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.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #13

Scars on the Soul – Francoise Sagan (1972 trans. Joanna Kilmartin 1974) 124 pages

This is a strange novella. It’s a story of a Swedish brother and sister living in France, and an extended reflection on Sagan’s writing life: a direct address to the reader.

“It isn’t literature, it isn’t a true confession, it’s someone tapping away at her typewriter because she’s afraid of herself and the typewriter and the mornings and the evenings and everything else.”

Sagan tells the story of Sebastian and Eleanor van Milhelm who are entirely feckless and devoted to one another.

“Life without her, drink without her, were like lukewarm water, Not a bad thing, all said and done, to have one’s life circumscribed to that extent by someone who – whatever she might say – was as much his slave as he was hers.”

While they are not quite incestuous, they certainly have an unhealthy attachment to one another. They move around living off their looks, finding benefactors who will pay for their lifestyle so that neither have to get jobs.

“ ‘Someone’ being that providential person who, because of their charm, their wit, their luck, would act as temporary provider for brother and sister. This person so far had never failed to materialise and was usually discovered by Sebastian, Eleanor, as in this case, being too lazy to go out.”

Yet the van Milhelms are not despicable. They are not malicious or even particularly manipulative; there is the sense that those they live off share an understanding whereby everyone knows what the deal is. There is a sense of ennui as their lives are essentially empty, yet it’s a sad story rather than a depressing one.

Scars on the Soul is certainly a post-modern novella, drawing attention to the art of Sagan as a writer and the artifice of the novel.

“There are moments when I’m on the point of writing ‘But I digress,’ an old-fashioned courtesy to the reader, but pointless in this case, since my purpose is to digress. Nevertheless, this blow-by-blow account of eroticism has irritated me. I’m returning to my van Milhelms ‘who frequently indulge in that sort of thing but never talk about it.’”

I think this novella wouldn’t be for everyone, as it is neither one thing nor the other – not fiction or non-fiction, not short story or essay. Yet I found it satisfying. I was invested in the van Milhelms story and I enjoyed Sagan’s witty reflections on writing and her fame after many years (this was written in her late 30s after the success of Bonjour Tristesse at the prodigiously young age of 18). It’s not something to read when you want a meaty, plot-driven story but Sagan is a hugely talented, skilled writer and there is much of interest here both in the fiction and in the portrait of one writer’s life.

Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #41)

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:

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Almond croissants (or croissants aux amandes if you will) (Image from www.belleepooque.co.uk)

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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:

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(Image from: http://docublogger.typepad.com/seberg/page/2/ )