Commentary is an epistolary memoir that begins with the author, Marcelle Sauvageot, on a train to a sanitarium where she hopes to treat her tuberculosis but instead fears she will be merely trapped inside with other sick people. She writes (or addresses in her head) her lover, whom has grown distant as a result of her illness. A month into their epistolary friendship, she receives a letter that announces, “I am getting married… our friendship remains.” She writes back, a retrospective on their relationship together. It is more than a commentary on their relationship, it is also a commentary on the state of relations between men and women in the early 20th century. As such, she decides to publish it. A year later, she succumbs to her illness one last time.
This slim book is filled with the kind of honesty and poetry that might be in our hearts but that we never speak aloud. When we hear it, it is from the mouths of characters, feelings once removed. Sauvageot must have sensed her ending and realized that she had no reason to censor herself. As a result, she gives us beautiful passages like these,
In Corsica, after a long walk through the scrub brush, I came upon an open path. I held my horse by its bridle; its head was above mine, and I was barely visible between two arbutuses. I was holding pink peonies against my breast. I wish you could have been there to smell the fragrance of the brush; you would have understood the taste I have for the wild sometimes; you would have been simple and wild like me and we’d have loved each other. I held my horse tightly in my arms and crushed the peonies. There was no one around to love what I loved.
Her style reminds me of the musings of Colette or one of Nin’s more quotidian heroines, but less sensual than either. Her concerns are usually more in the interplay of ideas and words than sensations. This is not just a commentary on her relationship, but also a critique of her lover’s letters. She pulls out certain phrases and reviews them over and over, manipulating them and their meanings in ways only possible because he is not physically present; he is merely represented by the static set of words he put in the mail for her.
He gives her the same treatment, ‘scour[ing] the past for sentence in which I seemed to say I no longer loved you.” Illness and distance reduces their relationship to a transcript.
Maybe more than Colette, it reminds me of Knausgaard. The unflinching examination of everyday life and of oneself. The way a single train of thought allows time travel from the present and the view out the window to youth and the streets of the past to interior landscapes and reams. The belief that if every rock of thought and observation is overturned, we might eventually find more underneath than just beetles.
We read the book waiting for a revelation in her feelings, her coming to a conclusion, to an actionable take on her past. The revelation happens at the beginning, though, in her deciding to write at all. In her taking advantage of the severance to finally speak freely. She notes repeatedly that she was always the one in the relationship who obscured her feelings. He was the romantic whereas she was “clumsy”, “with a single ironic sentence I destroy the impression I’ve created.” Commentary is the act of her disregarding her usual irony. ‘Irony’ might be the defining word of the 21st century, of generation ‘i’, so Sauvageot’s work comes to us as a gift from a different time. It is too late for Sauvageot when she writes this, but her hindsight gives us a chance to look at ourselves honestly and openly, to love without irony.