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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Commentary (A Tale) - Marcelle Sauvageot (translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis) - Best Translated Book Award 2014

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.

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