Maybe the reason why authors write so much about love is because love can destroy as much as it can heal. Love is like a religion: we either believe in it or we don’t. Some may experience love differently than others. Some may die because of it; some may be saved by it. But no matter where we come from and no matter what we have been through, we experience love at least once in our lives.
Maybe that is why I appreciate so much literature about relationships, from corny love stories to tragedies. From Cinderella and Peau d’Âne to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. There is a kind of magic in novels or fairy tales that we so desperately try to find again in our lives. Who hasn’t wished to live a true love story like in the movies or from a novel?
When I was a little girl, such stories played an important role in my childhood. I imagined my future as a series of adventures with jealous witches and beautiful princes riding thoroughbred horses who would save me from evil spells. But growing up, such fairy tales felt like bittersweet disillusions. I realised that I could only encounter such princes on paper, and sometimes fiction is only fiction and nothing more.
So I turned to passionate tragedies instead. If princes could not save princesses, they could make them die in the most romantic way. Anna Karenina used to be one of my favourite novels. I was fascinated by how a seemingly content woman could leave husband and child, and lose her reputation as well as her position in society, just for a man that ended up leaving her. In such novels of adultery, such as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary or Effi Briest, a woman left by her lover appears to only recover from heartbreak through death. Death and heartbreak appear to be tied. For Anna Karenina, a life without passion was not worth living; for Emma Bovary a life without her illusions was utterly pathetic; and as for Effi Briest, death seemed like the only choice after she not only lost her husband’s support but also her parents’ protection after her affair was discovered. So it was not just heartbreak at the core of their death, but also their position in society and the moral judgement that came with it.
I am someone who feels a lot. I sometimes “over” feel. And sometimes these “over” feelings become unbearable, so I either bottle them up inside or I let them explode. But occasionally, I try to be wiser and pour them onto paper. From my first heartbreak to today, I have written unsent letters to my lovers, to people who don’t care, to people who have hurt me, to people who have made me smile, and to people who have created beautiful memories with me.
A couple of weeks ago, I bought a copy of Laissez-moi by Marcelle Sauvageot in a bookstore in le Quartier Latin in Paris. Maybe it was the title — “Leave Me Alone” — that struck me, or maybe the fact that the author had the same name as my French grandma, whom I apparently resemble. So, I bought this tiny book.
It was the only work published by this mysterious author. Marcelle Sauvageot was born in 1900 in Charlesville, the same place where Arthur Rimbaud lived. She was a literature teacher, (professeure agrégée de littérature), and died from tuberculosis at the age of 33, in 1934. The book was praised by Paul Valéry and Paul Claudel, as well as by Clara Malraux after its publication. The author died shortly after it was published. The style is nondescript. It mixes an epistolary technique, confessions and reflections on her life. It is an intimate novel written in the first person. It is deeply poetic and honest. I consider myself emotional, but not a crier. But from the first pages, I knew I felt more than just an appreciation towards this book. I felt something move, deep inside me. My hands were shaking and without noticing I began sobbing, reading the lines which described how she loved even her lover’s imperfections. I felt understood, like a part of me was written on paper. I felt like my unsent letters had been re-written better, and published.
The story follows the writer, who decides to go to a sanitarium to get better. She receives a letter from her lover, who informs her he intends to marry someone else and only has friendly feelings towards her. So she writes unsent letters to him. She writes for herself; she doesn’t stop writing down her feelings. This novel is not just about being left and betrayed. This novel is, paradoxically, about life. It is about getting better, not just physically but also mentally; about accepting that someone might move on and we might not be part of their future. It is about realising that we hold the power to move on. This book impacted me more than Anna Karenina and all the love stories I so deeply appreciate. It impacted me because it was the first novel about a woman who puts her broken pieces together after a man leaves. She doesn’t kill herself in a passionate way. She doesn’t find someone else to fill the void inside of her. She doesn’t find the “right one”. She finds herself. And that is so rare, especially in literature. I sincerely do not know of a similar book. The style is so pure and special. The story is simple, yet so familiar. Marcelle Sauvageot seems to have captured the voice of hurt women who grieve, but who also decide to heal.
In a way, this book made me, because it gave me hope. There come times in life when we have to say goodbye to people. There come times when we feel broken and desperate, but we realise that each goodbye is an opportunity to say hello to ourselves. Maybe being left alone is not just a sign that we haven’t found the “right one”, but that we have to find ourselves. Maybe the most important thing in life is not to find love in the outside world, but to find it within ourselves.
The book “Laissez-moi” has been re-published in the éditions Librio, œuvre du matrimoine, in French (it costs three euros). It has been translated into English by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis under the title “Commentary”.