French Love Letters

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In France, if you’re capable of writing an impressive love letter, then all is forgiven.

Consider François Mitterrand. He’s been dead for 20 years but came to life in the news last week after the publication of two books – Letters for Anne, and Journal for Anne. The first is a collection of passionate letters he wrote to his longtime mistress Anne Pingeot, between 1963 and 1995, the second a diary he created for her in the 1970s. Pingeot, now 73, and only 19 when she and Mitterand, then 46, began their long, secret relationship, gave permission for the publication of both the letters and journal. The two books have become instant bestsellers here in France.

Mitterrand’s relationship with Pingeot only became public knowledge at his funeral services, when she and Mazarine, their daughter, took part in the family cortège. Pingeot followed the deceased president’s casket just behind Mitterrand’s widow, Danielle Gouze, and their two sons. The news created a stir at the time, though less because of the nature of Mitterrand’s double life, and more because of questions regarding the possible use of public funds regarding Pingeot and their daughter (Pingeot supported herself as a longtime curator at the Musée d’Orsay). It’s one thing for a president to carry on a quasi-secret affair over the course of 30-plus years – that’s almost normal – and another if a head of state diverted public money toward the protection of his private life.

In fact, Mitterrand did just that: He had allowed wiretaps on journalists, politicians and other personalities who may have sought to find out more about Mitterrand’s affair, especially the existence of his daughter Mazarine, which a writer had been threatening to reveal. (The president also wanted to prevent the public from discovering the diagnosis of his prostate cancer, as well as of certain unsavory elements concerning Mitterrand’s involvement with the Vichy Régime.)

Sure, everyone in public life has been compromised somehow. But if you can write! Well, that’s what really counts.

The letters are considered the work of a born writer, and demonstrate Mitterrand’s exquisite literary sensibility and gift for the French language. And for the French, such gifts are paramount.

Here is an extract:

C’est une vague de fond, mon amour, elle nous emporte, elle nous sépare, je crie, tu m’entends au travers du fracas, tu m’aimes, je suis désespérément a toi mais déjà tu ne me vois plus, je ne sais plus où tu es tout le malheur du monde est en moi, il faudrait mourir mais la mer fait de nous ce qu’elle veut.”

Which can be loosely translated as:

“It’s a tidal wave, my love, it takes us, it separates us, I cry, you hear me through the din, you love me, I am desperately yours, but it’s as if you no longer see me, I do not know where you are, all of the misfortune of the world lies within me, I feel as if I should die, and yet the sea makes of us what it wants.”

The French talk more about their own language than Anglophones do about English. The French, in fact, define themselves by their language, which is quite different from how the Americans or British do. While English might be the most powerful language in the world right now, native English speakers take its power, its malleability, its expressiveness and indeed its beauty for granted. The French do not: They live in fear that their language might be corrupted by the onslaught of other tongues (especially English). And they revere those who can express themselves correctly in what’s considered proper (sometimes old-fashioned) French.

So the publication of Mitterrand’s beautifully written private correspondence was cause for celebration, even if few will actually read all 600 pages of the published letters. It’s enough to know that he wrote them, and that he wrote them well. Yes, Mitterrand might have lived a morally muddled life – but who hasn’t? – but at least he knew how to address the woman he loved in the most literary, that is, French, way (one wonders if, or what, he wrote to his wife).

Mitterrand’s letters were the subject of a dinner conversation the other night – and everyone agreed that the French were blessed to have had a president who, despite his faults, could demonstrate such artistry in words. I mentioned that the U.S. has had several presidents who could write, and that our current president was actually quite a gifted writer himself. My French friends were surprised at this. Not only at the thought that a non-French politician might be capable of expressing himself with elegance, but that an American politician might. They have a point, since most American politicians use language as a battering ram. But then, so too do most French politicians (Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, is a particularly indecorous speaker). It’s the rare politician anywhere, indeed, the rare person, who can write well. The French simply take for granted that a French politician above others would display literary gifts.

“It’s wonderful to know that Mitterrand was such a literary talent,” my friend Pierre said. “He might have had his faults, but he really knew how to write.”

Perhaps, I said, then I asked, “Have you read his letters?”

“Of course not,” he said, as if it were the last thing he would do with his time. “It’s enough to know.”

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