I think the quality I most admire in much of the French literature I’ve read is cruelty. From Baudelaire to Camus to Houellebecq, when the French take up the pen, it’s rarely to flatter readers. Françoise Sagan, on the basis of this, her first novel, is no exception to the fine tradition of misanthropy and cynicism that pervades prose from the Hexagon.
Bonjour Tristesse was written when Sagan was only eighteen. The novel’s leading antihero, Cécile, is seventeen. She is on holiday in the French Riviera with her father — a widower and a playboy. This being France, the holiday is a very long one — about two months. Part of the appeal of this book is realizing just how exciting a leisure-filled life can be!
The basic plot is pretty simple. Cécile’s father has been seeing a young woman—just the latest in many such affairs, we learn—called Elsa. All of a sudden an older, sophisticated woman called Anne appears on the scene—the father’s former flame, we learn. Anne manages to woo the middle-aged playboy away from Elsa, and Cécile is none too happy about it, being very possessive of her father, and unwilling to countenance the notion of a mother-figure entering her life and bossing her around. She deviously plots against Anne… with tragic consequences.
Re-reading this for the third time—cripes!—I realized just how heavily it had influenced me, years ago, when I started writing my own novel, Blind Spot. On this reading, it was a little unnerving to realize I had forgotten a significant plot feature that I—well, sorta partially stole. (The car crash. And some of the underlying causes of it. I won’t say any more!)
It’s interesting to view this novel historically, seeing how its 1954 publication date places it squarely in the epoch that the French call « les trente glorieuses » – the happy days of post-war capitalism (which, we are told, have most definitely ended, never to return). According to the dust jacket of my Pocket edition of this book, Sagan was the living incarnation of this epoch’s cardinal virtue : « le culte du plaisir. » Just as importantly, she (Sagan, and, in my reading, Cécile) also heralded the cult of youth. What is it that propels so many people forward, causing such emotional damage to others, if not the notion that there is no future, and that youth is a seemingly eternal good?
There is a beautiful and revelatory conversation between seventeen year-old Cécile and forty year-old Anne that renders this theme quite transparent :
« Anne, dis-je brusquement, me croyez-vous intelligente? »
Elle se mit à rire, étonné de la brutalité de ma question :
« Mais bien sûr, voyons ! Pourquoi me demandez-vous cela? »
–Si j’étais idiote, vous me répondriez de la même façon, soupirai-je. Vous me donnez cette impression souvent de me dépasser…
–C’est une question d’âge, dit-elle. Il serait très ennuyeux que je n’aie pas un peu plus d’assurance que vous. Vous m’influenceriez! »
Elle éclata de rire. Je me sentis vexée :
« Ce ne serait pas forcément un mal. »
–Ce serait une catastrophe » , dit-elle.
« Anne, I said abruptly, do you think I’m intelligent? »
She started to laugh, surprised by the bluntness of my question.
« But of course, heavens! Why do you ask? »
–If you thought I was an idiot, you’d answer the same way, I sighed. You give this impression often of being ahead of me. »
« It’s just a question of age, » she said. « It would be tiresome if I didn’t have just a little more self-assurance than you. You’d be influencing me! »
She burst into laughter. I felt perplexed.
« That wouldn’t be so bad. »
–It would be a catastrophe, she replied.
This is a quite beautiful book–melancholy and poignant. It’s the perfect companion to, say, The Elementary Particles, by Michel Houellebecq, which just as cruelly announced the end of les trente glorieuses as Bonjour Tristesse marked its beginning.