reward for her total love?” the narrator asks, with no small amount of snark. She goes on to say, in earnest, “what you are saying is the eternally idiotic, but eternally true, song of those who love and are loved.” (52) The narrator, in short, is critical of the superficiality of modern love—a criticism that remains relevant today.
In her introduction to this new edition, Jennifer Moxley refers to Baby as a “failed human being.” One could call Baby lots of things: insensitive, blind to his own male privilege, and self-serving to name a few. But to call him “failed” pronounces him dead, which he is not. The triumph of this book is that the narrator, while gravely wounded, sees through what Moxley would say makes him a “failed human being”—his weak attempts to justify his insensitivity. She knows him better than he knows himself. “I know you better, and that is not to love you less,” she writes (49). Could this narrator truly love a “failed human being”?
The story ends optimistically, with a dance. The narrator attends a dance party, finds a partner, and spends a lovely evening with him. “Lightly intoxicated by this rhythm, accompanied by my partner for the night, who by tomorrow will have forgotten this late evening, I slowly mounted the stairs to my door; and we took leave of each other after a kiss, without saying anything” (97). That kiss, after so much discussion of love, puts a cap of silence on a long meditation on the subject.
Why should we read this meditation in 2014? In a world in which social media encourage us to hide our flaws, this book attempts to remind us that those who love us because of our flaws, not in spite of them, are those who love us best. - Peter Biello

Marcelle Sauvageot’s Commentary begins with a woman who begs herself for words. She can sense that her lover has pulled away. The anticipation of loss boils and she questions how to express the urgency of what she feels. Her thoughts are granular: “How can one possibly convey the full sense of turmoil produced by an emotion at the precise moment it occurs?”
Her relationship with the man she calls “Baby” has been fragile for some time. Its delicacy is rooted in intimacy, roots that cannot wrestle with the weight of individualism, or their differing expectations of gender dynamics. Her pain is further complicated by absence, as she is en route to a sanatorium for tuberculosis treatment. She rereads Baby’s letters on the train and imagines herself returning to him fully cured. Perhaps, she thinks, he will be waiting:
The certainty that someone continues to love and to wait, someone for whom all the rest is but a temporary, impotent distraction, is a great joy for the sick person: she feels the life she left behind has noticed her absence.
After arriving at the sanatorium, she receives a letter from Baby that bears surprising news: he is to be married to another woman. “’Our friendship remains,’” the letter vaguely assures her. And with all the starkness of realism, and a lucid, surrealistic landscape, Sauvageot invites us down narrative neural pathways so vivid, so relevant to the core of woman (and man!), that we wonder, Is she living somehow through this story? Did she cheat death by writing this book?
Commentary is, the genre tells us, a fiction/memoir hybrid. We don’t know who her lover, Baby, is or if he truly existed, or if someone really left her for another woman, while she was sick, after promising to “wait”. We do know, however, that Sauvageot was suffering from tuberculosis and wrote this book from a sanatorium. She died shortly after finishing the manuscript, at the young age of 34, and did not get to see these “intimate writings” published in two more editions over the next two years. The first edition included a forward by Charles Du Bos, who visited her the day before she died. “Marcelle Sauvageot does not remain absent from any of her internal states, “ he wrote of Commentary. “How precious and rare is it today to encounter such a respect for happiness, such a desire that, embalmed in memory’s care, survives exactly the way it was lived.”
She begins with a deconstruction of insecurity—of herself and her lover, and of her lover through her eyes. “It’s true that I am clumsy: I do not know how to express a feeling; by the time I’ve said a few words, I’m making fun of myself.” She describes a discomfort with professing love because when she listens to herself speak, it is “as if another person were speaking, and I no longer believe I am sincere; the words seem to inflate my feelings and turn them into strangers.” She says that she doesn’t admit love out of fear, mostly of failure, and claims no intention towards faithfulness despite turning other men down for dates and kisses. “And thus in denying that my heart loves, I become more attached than the one who says to me: I love you.”
Sauvageot asks difficult questions of herself, but is even harsher towards her former lover. Her anger is palpable as she reconciles the relationship with the way it ended. She confesses his faults—his vanity and snobbism, his, “small, throaty laugh,” and lips that, “recede somewhat over teeth that appear black.” She describes him under a microscope, through the eyes of someone who’s watched him, who’s learned him. “I saw your weaknesses, your insufficiencies; where is the harm in my staying, in my accepting these insufficiencies, in my loving them?”
But Baby does not want her to find his insufficiencies. He wants to be respected, not examined, and finds the narrator too astute, too aware. She laments Baby’s discomfort: “O Man! You always want to be admired…You feel that you have been ‘seen’ and you don’t want to be seen: you only want ‘to be’. Nervously, you ask: ‘What are you thinking?’” It’s in her understanding of Baby’s faults that distrust is born, and this underlying tension lingers throughout the book.
Commentary was written in the early 1930’s, which means that Sauvageot’s open emphasis on feminism is remarkable for her time. Contemporary yearnings for social and personal liberty were alive in this 1930’s French woman, right down to the little things we whisper in our heads and to our friends—what we say quietly to avoid sounding bitter. She’s tired of hearing women talk about their husbands all the time. She’s bored with women defining themselves by the men in their lives—by their desires and habits, by what men have done for them. Worse, she sees a longing for this conventional type of marriage, for “moral and societal principles”, in her lover. It’s a longing she knows she can never end. He tells her so.
Sauvageot is scorned but poised, wild but composed. Her rant employs a poeticism that makes it a tale instead of a tirade, and it truly is a story—the story of a woman who is dying but finding herself, who refuses to give up the most important parts of her individuality. “I tried to hold on to a small support separate from you…I wanted to be able to hold myself tight, along with my pain, my doubts, my lack of faith.”
But this tale is more about illness than Sauvageot lets on. Fading love is a foil for her failing body, for the body of the little boy she mentions only once, who “left us quickly while hiding the blood that filtered through his lips”. There’s a universal sense of betrayal in the reality of young death, when a life that promised to be long ends before the best parts begin. “The past wants to die,” she says, alluding to the process of letting her lover go. But it’s her body that wants to die, leaving her with no choice but to fight:
You are gone but I am finding myself again, and I am less alone than I was during the days when I was looking for you. I have come back to myself, and with myself, I will fight to carry on.
Commentary is more than a book. It’s an invitation to experience the survival of the person who wrote it—you can flip through her mind with your fingers. She died eighty years ago but has cheated death in print, and her analyses of relationships, gender culture, and the human heart have never been more relevant. Sauvageot speaks, for such a time as this, to remind us that love can be equal if we allow ourselves partnership, if we let someone else love us wholly. And when love and life fail, we have ourselves to cradle and be cradled. The comfort we need is in our own arms. On the edge of death, she is able to keep herself. -

Consider this: You are a woman living in France during the 1920s and 1930s. You hold the highest teaching awarded in France. In your early thirties, you are in love with a man a decade or so younger than you. It is a deep and passionate love. You become sick with tuberculosis. Your lover distances himself from you. On the train to the sanatorium, you read a letter he has sent you to inform you that a) he is getting married and b) the “love” he has for you has turned into “friendship.” While grieving this loss and fighting the disease that has plagued you, you write a monologue, an epistle, a rumination, a theory, a response to the letter and to the relationship. An editor reads it and wants to publish it. A respected scholar is asked to write a foreword. On your deathbed, between narcotic haziness and lucidity, the foreword is read to you. Feeling that the work is what you want it to be, days later at the age of 34, you peacefully pass away letting go of love and pain. You work is admired by prominent intellectuals of the time such as Paul Valery and René Crevel. Never having received it’s due in the canon of feminist literature, some eighty years later it is finally and masterfully translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis. At last, it is nominated for an award.
If that isn’t reason enough to merit the Best Translated Book Award, I’m not sure what is.
Commentary by Marcelle Sauvegeot enjoyed much resurgence in France but never gained notice until translated into English recently and published by Ugly Ducking Presse. This work is not to be categorized; it is a letter of admission, a monologue to those who love, an intimate philosophical inquiry into a woman’s mind and emotions. From early on, Sauvegeot cops to her feminine nature, but with an unflinching and objective eye, she does not excuse it:
“If only I could have begun the scene again to kiss that face and say: ‘I will not betray you.’ But things do not begin again; and I must not have uttered that sentence, for I don’t know how to speak at the right moment or with the appropriate tone. I am too easily overcome by emotion, and harden myself to avoid giving in to it. How can one convey the full sense of turmoil produce by an emotion at the exact moment it occurs?”
There are other feminist contemporaries who broached the emotional stranglehold of love and the way it changes when relationships change, specifically I am thinking H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, mentioned in the Introduction by Jennifer Moxley) and Djuna Barnes. But Commentary is more immediate and accessible than H.D.’s Kora and Ka and more intimate and analytical than Barnes’s Nightwood. No woman had written on love in such a direct and nuanced manner before this and while it is woman’s story of how an affair ends, it is masculine in its observation:
“Some ballads begin as your letter does: ‘You, whom I’ve loved so much…’ This past tense, with the present still resounding so close, is as sad as the ends of parties, when the lights are turned off and you remain alone, watching the couples go off into the dark streets. It’s over: nothing else is to be expected, and yet you stay there indefinitely, knowing that nothing more will happen. You have notes like a guitar’s; at times, like a chorus that repeats: ‘I could not have given you happiness.’ It’s an old song from long ago, like a dried flower…Does the past become an old thing so quickly?”
Who hasn’t been there? There is nostalgia and analysis present, but not a mawkish sentimentality. It’s not that she is writing like a man, but that she manages to dissect herself and the affair acknowledging her onus for loving the weaknesses of her lover as strongly as she condemns them.
Commentary isn’t a sweeping epic, not intricately plotted, nor is it full of literary devices, yet it is unique in form and so well written that the reader gathers all the necessary information from what Sauvageot conveys. It is a well-intended lament, a response to a call, short and powerful, written by a dying woman who only wanted to understand why love fails. - Monica Carter

Born in 1900, Marcelle Sauvageot was conneted to the Surrealists by friendship, love, and artistic practice, but as is often the case, she has been excluded from the dominant narrative about that movement—until a reissue of her single book, Commentaire (initially retitled Laissez-Moi) was published in Paris in 2002, prompting a revival of interest in her work and inspiring a successful one-woman show.