5 June 2014

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour tristesse (1954)

Françoise Sagan was fond of using quotations from Paul Élouard's poems in her novel titles: Bonjour tristesse (1954) is one, Un peu de soleil dans l'eau froide (1969) another, and Le Lit défait (1977) yet another. Sagan's surname itself is a literary pseudonym: her original name was Quoirez, although she adopted Proust's character the Princesse de Sagan from À la recherche du temps perdu instead.

A few posts below I mentioned that Sagan was compared by the press in England to Shelagh Delaney: at eighteen (compared to Delaney's nineteen) she was the author of a highly popular and highly controversial book, she was known for her love of cars like Delaney, etc. Sagan herself was referred to as an 'eighteen-year-old Colette', and there's certainly something of Le Blé en herbe in Bonjour tristesse.

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, and the tenth anniversary of Sagan's death. This fact, plus the fact that I've very recently read John Harding's book on Delaney (who came from and wrote about a very different class from Sagan's) spurred me into re-reading this first novel.

It's clear why this work, in the pre-sexual revolution year of 1954, should have ruffled a few moral/religious feathers – outside marriage, a plurally monogamous father serves as a role model to a daughter who as a teenager has a sexual relationship while on holiday and not only enjoys it but doesn't even pay the penalty for her sins by getting pregnant? Shocking. And indeed Bonjour tristesse was a succès de scandale.

 Cécile is the young first person narrator, seventeen, fresh out of boarding school, sexually innocent but no doubt ready for education in that subject, and oh what a brain! Her acute, minute psychological observations of human foibles are clear right from the beginning of the book, although this is way removed from the world of Jane Austen.

Cécile's mother died when the teenager was two years old, and her (young) forty-year-old father Raymond – now fifteen years a widow – goes from sexual companion to sexual companion with Cécile's blessing and with apparently no desire to settle down and marry again. For the summer holidays, he has hired a villa on the Côte d'Azur for a month, where he takes Cécile and Elsa, his twenty-nine-year-old woman of the moment. But a little later the more cerebral Anne – whom Raymond has also invited along –  joins the trio.

The presence of Anne disturbs Cécile, as well it might because Anne is obviously deeply in love with Raymond and they not only become lovers (to the rejection of Elsa) but announce their marriage. As if this change of circumstances weren't enough, Anne becomes something of a control freak, telling Cécile to do her homework, forbidding her to see the handsome Cyril, and even at one point locking her in her bedroom.

Cécile has begun a passionate sexual relationship with Cyril and plans revenge on Anne: Elsa still wants Raymond, so Cécile arranges for her to be seen with Cyril on several occasions, in an attempt to provoke the jealousy of her father. The inevitable happens: Anne sees Raymond in the arms of Elsa and becomes distressed. The tragedy is that she drives off and dies in an accident blackspot, with a suggestion of suicide. Cécile has to live with a death that she partly interprets as her own fault. The final two words are Bonjour Tristesse: the personification is important.

More than Colette's work, I couldn't help thinking how much this vivid little book reminded me of a darker version of a film by Éric Rohmer, and it was no surprise for me to discover that, in Cahiers du Cinéma, Rohmer called Otto Preminger's representation of it 'the most beautiful film ever shot in CinemaScope'.

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