Françoise Sagan was just eighteen when she wrote her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse. On its publication in 1954, the book was an instant sensation, flying off the shelves and making a celebrity of its author in the process. It is a wonderful book, an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions, all set against the backdrop of a heady summer on the French Riviera. Bonjour Tristesse might just be the perfect holiday read.
Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond. At forty, Raymond – a widower for the past fifteen years – seems young and vibrant for his age; he is an attractive man ‘full of life and possibilities’. Also staying with them at their beautiful villa in the South of France is Raymond’s latest lover, a tall red-haired girl named Elsa. She is to all intents and purposes a young playmate for Raymond.
For the past couple of years, Cécile has been living the high life with her father, accompanying him to glamorous parties and sharing his fondness for amusement and frivolity. She loves Raymond very dearly, for he is kind, generous, fun-loving and full of affection for her. In some ways, Cécile sees Raymond more as a friend and equal than a father/authority figure. Elsa fits into this set-up quite neatly for she is youthful, sweet and very easy-going (if a little transparent). In any case, Cécile knows that Elsa probably won’t be around for very long. After all, her father gets bored with his playthings fairly quickly; consequently, there is a new mistress in his life every six months or so. In this scene, Cécile reflects on her father’s views on love, views that have almost certainly influenced her own impressions of the subject.
Late into the night we talked of love and its complications. In my father’s eyes these were purely imaginary. He categorically rejected all notions of fidelity, earnestness or commitment, explaining to me that they were arbitrary and sterile. Coming from anyone else, these views would have shocked me. But I knew that, in his case, they did not rule out either tenderness or devotion, these being feelings which he entertained all the more readily because he believed them to be, indeed knew they were, transient. I was greatly attracted to the concept of love affairs that were rapidly embarked upon, intensely experienced and quickly over. At the age I was, fidelity held no attraction. I knew little of love, apart from its trysts, its kisses and its lethargies. (pg. 9)
At first, everything is leisurely and glorious. The three holidaymakers spend their days on the beach, swimming, relaxing and acquiring golden tans. All except Elsa, who – being red-haired and fair-skinned – is burning up, blistering and peeling in the heat of the sun. Plus for Cécile, there is the added attraction of Cyril, a handsome law student who is staying with his mother in a neighbouring villa. While she does not usually care for young men, Cécile finds herself drawn to Cyril; he has a sensible, reliable look about him that she immediately likes.
Nevertheless, it’s not long before this idyllic existence is disturbed. Into the mix comes Anne Larsen, a beautiful, sophisticated, elegant woman, close to Raymond in terms of age, and the polar opposite of the young, free-spirited Elsa. Without really thinking about the potential impact on Elsa, Raymond has invited Anne – an old friend of his late wife’s – to come and stay at the villa for a while. Here’s how Cécile recalls Anne when she hears of her imminent arrival.
At forty-two she was a very attractive woman, much sought-after, with a beautiful face that was proud, world-weary and aloof. This aloofness was the only thing that could be held against her. She was pleasant yet distant. Everything about her denoted an unwavering will and a serenity that was actually intimidating. (pg. 8)
At first, Cécile is relatively happy with Anne’s appearance on the scene. After all, she was friendly with Cécile’s mother when the latter was alive; plus Cécile rather admires Anne even if she does find her quite intimidating at times. A couple of years earlier, Anne spent some time with Cécile, giving her a few lessons in life and ensuring she was tastefully dressed into the bargain. As a consequence, Cécile has remained very grateful to Anne for this grounding in elegance.
Before long, the rather glamorous Anne is in the ascendancy with Raymond, while Elsa, with her sunburnt skin and dried-out hair, is fading into the background. Moreover, Raymond appears pretty keen on Anne, viewing her both as a possible partner and as a mother figure for Cécile. All of a sudden Anne and Raymond announce that they would like to get married, an announcement that seems to please Cécile, at least initially, even if she harbours some internal doubts.
Being forty must bring with it the fear of loneliness, perhaps the last stirrings of desire…I had never thought of Anne as a woman, more as an abstraction. I had seen her as being composed of confidence, elegance and intelligence, though never of sensuality or weakness. I could understand my father’s pride: the haughty, aloof Anne Larsen was marrying him. Did he love her and would he be capable of loving her for long? Could I distinguish between this tenderness and the tenderness he felt for Elsa? I closed my eyes. The heat was making me drowsy. There we were on the terrace, all three of us, full of reservations, of secret fears and of happiness. (pg. 35)
Nevertheless, nothing in Cécile’s world seems to stay the same for too long. It soon becomes apparent that Anne is intent on introducing a certain amount of structure and discipline into the young girl’s life (and Raymond’s too for that matter). She persuades Raymond that Cécile should stop seeing Cyril; instead Cécile must knuckle down to some serious revision for the retake of her exams in September. Gone are the glorious, heady days of endless pleasure and happiness. While Cecile and Raymond favour fun, entertainment and gaiety, Anne despises anything taken to extremes. Instead she values intelligence, serenity and discretion. Cécile realises that life with her father is about to change forever, and not for the better. She feels resentful towards Anne, somewhat betrayed by her father and bereft at the loss of Cyril.
Yes, that was what I held against Anne: she prevented me from liking myself. 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. And what was she bringing me? I took stock of how strong she was: she had wanted my father and she had got him; she was gradually going to make of us the husband and daughter of Anne Larsen, which meant that we would become civilized, well-mannered, happy people. For she would make us happy. I could well imagine how easily we, unstable creatures that we were, would yield to the attraction of having structure in our lives and of not having to shoulder responsibility. She was much too efficient. My father was already growing away from me. (pgs. 39-40)
As a consequence, Cécile hatches a plan – one that will involve all the key players in the mix, one designed to restore the perfect balance in her life.
Bonjour Tristesse is an utterly compelling read. It feels very accomplished and self-assured for the work of an eighteen-year-old girl, especially given the time when it was written. Up until the point at which Anne arrives at the villa, Cécile’s actions and way of life have not been subjected to any form of critical appraisal or moral judgment. She has simply been allowed to do as she pleases. Anne’s attitude exposes Cécile to a world of censure and reproaches, and it’s an environment that feels completely alien to her. I particularly love Cécile’s inner reflections and the sense of duality that starts to emerge in her character. On the one hand, Cécile admires Anne for all the reasons I mentioned earlier; on the other, she despises Anne for admonishing her and for threatening the joy of her life with Raymond. In concocting her plan, Cécile is aiming to leverage a number of things: her father’s jealousy, youthful spirit and sense of pride; Elsa’s vanity and sentimentality; and Cyril’s devotion to Cécile herself. Plus she is counting on a particular response from Anne too. It’s a fairly potent mix.
I’m going to leave it there for now. I have some thoughts on the translation too, but I’ll leave those for the comments (or another time). There are several other reviews of this novel across the blogosphere, but here are links to a few I recall: posts by Claire, Max and Gemma.
As I was thinking about Bonjour Tristesse, I couldn’t help but be reminded of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, which I read back in July – another intoxicating read, perfect for summer.
Bonjour Tristesse is published by Penguin Books.