I have to admit that if it hadn’t been for the fact that ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ by Francoise Sagan had been a book that I managed to rescue, and allowed myself to because it was short, then I am not sure it would have crossed my path. I know since mentioning it that a few of you have since said you read it (some even reviewed it – which I had missed, oops) and had been very impressed. It was also described as a ‘dark little book’ by someone and I have to say those can be my favourite sort of reads.
The story of ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ (which translated means ‘Hello Sadness’) is initially a simple one. Cecile is a seventeen year old free spirit who is used to a life with her father, one that is lived in relative comfort, without much expected or demanded of her . However things have begun to subtly change in the dynamic as Cecile is starting to embrace her womanhood and sexuality whilst her father has started to take on lots of rather young lovers, none lasting for particularly long.
“He refused categorically all notions of fidelity and serious commitments. He explained that they were arbitrary and sterile. From anyone else such views would have shocked me, but I knew that in his case they did not exclude either tenderness or devotion; feelings which came all the more easily to him since he was determined that they should be transient. This conception of rapid, violent and passing love affairs appealed to my imagination. I was not at the age when fidelity is attractive. I knew very little about love.”
In fact it is shown how often these women are in and out of her fathers life rather quickly for at the start of the book Cecile, her father and his latest fling Elsa all go to a villa on the French Riviera but it isn’t long before Elsa is usurped by the older and more wilful Anna. Only Anna has decided she isn’t going anywhere. Initially we see Anna, who happens to be a friend of Cecile’s dead mother, as a pleasant addition to the world of Cecile and her father. However before long the woman who so helped and guided Cecile so well after her mothers death soon starts to show the smallest signs of control, including banning Cecile from seeing her boyfriend Cyril. Cecile decides that Anna needs to go, it’s just a question of how to go about it.
I admit that when I first heard of the premise of the book I was thinking of the ‘wicked stepmothers in fairytales’, this is no fairytale. What Sagan has done, and I could almost not believe she was eighteen years old when she wrote this, is created a simplistic tale which carries all the complexities of the human psyche and the spectrum of emotions around love, from the first flushes to the darkest jealousy. This isn’t just romantic love either, it’s about platonic and familial love too. It’s about how we react when we become threatened in our routine life by something and how we use people to get what we want.
“Destiny sometimes assumes strange forms. That summer it appeared in the guise of Elsa, a mediocre person, but with a pretty face. She had an extraordinary laugh, sudden and infectious, which only rather stupid people possess.”
I was really impressed with ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ and devoured it in a single sitting, I will admit that it has faded a little bit in the weeks since I have read it. What particularly blew me away though was the insight that Sagan had at such a young age of the awful ways in which we can behave in order to get what we want. She also manages to cleverly describe how even when we have thought of every outcome to a plan we conceive something else can happen to change that chain of events and take it right out of our control. I certainly didn’t think I would get all of that out of this book before I opened the first page. 8/10
You can see Kimbofo’s thoughts here and Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book’s thoughts here. I had missed their reviews previously somehow.
After doing some research I was shocked to learn that Francoise Sagan has written 20 novels. I see that Hesperus Press publish ‘The Unmade Bed’ which sounds like it could have caused as much uproar in France on its release as ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ did, Basic Books (who I had never heard of) publish ‘That Mad Ache’ and ‘A Certain Smile’ comes out in a lovely issue in October from University of Chicago Press. I am wondering if I should be priming myself to purchase any of these, have you any thoughts or tips. Have any of you seen the film of ‘Bonjour Tristesse’? I also had a lovely vision of Persephone Books and Peirene Press coming together to publish some of her other lost and slightly forgotten books, wouldn’t that be wonderful?