Novella a Day in May 2020 #17

Those Without Shadows – Françoise Sagan (1957, trans. Irene Ash 1957)

I really wanted to include something by Françoise Sagan in NADIM this year, as I recently saw a repeat of Clive James’ Postcard From Paris on BBC4 which included a lovely interlude driving round the streets of the city with Ms Sagan. Why anyone would get into a car with her when she had the reputation for driving the way she did is beyond me, but I’m glad he did as it was very entertaining to watch from afar. I can’t get the clip but the whole episode is available on YouTube, and you can see the Sagan section from 2:35-6:36:

When I posted about The Suicide Shop I mentioned that other readers seemed to like it more than I did. I’ve had the opposite experience with Those Without Shadows (Dans un mois, dans un an). A quick search tells me this is not a popular read! Admittedly its not Bonjour Tristesse, but then so few books are 😉

Those Without Shadows was written four years after her classic work, when Sagan was still only 22. It follows a group of entirely vacuous Parisians as they live their lives without any purpose. I didn’t find it nihilistic though, I felt Sagan was treating her characters with amused affection.

The novel opens with Bernard ringing his lover Josée in the early hours of the morning, where her phone is answered by an unknown male voice:

“Now he was going home to find his bad novel lying in disorder on his desk, and his wife in bed asleep.”

His poor wife Nicole adores him, who knows why?

“After three years she loved him more every day, and this, he felt, was almost repulsive, for she no longer attracted him. He liked to remember the picture of himself when they had been in love, the decision he had shown in marrying her, for since that time he had never been able to make any decision at all.”

I thought that was so incisive, and so brutal. Bernard’s love for his wife (or lack thereof) is all about himself. He is repulsed by her because she no longer reflects the vision of himself he wants to see. The clarity of this dynamic is so believable and destructive.

This is echoed in Josée’s new relationship with a medical student, Jacques.

“It is really quite amusing. It’s not even a question of physical attraction. I don’t know if it is the reflection of myself in him that I like, or the absence of that reflection, or just him himself. But he is not interesting, he is probably not even cruel. He just exists”

Bernard and Josée are part of a group who congregate at the Maligrasse’s parties. Alain and Fanny Maligrasse like to surround themselves with younger people. Alain is “badly paid, cultured, and very fond of his wife. How had it happened that their joke about Béatrice had become the enormous weight he had to lift every morning as he got up?”

Béatrice was the character I liked least. Generally the people who inhabit this world are self-focussed but not deliberately cruel (Bernard tries to be kind to Nicole but generally fails through his own self-regard). Béatrice, desperate to be a successful actress, is happy to attract men to her as a distraction but really cares nothing for how hurt they get when she inevitably discards them.

Sagan doesn’t cut her characters any slack, but she does it through the judgements they place on themselves, which makes it more readable than if an authorial voice was constantly reminding us how dreadful they all are:

“He re-read it dispassionately and realised how bad it was; worse than bad, not merely tedious but intensely tedious. He wrote in the same way people cut their nails, attentively and absent-mindedly.”

I love that banal domestic detail of nails, next to ambitions for high art. While I can understand why people would not enjoy this novella, it was this sort of wry humour that meant I quite enjoyed it.

There are some decent people amongst the crowd too: Josée’s lover Jacques, Édouard who is provincial and naive and in love with Béatrice, and Jolyet, a theatre producer who is old enough to see himself clearly:

“as always when his own mediocrity was brought home to him, he felt a fierce sort of pleasure.”

So, definitely not one for when you need characters to root for, but as a quick, insightful portrait of pretentious and self-obsessed young things, I found it pretty enjoyable.

My post earlier this month on Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark led to a discussion on the questionable decisions made by Penguin’s art department in the late 1970s/early 80s. My copy of Those Without Shadows is another prime example:

“It was a symbolic awakening, but Édouard did not realise it. He did not know that his passion for Béatrice would henceforth be reduced to the contemplation of her back, We invent our own omens which seem bad when things are going against us. Édouard was not like Josèe who, waking at the same moment, looked at her lover’s smooth, hard back in the dawn, and smiled before going off to sleep again. But Josèe was a great deal older than Édouard.”

21 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2020 #17

  1. LOL! You’re quite right about that cover – atrocious! And wasn’t that footage of Sagan charging round Paris with James wonderful?

    I’ve had mixed experiences with Sagan – Bonjour Tristesse I loved, but I’ve struggled with later works where it seems unclear what she was trying to do. I have (or had…) a copy of this knocking about – maybe I should give it a chance, if I can find it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That cover is the pits! But the footage of James and Sagan just beautiful 🙂

      Of the three of hers I’ve read, nothing comes close to Bonjour Tristesse, but she’s always interesting. I hope you enjoy this one Kaggsy. I have another of hers in the TBR and I’m pretty sure its another one with a truly appalling cover…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve loved everything I’ve read so far by this author and will definitely be looking to pick up more in the future. Those quotes are great, very indicative of Sagan’s style. That cover, though, is horrendous! Thankfully, things seemed to have moved on somewhat since then…we’ll have to hope that Penguin decide to reissue this in a more appropriate edition.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for including that link: I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in interview and it was a delight to put that together with my limited experience of her writing! (BT and a volume of short stories, which I probably only partly understood, as I tried to read them in French-LOL)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never read this one but I enjoyed all the Sagans I’ve read.

    Françoise Sagan is as deceitful at Francis Scott Fitzgerald. You think they write champagne stories about the rich who have parties but under the apparent lightness are two writers who had a very astute perception of humans, a wonderful and acid sense of humour and a lingering sadness.

    PS: This cover!!! It looks like soft porn from the 1970s like the film Emmanuelle. Poor Françoise Sagan.

    PPS: Sorry to act like a snotty French, but I believe you got the accents wrong in Béatrice and Josée.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right, she writes with such a light touch but her observations are devastating. i completely agree about the lingering sadness.

      The cover is awful and I’ve another Sagan in the TBR with a similar one – what were they thinking?!

      Not snotty at all Emma 🙂 I’m so annoyed at myself because I double checked so I was clearly having some sort of meltdown to get it wrong anyway! I’ve gone back and corrected them, thanks for letting me know.

      Liked by 1 person

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