Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, French (1935-2004)
I have just finished reading Bonjour Tristesse, an incredible novel, written by Françoise Sagan when she was only eighteen. She failed her exams at the Sorbonne and decided to write a book instead. The book received instant international acclaim, and by 1959 it had sold 850,000 copies. It has since been translated into many languages and is a “must” for readers who enjoy coming-of-age stories. I first discovered this novel when I was twenty-five and have reread it every five years.
Sagan writes about seventeen-year-old Cécile, who, like Sagan, has just failed her exams. She and her father, a forty-year-old widower, rent a Mediterranean villa for the summer. Cécile’s father also invites Elsa, who is “sensual and worldly, gentle, rather simple, and unpretentious.” We learn that Elsa is just the “current” girlfriend, the last in a long line of women Cécile’s father has dated over the years. However, complications arise when Cécile’s father also invites Anne Larson, his dead wife’s friend. “At forty-two, she was a most attractive woman, much sought after, with a beautiful face.” Anne has a strong will, an inner serenity, and clever, intelligent friends, but Cécile’s father demands “only good looks or amusement.”
Clearly, Cécile is upset. She fears her loss of freedom, having to bend to Anne’s will and sensible rules (study hard and retake the exams). Also, Anne represents a threat to Cécile’s relationship with her father: She will no longer be her father’s “fair-haired daughter…with china-blue eyes…[his] little accomplice.” Until this summer, Cécile has gotten used to her father’s playboy lifestyle, his refusal to recognize fidelity and serious commitments because they are “arbitrary and sterile.” However, as time passes, her father falls in love with Anne and wants to marry her. What does Cécile do? With the aid of Elsa, who is hurt and jealous at being “thrown off,” and Cyril, a boy Cécile has just met at the beach, she embarks on a dangerous game to wreck her father’s plan to marry Anne.
Sagan’s story is a psychological insight into Cécile’s seventeen-year-old mind and her perception of her father’s “affair de coeur,” which she considers disastrous to her well-being and freedom. Cécile is not a bad person. Her father has spoiled her, that is all, and Cécile wants to be the most important person in his life. She manipulates her father, Elsa, Anne, and even Cyril, “already half in love with me,” to disengage Anne from her father. Of course, she gets her wish, but her meddling in adult affairs ends in tragedy. Sagan’s descriptions of teenage emotions are poignant and beautifully written. Here is one example:
“‘You’re very sweet, Cyril,’ I murmured. ‘You shall be a brother to me.’ He folded his arm around me with an angry little exclamation, and gently pulled me out of the boat. He held me close against him, my head on his shoulder. At that moment I loved him. In the morning light he was as golden, as soft, as gentle as myself. He was protecting me. As his lips touched mine we both began to tremble, and the pleasure of our kiss was unhinged by shame or regret, merely a deep searching interrupted every now and then by whispers. I broke away and swam towards the boat, which was drifting out. I dipped my face into the water to refresh it. The water was green. A feeling of reckless happiness came over me.”
When summer is over, Cécile and her father return to Paris. By winter, summer is just a memory, albeit a painful one. Cécile thinks, “Now we have only each other, we are alone and unhappy.” Sagan ends the novel with a poignant thought: “Only when I am in bed, at dawn, listening to the cars passing below in the streets of Paris, my memory betrays me: that summer returns to me with all its memories. Anne, Anne, I repeat over and over again softly in the darkness. Then something rises in me that I welcome by name, with closed eyes: Bonjour Tristesse!”
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Sarah M. Fredericks © 2015
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