Written when she was just 18 during the course of a 2-3 month spurt, Bonjour Tristesse turned Françoise Sagan into a celebrity. Yet it is a short read at around 100 pages and is coupled with Sagan’s second novella, A Certain Smile (Un Certain Sourire) in my Modern Penguin Classics edition which features a new (& fantastically modern) translation by Heather Lloyd. So what was all the fuss about with this 1950s smash hit? And does it live up to the hype?
Summary: Bonjour Tristesse is written from the perspective of 17 year old Céline, a fun-loving, heedless adolescent who has recently failed her final exam for her baccalauréat (the examination taken as the culmination to secondary education in France) and is rejuvenating by taking a summer holiday in the French Riviera. This trip is funded by her father, Raymond, a similarly hedonistic, blasé man now in his forties who, since the death of Céline’s mother 15 years previously, has satisfied himself with a string of short-term and non-serious relationships. Céline has grown to consider his amoral and casual outlook as quite normal, and so Raymond and his latest ‘mistress’ (as she is described in this translation) Elsa join Céline at the holiday apartment. It’s all plain sailing as Céline meets and becomes entangled with Cyril, a young law student with a boat, and everybody is content sapping up the sun and unwinding on the warmth of the beach. That is until the arrival of Anne Larson, a good friend of Céline’s deceased mother who was offhandedly invited by Céline’s father a few weeks previously. Anne, a highly intelligent, organised and principled woman is the complete antagonist to Céline and her father’s hedonistic heedlessness, and becomes a massive spoke in the wheel of Céline’s holiday, making her study daily in the sweltering heat for the forthcoming re-sit of her examination. But she is also a problem for Raymond and Elsa, disturbing the serene rhythm of their relaxation and quickly winning Raymond’s heart. But Anne has far too much self-respect to become another of Raymond’s fleeting flings and the pair quickly declare their intentions to be married. Céline’s reaction to and internal analysis of this and the events which follow are crucial to the novella and offer an absorbing depiction of France during that period.
‘A Certain Smile’ carries on in a similar vein to ‘Bonjour Tristesse’, written from the perspective of 18 year old Dominique who seemingly has the same nonchalant disposition as our previous heroine, Céline. This time set principally in Paris, Dominique is an intelligent but bored student at Paris’s Sorbonne University and spends her time either reading in her apartment or sat in terraced cafés with either her friends or her boyfriend. This said boyfriend, Bertrand, insists that Dominique meets his ‘uncle who always travels’, Luc, and his wife Françoise. Dominque quickly becomes intrigued by Luc and finds that her interest is reciprocal. The two eventually and seemingly inevitably enter a casual relationship which culminates with a week-long stay near La Croisette in Cannes. Similarly to ‘Bonjour Tristesse’, ‘A Certain Smile’ charts the fascinating internal wrangling of Dominique as she attempts to analyse her emotions, come to the realisation that she actually is in love with Luc, and then as she deals with the fallout such an affair inevitably brings about.
Thoughts: Sagan’s two narrators, in my imagination, are inextricably linked and intertwine into one and the same person. The author perhaps points to this herself in a Paris Review interview where she claims that
‘very broadly, I think one writes and rewrites the same book. I lead a character from book to book, I continue along with the same ideas’.
This character is defined by a gorgeous nonchalance, a complete neglect for morals and social rules and etiquette which lends the novel a freedom that is infectious and, I felt, quite liberating. The descriptions of Céline lounging around on the beach, allowing the golden sand to trickle through her fingers, watching the beaming sunshine glint on the waves of the tingling sea before dozing off are very sexy, romantic and made me think that this may be the best ‘beach read’ that you might get your hands on! The characteristic nonchalance of the protagonists is a philosophy that undoubtedly stems from the French Existentialists, especially Sartre and Camus, and Sagan’s incisive descriptions of the seaside and the abundance of light that comes with it poignantly pointed me back to my studies of Camus’ masterpiece ‘L’Étranger’. I also felt that ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ and ‘A Certain Smile’ look forward to the filmic oeuvre of my favourite Frenchman Jean-Luc Godard and the other French New Wave directors, whose films are similarly seemingly inexplicable, self-satisfied yet loaded with symbolism and meaning. Sagan’s novellas too, although on the face of it appearing as rather simple, pleasant tales, are actually imbued with philosophical and literary discussion. Published in 1954, just 9 years after the end of the Second World War, I felt that the all-accepting sang-froid of Sagan’s two heroines was representative of that epoch, a period when people had endured two World Wars, when the future was uncertain and you were wise to accept what happened and simply try to enjoy your day to day life. The supposed amorality of these characters can still be startling today for many readers, and this is a testament to the modernity of these novellas and their characters’ outlooks.
Anna Karina & Jean-Paul Belmondo in ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ (J-L Godard, 1965)
The biggest drawback for me was the repetition at the beginning of each chapter, which always began very simplistically and rather tediously with the same expression, ‘the next morning…’, or ‘the next day…’ or something along those lines. It gave the narrative a distinctly naïve feel, as though it was written by a child who separates time by saying that x happened, THEN y happened, THEN z happened, and so on. I think Sagan kind of gets away with it though due to what she calls the ‘rhythm’ of the narrative. As she puts it,
‘For me writing is a question of finding a rhythm. I compare to the rhythm of jazz’.
Sagan’s stories zip along with a brilliantly amusing narrative voice and a fast-paced rhythm that engages the reader from start to finish and gives a flavour of the French outlook during the post-war years.