This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.
Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan is a short novel (108 pages in my edition, the Penguin translation by Irene Ash), published in 1954 when the author was 18. Yes, 18. Apparently she failed to pass her exams for the Sorbonne and so decided to write a novel instead. As you do. And it’s a modern classic. I’m pretty sure I hate this woman. Rest assured it’s jealousy plain and simple, not xenophobia – there’s a lot of nonsense talked about British attitudes to our neighbours across Le Manche, but despite the fact that I would be at least 5kg lighter if France wasn’t there (je t’aime fromage bleu)I for one am a true Francophile. They are a great nation that has provided the world with at least two things guaranteed to cause uncontrollable dribbling in this blogger:
Almond croissants (or croissants aux amandes if you will) (Image from www.belleepooque.co.uk)
Vincent Cassel (Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/277745501994347016/)
To those of you concerned that I am objectifying Mr Cassel, I would just like to reassure you that I’m objectifying the croissant so much more, believe me.
Now, where was I? Oh yes, the extraordinary talent of Francoise Sagan. While the protagonist is a precocious 17 year old, Cecile, (so far, so thinly disguised autobiography) the psychological insights into the characters are sophisticated and you don’t feel like you’re reading someone’s juvenilia. Cecile is holidaying in the south of France with her father, an entirely vacuous widower whose temperament she shares:
“I soon noticed that he lived with a woman. It took me rather longer to realise that it was a different one every six months. But gradually his charm, my new easy life, and my own disposition led me to accept it. He was a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and attractive to women. It was easy to love him, for he was kind, generous, gay, and full of affection for me. I cannot imagine a better or more amusing friend.”
And that is just the problem – he is a friend, not a parent. He treats Cecile as a co-conspirator in life, buying her inappropriate dresses and taking her to casinos, talking to her as an equal:
“He refused categorically all notions of fidelity and serious commitments. He explained that they were arbitrary and sterile…I knew in his case they did not exclude either tenderness or devotion; feelings which came all the more easily to him since he was determined they should be transient…I was not at the age where fidelity was attractive. I knew very little about love.”
Into this self-serving world comes Anne, a friend of Cecile’s dead mother. She is cool and controlled:
“I think she rather despised us for our love of diversion and frivolity, as she despised all extremes.”
Yet, despite their differences, Cecile admires Anne and her father decides to marry this woman so different from himself. The decision does not sit well with Cecile:
“I thought of the lunch I had endured with clenched teeth, tortured by a feeling of resentment for which I despised and ridiculed myself. Yes, it was for this I reproached Anne: she prevented me from liking myself. I, who was so naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced into a world of self-criticism and guilty conscience, where, unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost.”
I don’t want to seem ageist, but clearly I am, as this self-ironising tone was not what I expected from such a young author. Cecile is spoilt and self-focused, and decides to split up her father and Anne so that her life can continue how she wants it to. She constantly vacillates, changing her mind and feelings with each moment, but her machinations regarding Anne move inexorably forward. The consequences are dramatic and will force Cecile to leave her childhood behind forever:
“Then gradually I begin to think of something else. But I do not like to take refuge in forgetfulness and frivolity instead of facing my memories and fighting them.”
Bonjour Tristesse is a melancholic novel (the title means Hello Sadness) about the prices we pay for the things we think we want. Francoise Sagan creates a memorable protagonist in Cecile and an affecting story within remarkably few words.
To end, the poster of the film adaptation made just four years after publication:
(Image from: http://docublogger.typepad.com/seberg/page/2/ )