My book group met tonight to discuss Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Francoise Sagan (as usual, imagine the cedilla), translated from French by Irene Ash. I hadn't heard of it, or the author (whom I'd wrongly assumed was a man) and so I went away to the internet to find a copy... and when the images came on the screen, I realised that I already owned it. Bonjour Tristesse was one of the 20 short books collected in my Penguin Great Loves boxset - hurrah! Each one comes with its own tagline 'Love can be ----' on the back; this one has 'Love can be complicated'.
Sagan (not her real name, but we'll roll with it) was only 18 when Bonjour Tristesse was published, which is rather sickening for those of us who are only just coming to terms with the fact that we won't ever be infant prodigies. It concerns 17 year old Cecile (imagine the accent) and I must confess my heart sank at this point. I had a horror of it being a female version of The Catcher in the Rye, a novel I thought hugely irritating and very overrated. If I had to sit through the meanderings of a lovesick, self-indulgent teenage girl... well... I'll read the first paragraph, anyway:
A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me.
This was actually quite promising. True, it is dominated by the introspection so beloved and teenagers (and probably everyone else too, only we learn to mask it better once we pass 19... although I was only 21 when I started this blog, so...) but there is a beauty to the expression of worn sentiments; 'what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed' as Pope said of 'wit', fulfilling his own criterion.
Sagan continues in similar style throughout. Her constant introspection, and detailed observation of everyone around her, never irked me because the prose was often so beautiful, and the thoughts so striking. But perhaps I should mention the plot, and that complicated love.
Cecile lives with her young widower father Raymond, a hedonistic man with a revolving door of mistresses. They are on a holiday in the South of France with Raymond's latest mistress, a rather stupid young woman called Elsa; they are all enjoying frivolity and (in Cecile's case) the throes of a first love - when Anne turns up on the scene. Easily the most skillfully drawn character of the novel, Anne is a friend of Cecile's late mother, the same sort of age as Raymond, and gently, elegantly insinuates herself into their lives.
When exactly did my father begin to treat Anne with a new familiarity? Was it the day he reproached her for her indifference, while pretending to laugh at it? Or the time he grimly compared her subtlety with Elsa's semi-imbecility? My peace of mind was based on the stupid idea that they had known each other for fifteen years, and that if they had been going to fall in love, they would have done so earlier. And I thought also that if it had to happen, the affair would last at the most three months, and Anne would be left with her memories and perhaps a slight feeling of humiliation. Yet all the time I knew in my heart that Anne was not a woman who could be lightly abandoned.Cecile doesn't like the way things are going, and hatches a plot to remove Anne from her life and that of her father. Anne is far from an archetypal wicked stepmother, but Cecile sees her as destroying their extant way of life, and unsettling the equilibrium of a superficial but contented life. Anne is, in fact, a determined, kind, ever-so-very-slightly desperate character; in polished control of herself, but aware that it will not be many years before her chances of settling down dwindle away.
As the narrative continues - how much is packed in! - Cecile gradually has a change of heart, and has to choose between derailing her plan or watching it carry itself out. Sagan's cleverness is in her unreliable narrator. One starts reading the novel assuming that Cecile's perspective is accurate, or at least the one that a young author wants us to accept. It becomes clear, however, that Sagan is fully aware of Cecile's blind-spots and limitations; Raymond, Elsa and especially Anne become distinctive characters outside of the peripheries of Cecile's flawed judgement. Even while we continue to see events through Cecile's eyes, the reader can look back upon Cecile and discover her deficiencies and incomplete self-awareness. If Sagan isn't quite so successful with the male characters (Cecile's beau Cyril is a one-dimensional besotted fool; Raymond has few hidden depths) then that should not diminish from the clever and sophisticated characters she has created in Cecile and Anne.
Ultimately, this summer is a coming-of-age (how I loathe that phrase, but I can think of no other) for more than just Cecile. Anne and Raymond also change over the course of the summer's events. Elsa might. Cyril probably does, off-stage, as it were. They all have glimpses of futures they could have, and futures they want to avoid; whether or not they succeed in altering their courses - that's the path we take with them. Bonjour Tristesse is a rich novella which would bear future re-reading. It would be an impressive work for any author, not simply an eighteen year old - but it is especially sickening that an eighteen year old should achieve it.
Books to get Stuck into:
I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith: I've mentioned it in this section for another review, but it really is the coming-of-age novel par excellence. A lot of similarities with Bonjour Tristesse, albeit rather more amusing and less philosophical.
Brother of the More Famous Jack - Barbara Trapido: another bright young girl, growing up amongst unconventional types, this novel extends the scope beyond a dizzying summer to many years of after-effects.