Thoughts on Commentary

Book cover showing a gray background with black geometric lines embossed on top

Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis (France; Ugly Duckling Presse)

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.

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Eléctrico W

Electrcio W Cover

 

On Vincent Balmer’s first of nine days spent in Lisbon with his friend Antonio, they shared an olive-colored taxi to Rossio Square. Antonio was a native of Lisbon returning home for the first time after years ten traveling the world as a documentary photographer. Vincent watched Antonio look out the taxi window and light a cigarette. Vincent was struck by the tableau:

“It felt as if time had taken a step to one side, a divergence as fine as a crack in the glaze on porcelain. Something unfamiliar has insinuated itself inside me. I can think of no other way of putting it: I no longer saw a thirty-year old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book.”

That night he sat down and described what he had seen, instantly deciding that it would be the beginning of a novel about Antonio entitled Eléctrico W.

Except that this is not the Eléctrico W that I read. The Eléctrico W that exists as a physical object in our world is a novel by French Oulipian Hervé Le Tellier and is about a writer named Vincent Balmer writing a novel. The metafictional playfulness extends a few layers deeper. In addition to writing Antonio’s story, Vincent is working on a novel about Pescheux d’Herbinville, a slighted lover known primarily for killing math prodigy Evariste Galois in a duel. The jealousy that drove Galois’ murder mirrors Vincent’s own emotional tensions provoked by Antonio’s romantic successes, leading the reader to turn pages faster to see if Vincent’s actions will also align with d’Herbinville’s. Additionally, Vincent has been translating a Portuguese Borgesian author named Jaime Montestrela. Montestrela’s works are all snippets about imaginary cultures engaging in a variety of strange but sublime religious rituals:

“When January 12 falls on a Sunday, the Picardy village of Abelvilly still to this day celebrates it as the Feast of the Gulerian, when this creature is hunted for the tender meat on its large fleshy ears. The gulerian is a patagrade with a bright orange pelt, similar to a badger in size and tortoise in mobility and agility, specific to that part of the Caux region and sadly extinct since the first Feast of the Gulerian in the year of grace 1197.”

We aren’t given to know if Le Tellier has hidden additional constraints within these stories, but Vincent thinks that Montestrela has. Each snippet is mailed to a different person on a different date, and each is dutifully recorded in his book. Are the stories secret messages passed around the world by post? More importantly, what are they communicating to us about Vincent?

Little of Le Tellier’s work has been published in English thus far, and what has been published has been of quite a different nature. Dalkey Archive has published two of his works. A Thousand Pearls (For a Thousand Pennies) is not a novel but rather a list of things that the author is thinking about. The Sextine Chapel is a series of erotic, interconnected short stories. Other Press is bringing his more traditional novels to the U.S., starting with Enough About Love and followed by Electrico W., both translated by Adriana Hunter. Most Oulipian novels, like the two Dalkey works, wear their membership patches on their sleeves; their constraints are the lure for the potential reader. Then there are those like Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes that defy the expectations impressed on them with the stamping of the press’s label by being, simply, beautiful novels, regardless of the witty games that the authors played in writing them. Eléctrico W., by Hervé Le Tellier, falls into this latter category, pleasing both fans of prime numbers and wordplay as well as those looking for beauty and truth.

Although I fall into the first category, it is Le Tellier’s talent for revealing simple truths about the everyday world that most pleased me about this book. Le Tellier’s skill at crystalline observation is ironic considering Vincent’s personal preference for embellished fantasy. He is a man who lives firstly in his imagination and only secondly in the world around him. The consequences of this reality blindness harm him every day. His love life is hopeless; he cannot flirt with women because he doesn’t recognize when they are mocking him. His novel is a failure; it is intended to be a portrait of Antonio but he never bothers to discern who Antonio actually is.  

Unsurprisingly, Vincent dismisses the sort of aphorisms that I found myself praising. Antonio’s talk is “cheap airport fiction,” and inspired by these drunken truths, Vincent says, “I came up with a new aphorism along the lines of ‘No aphorism tells the truth’…” Antonio works as a documentary photographer and his job is to create this kind of faux meaningful vision: “the girl dying behind the vulture”, as Vincent describes these works that superimpose beauty on violence in a cheap attempt at importance.The irony of Vincent’s distaste for aphorism is that, immersed in his own skewed vision of the world, he fails to realize what a self-hating sentiment it is. Despite, or perhaps because of, Vincent’s inability to authentically interact with the world, he uses his imagination to create his own truths to fill the world with.

The plot of Eléctrico W is propelled by Vincent attempting to construct scenarios to make life seem meaningful. When Antonio relates a tale of a long-lost love, Vincent decides to track the lover down to bring about a storybook ending. He even invents his own imaginary girlfriend because the story he is creating works better that way. Each chapter he–often in a ridiculous, American comedy-film fashion–adds an extra layer to the fantasy he is concocting from his apartment in Lisbon.

Eventually those around Vincent begin to reveal that they are people, not characters for him to write, and he must learn to release himself into the meaninglessness of reality. Vincent wasn’t the only one surprised by this; don’t we as readers also expect characters to serve the plot by behaving interestingly? While Vincent has trouble understanding Antonio’s request to control his own reality, the reader, who even further removed from acknowledging Antonio, is doubly shocked. The metafictional nature of the novel within a novel adds a confusing sheen of realism to the work, making it even more confusing about what right a reader has to demand certain qualities of Vincent or any character. What I initially took for a cheap postmodern trick succeeded fantastically, for not only Vincent but I, the reader, had lost track of what was true.