Françoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse (1954)
What it’s about: A young Frenchwoman named Cécile recalls a tumultuous summer spent holidaying with her father Raymond on the Cote d’Azur when she was 17. Cécile has lived with her father in Paris since leaving boarding school at 15, and seems accustomed to his life as a libertine and womaniser. They are joined by Raymond’s latest mistress Elsa, a beautiful but dim young woman only a few years older than Cécile, whose red-headed skin burns badly in the summer sun. Cécile spends her days on the beach, and develops a summer romance with Cyril, a handsome law student in his early 20s. The decadent atmosphere is disrupted by the arrival of Anne, an old friend of Cécile’s mother, who quickly displaces Elsa as Raymond’s lover. Elsa moves out, Raymond and Anne announce their engagement, and Anne insists that Cécile gives up Cyril and concentrate on studying for her baccalauréat exam. Cécile, torn between her admiration for Anne, and her frustration at the curtailing of their life of pleasure hatches a plan to have Elsa seduce Raymond, in the hope of driving Anne away. The plan succeeds: Anne catches Raymond and Elsa together, and leaves the villa in tears, dying later that evening in a car accident that may or may not have been suicide. Cécile and Raymond, united again in grief, return to Paris. Cécile eventually forgives herself for her own weakness, left only with a new feeling of tristesse (sadness).
Why it’s a classic: Published in 1954 when Sagan was only 18, Bonjour Tristesse was a major literary succès de scandale in France, an international bestseller and filmed by Hollywood director Otto Preminger in 1958. It’s not hard to understand its success. Sagan’s frank, cynical treatment of sexual desire, the heady atmosphere of sexual rivalry and the transgressive whiff of inappropriate father-daughter relationships made it unusually daring for its time, foregrounding (or possibly warning against) the emerging sexual permissiveness of the 1960s. Its glamorous setting of sun-drenched beaches, boating trips and casinos made it a byword for a very French fantasy of middle-class decadence, especially for international readers, for whom Bonjour Tristesse became a sexual rite-of-passage, and a passport to the insouciant cool of French bohemian culture.
There was also, I think, a prurient thrill in reading a sexually explicit novel written by a woman barely older than her jaded protagonist. The world loves a teenage sensation, particularly if they are female, know more about sex than they should and are prepared to spill the beans. Unsurprisingly, Sagan’s work has often been reader as a relatively uncrafted roman-a-clef, ripped from the messy raw material of her own life, creating a voyeuristic spectacle for her readers. On my initial reading, I tended to agree with this assessment. Cécile’s narration has all the pretentiousness and naivety of a teenager affecting a sophistication she hasn’t fully grown into, and her thoughts are peppered with portentous twaddle she’s picked up from the Existentialist philosophers on her exam reading list. The Freudian psychological triangle at the heart of the novel seemed too complicated for an 18-year old in the 1950s to understand, let alone be able to map out coherently. At first glance, Sagan seemed to be a precursor to Elizabeth Wurtzel, Susanna Kaysen and all those other confessional girl novelists of the 1990s who wrote indulgently and unguardedly about depression, bulimia and Prozac.
It wasn’t until my second reading that I realised the scope of Sagan’s talent. The genius of the novel lies in the withholding of a clear moral terrain, and a carefully calibrated ambivalence about the characters’ sexual tug-of-war. Sagan leads us through the complicated unravelling of Cécile’s peace of mind. Her vulnerability and dependency on her feckless father is made achingly clear, as is her obsession with Anne, the surrogate mother figure who also becomes a rival for her father’s affections. Cécile’s growing consciousness is presented as a state of moral crisis. “For the first time in my life,” she writes, “this self of mine seemed to divide into two“: the motherless girl who longs for clear moral boundaries, and the spoiled child who craves continual pleasure and resists the responsibilities of adult life. “Anne… prevented me from liking myself,” she concludes. “I was, by my very nature, made for happiness and affability and light-heartedness, but because of her I was entering a world of reproaches and guilt, a world in which I was getting lost because I was not used to introspection.”
Though Cécile debates what should be her correct course of action, we’re never told what to think about it ourselves. Sagan’s refusal to judge her character, and her presentation of adolescence in all its idiocy and inconsistency has, ironically enough, allowed readers to project their own judgments onto the story, and in doing so under-estimate Sagan’s control over her own narrative. Bonjour Tristesse could be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of child neglect and overly-permissive parenting. But Sagan complicates things, loading the bases by describing the sensory allure of a world devoted to pleasure. Cécile’s cool assessment of the sexual battlefield is so precisely observed and so funny that she demands to taken seriously. Sagan also shows just enough of Anne’s vulnerability for us to realise that her moral authority is on shaky ground, motivated as much by her fear of loneliness and need for love than any desire to be a role model for Raymond and Cécile. The moral terrain of Bonjour Tristesse is rocky indeed, with no easy answers or simple judgments. As Rachel Cusk writes in her Introduction to the 2008 Penguin Modern Classics edition, “Neither right nor wrong, neither conformity nor permissiveness, neither love nor hatred winds up the victor of this moral battle: it is insight, the writer’s greatest gift, that wins.” By the novel’s conclusion, Cecile’s insight is profound, even if her strategy is, like her father, to affect a disinterested insouciance. “We spoke about [Anne] cautiously and without looking at each other, for fear of causing ourselves hurt or lest something be triggered in one or other of us that might result in something irreparable being said.“
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet, as colourful and gaudy as the gladioli that Raymond impulsively rips from the garden to present to Anne on her arrival. I expected to encounter Bonjour Tristesse as a slice of French radical chic, as cool and emotionally withholding as Godard’s À Bout de Souffle or a Juliette Greco song. While I can’t say I was moved or overpowered by the story, I ended up admiring it much more than I expected, for Sagan’s boldness in writing frankly about the mess of sexual desire, and the presentation of a flawed female character without easy recourse to moral judgment. Structurally it’s far from a perfect piece of writing – things drag and get repetitive in Part Two as Cécile goes around in circles about how to get rid of Anne, and the melodramatic finale feels undeserved and tonally out of joint with the sleek unhurried pace of what comes before. But these criticisms aside, Sagan earns her reputation as one of the innovators of 20th century fiction. With a point of view that’s distinctly feminine (and possibly feminist), she paved the way for future generations of woman writers to confront the taboo of sexuality head-on, and demand the same complicated space as Holden Caulfield and other male anti-heroes of fiction.
Quotable Quote: “Before, I did not know what sadness was, though I knew what it was to be languorous, to have regrets and, more rarely, to feel remorse. Today it is as if I am enfolded in some silken thing, soft and enervating, that sets me apart from others.”