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.