Hot Books for the Holidays in Paris: Love Letters to a Mistress

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

Selling well in France, controversial François Mitterand books, love letters for the former president’s mistress, are on offer to international publishers.

Image: Editions Gallimard, copyright Anne Pingeot

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije, with Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson

‘Our Hearts Commune’
The news hit Paris like a storm in October: former French president François Mitterrand’s love letters to his long time mistress Anne Pingeot have been published. Was it in good taste? Was it appropriate? Why had this notoriously discreet woman decided to publish her letters at all?

Mazarine, the daughter Pingeot had with Mitterrand, once said her mother was the heroine of a film no one would ever see. Even following the publication by Gallimard of Lettres à Anne 1962-1995 (Letters to Anne), Pingeot confessed in a radio interview with French historian Jean Noël Jeanneney (who had encouraged her to publish them) that she wasn’t sure she’d done the right thing.

Would Mitterrand have wanted her to publish the letters, she wondered?

Anne-Solange Noble, foreign rights director with Editions Gallimard, offered international rights at Frankfurt Book Fair for both Lettres à Anne, 1962-1995 and Journal pour Anne, 1964-1970 (Diary for Anne)—the latter a gift book and scrapbook compiled from illustrated diaries that Mitterrand wrote for Pingeot between 1964 and 1970. It includes newspaper clippings, drawings, dried flowers, and notes.

Publishing Perspectives wanted to follow up—especially as Lettres and Journal may well be highly popular gift books this season—to see what Noble could tell us about the progress of this unusual material on the market.

And the numbers, in France, are encouraging.

Anne-Solange Noble

“Sales here in France,” Noble tells us, “have been wonderful. The two books came out barely two months ago in October, and net sales to date are:

  • Lettres à Anne: 80,900 copies; and
  • Journal pour Anne: 27,700 copies.”

And elsewhere, Noble is awaiting the responses of publishers who are considering the books.

“These books are quite extraordinary,” she says, in a case of such intensely personal material involving the privacy of a public figure in such recent history. “So such decisions are not taken easily.”

Noble has hopes for a translation project, a deal nearing finalization, that would focus on excerpts from both books. And one publisher in the UK has called the books “an extraordinary human testimony.”

Translation costs, of course, are the key concern for many publishers in a case of this kind: such sensitive material will require the very highest caliber translation work into any language.

And then, of course, there’s the exposure, daunting for some, of such private communications.

Other mistresses, lovers and wives of authors chose to burn their love letters: André Gide’s wife, Madeleine, for example, or Paul Valéry’s lover, Catherine Pozzi. But Pingeot is an art historian and a curator, so to burn letters would be professional sacrilege.

And then there’s the question of copyright. Mitterrand’s letters to Pingeot are hers, but the copyright belongs to his heirs. So who knew what might have become of the letters down the road?

François Mitterrand, 1984, public domain

Mitterrand was 46 when he met Anne Pingeot in 1962. She was 19. His first letter to her is dated October 19, 1962, in which he encloses his personal copy of Socrates that they had spoken about when they met. He wrote her a total of 1,117 letters until 1995. He died early in January 1996.

Anne Pingeot. Image: Ambenalain, CC BY-SA-4.0

Whatever one may think of Mitterrand the politician, twice president of France, his letters to the woman who was—without a doubt—the love of his life, are extraordinary.

They’re of public interest in terms of marking a period in French history, culture and society. But the letters also show an entirely different side of a man who shaped French politics, and who was thought to be cold and calculating.

“Our hearts commune,” he writes to Pingeot in 1967, and shortly before his death, he writes how blessed he has been to have met her, “How could I not have loved you more and more?”

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.