Translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis. Introduction by Jennifer Moxley. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013. 128 pages, $15.00.
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As I write this, it is eighty years since writer Marcelle Sauvageot lost her battle with tuberculosis at the young age of thirty-three in a sanatorium in the spa town of Davos, Switzerland. Sauvageot, who had been suffering from the disease since her mid-twenties, left behind one slim volume of prose—Commentaire, which appeared just a year prior to her premature death. At the time of its publication, Paul Claudel, the staunch Catholic poet and critic, extolled the novel for being “one of the masterworks from a feminine pen.” The feminist author Clara Malraux called Commentaire “the first novel written by a women that doesn’t represent a subservience.” And Surrealist writer René Crevel, whom Sauvageot counted as a close friend, characterized her narrative as “a very pure flame defying life.” Yet despite the acclaim, Commentaire languished out of print in France for fifty years, until 1986. Five subsequent French editions have appeared since, which have rescued Sauvageot and the novel from literary obscurity. Commentary is the first time the work has appeared in English translation.
A note that precedes the translation reveals that Sauvageot wasn’t sure what to call her unique work—part epistolary novel, part semi-autobiographical journal chronicling a love affair’s figurative death as the protagonist faces her own mortality. Clearly, the title’s lack of specificity posed a problem to the French editors who, in 1997, decided to tack on to the original title a melodramatic subtitle: récit d’un amour meurtri (a tale of wounded love). For the next edition in 2004, editors again tinkered with the title, choosing instead the more descriptive and equally melodramatic Laissez-moi (Leave Me—the exhortation lifted from the latter part of the novel), with Sauvageot’s original being relegated to subtitle. Since then the title in French has remained variations on Laisse-moi: Commentaire. Happily, for the English edition the translators have opted to “restore” Sauvageot’s original, and its simplicity perfectly suits this work about love and free will, whose meaning, thankfully, cannot be easily pinned down. Yet the English translators also felt the need for a subtitle, récit (a tale), borrowed from the 2005 edition, ostensibly to distinguish Commentary as work of fiction. No matter its title, this austere and compelling work speaks as vividly and truthfully now as it did eighty years ago when Sauvageot set out on her final journey to Davos.
Consumption: the bone-rattling cough and the telltale, bloodied handkerchief; the lithe young body slowly wasting away and sunken eyes filled with fire until death snuffs it out. Consumption was a favored demise for tragic heroines in nineteenth-century French romanticism. While Sauvageot’s tale owes something to romantic, tragic love, her narrator is hardly a moribund camellia; she is a modern independent woman who has “feminist thoughts.” A woman who rejects the happily-ever-after cliché of a trip to the altar that ends all traditional love stories. Her love is a wild thing that cannot be confined within a gilded cage; it is a consummation between two fully realized equals who love freely, without the need for external confirmation or illusion. She satirizes the upper-class twits of wives who trade this freedom to gain entrée into the “elite who can say ‘my husband.’” At every turn, they drop the “h” word “to their girlfriends with a delight imbued with arrogance,” unconcerned that they have to depend on a man for their pampered existences, even down to their opinions and ideas. These brainless wives and their oh, so perfect husbands, who rule the roost, bore the narrator to tears.
The narrator’s love for the man completely transcends the restrictive moral codes of the day. We never learn the name that her lover wears out and about in society; she refers to him as Baby, the intimate, pet name they have conceived together. Unlike wives who sing their husbands’ praises, the narrator loves Baby for his “little uglinesses,” the imperfections that make him worth loving because they distinguish him from all the other men in the world. Yet the “you” who dispatches a Dear Jane letter announcing his impending marriage to another woman only after the narrator is safely aboard a train bound for the sanatorium in Tenay-Hauteville is not her Baby. The Dear Jane letter is evidence he “no longer exist[s].” His clichéd phrases about “friendship” awaken her from her “beautiful dream” to the harsh reality that her lover was not as “wild” as she; he was always fundamentally “one of those ‘men’” who “want[s] to be admired” in the mirror of a wife’s adoring gaze; in breaking with her, he shows his true nature—that of a “petty salesman reneging on a deal he no longer wants to close.”
Interestingly, in its treatment of love, Commentary is less informed by the French romantic tradition than the German. In the foreword to the novel’s second French edition, literary critic Charles du Bos, who visited Sauvageot in Davos shortly before her death, discusses the thematic connection between Sauvageot’s portrait of creative love, the profound understanding between the narrator and her lover, and knowing love, the term coined by du Bos to characterize Goethe’s conception of romantic love, which the German poet viewed as “one of the rarest, most supreme human masterpieces.” Out of two complete equals’ deep “reciprocal understanding” that eschews all romantic illusion, new life and meaning emerges. In the case of Commentary, Baby is the narrator’s masterpiece, her work of art and most creative act of free will, conceived in the spirit of Goethe.
Despite this romanticism, Commentary is, to its core, very much a child of modernity; its appeal to dialectics mirrors the surrealist avant-garde’s fortuitous union of the sewing machine and the umbrella, of which Sauvageot was very much aware. Yet she has no desire to plumb the depths of the uncanny or the subconscious. Instead, she cleaves to the hard reality that awaits a woman who simultaneously faces abandonment and early death.
The daring modernity of this portrait of feminine love becomes even more evident when it is compared to a contemporary German work, Stefan’s Zwieg’s Briefe die ihn nicht erreichten, published in French in 1927 as Lettre d’une inconnue, which du Bos writes “had its moment of renown.” Zweig’s protagonist, the “unknown woman” in the French translation, also writes to an undeserving cad who has no clue that either she or the son they conceived together exist. Only after her beloved son dies in the 1918 flu epidemic and she too is about to succumb does she work up the courage to confess her love. When the man finally reads her letter, it is already too late; the pandemic has claimed yet another victim who, in reality, has died of a broken heart. This story’s sentimental, long-suffering heroine pales in comparison to the vital, independent narrator of Commentary. Indeed, it is in death’s shadow that she becomes most determined to live.
In Commentary’s final chapters, the old year is drawing fast to a close. On Christmas Eve, the narrator writes a final letter to her lover in response to his offer of consolation, which she refuses outright because to accept would mean to live a “simulacra of life” and practice “a religion without faith.” Instead, she tells him that at Christmas she will look for “another faith,” one that she will not be able to find if she remains bound to a man who merely pities her. Nor will she will give into grief and despair like Zweig’s heroine; to do so would be to worship at the altar of a false god. As the New Year arrives, she celebrates the beginning of her newfound liberty. When we last see her, the narrator is returning to her room after the sanatorium’s New Year’s Eve dance. She is accompanied by a male resident, her partner for the evening. For a few hours, these relative strangers have swayed to “life’s happiest rhythm,” achieving a temporary “victory” over death, who has sat the evening out. As the two stand by her door, they silently kiss. Fade to black.
Yet the kiss these relative strangers share before parting belies Sauvageot’s implication that the narrator will seek her new religion in the metaphysical realm, among the angels. As critic Henri Gouhier has observed, Commentary is “without metaphysical pretention.” While the fervent Catholic du Bos would have us believe that Sauvageot, in her final weeks in Davos, found God, I’m skeptical of deathbed conversions. That a modern woman, so filled with sensuality and life, would give up this world for a better one beyond seems to smack of the same bourgeois hypocrisy that led the family of her friend Crevel, who also suffered from tuberculosis, to bury him with the pomp and circumstance of a Catholic funeral, even though he was a non-believer, a suicide, and gay.
I’d like to think that Commentary—this slim yet haunting meditation on love and mortality that comes across so well in this long-overdue and elegant English translation—proves Sauvageot, in the end, her own woman. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, she had “a death of [her] own” in a world where most people take life and death “ready made, off the peg.” Sauvageot shows us that the art of loving, like that of life, cannot be cut to a single pattern; it exists in the intricate details that make love, as Rilke elsewhere observed, “the most difficult of our tasks . . . for which all other work is but preparation.” Commentary is that beautiful handiwork: that art.