Reviewed by Nora Mahony
Lettre à D.
Histoire d’un amour
74 pages , October 2006)
This seventy-five page memoir by André Gorz is a love-letter to his wife of nearly sixty years, Dorine, written well into her terminal illness and a year before their joint suicide.
It opens in the present, as he watches her diminished by a painful and slowly debilitating disease. Gorz’s language is simple and strong, and his love for her is immediately overpowering. Introduced on the first page is what seems to be the only crack in their relationship, the one time he ever spoke ill of her, which he did in print in his best-known philosophical treatise, entitled Traître, funnily enough. Gorz has written a hymn to the love of his life, but equally, he has excised his own guilt for the only time he ever wronged her. This latter exploration seems odd, but mainly because we never get her perspective, so it’s hard to tell if she was ever as bothered about this as he is. It is also the first tip to the reader that this book, as beautiful as it is, is about him.
From here, Gorz goes back to their first meeting and the beginnings of their relationship. He also goes back to their very unstable childhoods, in which he was separated from his family from the ages of sixteen to twenty-five by war, the same war in which her father fought. After the war, Dorine’s mother left her father, eventually institutionalised for what sounds like post-traumatic stress, for a series of boyfriends. One of these boyfriends, whom Dorine called ‘godfather’, is likely her biological father, and he ends up caring for her when her mother abandons them.
As a result, Dorine became a highly self-sufficient person, and as André remarks, ‘we were yet to learn any kind of autonomy, but I would soon discover that you were much better prepared for this than me’. While his decision to marry was shaky, hers was rock solid; she had learned to be strong early on. their shaky decision to marry. He doubts his ability to marry, and has his own ideological objections to the institution. He’s also – and this recurs – very aware of his inability stop working, and worries that the solitary nature of his work will stand between them. To this, she responds
If you decide to spend your life with someone, your lives are shared and you don’t do anything to divide or contradict that union. Building your relationship is your communal project; you will never be certain of it, you will never finish adapting it or redirecting it when circumstances change. We will be what we do together.
‘It was practically Sartre’, he comments.
Throughout their life together, she works behind the scenes to support his writing, and his career in the papers when it finally got off the ground. Gorz marks out the highs and lows of their life together through very ordinary markers, including a series of poky rented apartments across Europe, part-time jobs, unemployment, and periods of extremely hard work. In their early years, he is wracked with guilt that he isn’t earning, while she cobbled together a living with an endless series of small jobs teaching, working as a secretary, translating and the like. He admires her ability to function in the real world, and on some level, appears to worry about his being able to provide. They may have been summarizing fifteen newspapers from across the world for a ground-breaking publication and going to dinner parties with Sartre, but by and large, they seem like a young, struggling couple. It’s particularly noteworthy that this is a man’s perspective on the growth of a romance and a partnership.
If you have basic reading French, Lettre à D. is within your linguistic grasp. Even if you have to work at it, dictionary in hand, it’s worth it, as the language is simple but extremely rewarding. In a few places, having a run-down of the major characters of modern French philosophy is helpful. I was ok, for example, with a bare-bones understanding of existentialism until I hit a heavy-going section from p 47 through 53. Here, Gorz breaks several of his own major works and the criticism that it received. He name-drops Deleuze-Guattari and Bataille and, more irritatingly, she gets lost momentarily, which seriously breaks the flow. This kind of ‘bridge’ is difficult to manage in another language, because a shift in tone or topic is distracting and it is often hard to see how it connects with the work as a whole. The discourse on these pages does, however, lead up to his admission that he still worries that their love cannot sustain his need to discover more universal truths through his work. Eventually, though, he credits her almost entirely with his success, marvelling at her endless patience and selflessness.
It really is a lovely, warm piece, and a weepy one for knowing the end of their story. I was relieved that the plan to end of their lives together was not chronicled here, because I became somewhat enamoured of both of them, and of the love they shared. Instead, as her health disapproves, we witness their last travels to Mexico and California and his retirement at sixty on his realisation that all he needs is to be with her. It’s exactly the kind of short, accessible work that should be brought to the English-language market, but until it does, enjoy it as an important, personal text from a great mind, and a great European love story.
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This book was featured in a recent article in The Times.
About the reviewer: Nora Mahony is a misplaced Dubliner of Washingtonian origin. She is currently working in publishing in London, where she is a member of the Society of Young Publishers. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin in Italian and French, she is a frequent contributor to the Irish Times and the Times Literary Supplement, and is seeking to expand her reviewing repertoire. Nora has also written copy for a range of art and design books over the past year, something that she is ill qualified to do but enjoyed nonetheless. Visit: www.thesyp.org.uk