Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

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 others people’s emotions, all set against the backdrop of a heady summer on the Riviera. Bonjour Tristesse might just be the perfect holiday read.

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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.

63 thoughts on “Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It struck me because the summer setting forms such a critical part of both of these stories, perfect reading for this time of year. Maybe I can entice you into a re-read of Tristesse? It’s such an irresistible book…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can imagine that! It’s funny – in some ways I could see the story from both sides, but even so I did feel for Cécile. I’m going to give my goddaughter a copy of this book to read as part of a future birthday present. She’ll be sixteen next year, probably a good time for her to read it. I am fully expecting her to be behind Cécile!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          She is quite difficult to buy for right now as she’s at that age where her tastes change from one day to the next. Nevertheless, I’m hoping Bonjour will hit the right spot.

          Reply
      1. Maureen Murphy

        Jacqui, caught up with this cool little entry (even though summer is pretty much at an end here, except for the muggy super-hot weather). I was reminded of Ray Bradbury. I read “The Martian Chronicles” and “Dandelion Wine and Other Stories” the summer I turned 16 and they were quite magical. They are still great, but I think Bradbury’s great for teens. I think your goddaughter may like them a lot….

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, it’s rather humid here right now as well! We could do with a drop of rain to clear the air. Bradbury’s a great suggestion – I read him when I was in my twenties, but even so I can see how he would appeal to teens too. I shall add him to her list – thanks.

          Reply
  1. Gemma

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Jacqui. Your review has perfectly captured the memories I have of reading this book – that heady combination of summer heat, languor and heightened emotions that made it so compelling and, as you say, the perfect summer read. I’d be interested to hear what you thought of the translation – we both read the same edition. Thanks so much for including a link to my review :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gemma. Isn’t it just the most delectable summer read? I seem to recall you mentioning the sensual nature of Sagan’s prose in your review, which is spot on – it’s a very evocative novel on more than one level.

      I may well do another brief post on the translation, maybe later this week if I have time. It’s interesting to see that we read the same version while Claire and Max went with the Irene Ash…I’ll come back to this later in the week.

      Reply
      1. Gemma

        It is! Yes, I love the prose in this novel and, like you say, it’s very evocative.
        That is interesting about the editions – for me it was completely unintentional as I didn’t realise there was more than one translation. I’d be interested to read the Ash translation just to compare.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Well, I think that’s what I’ll be doing at some point! My (brief) post on the translations should be up by the end of the week, so I’ll say a little more about it then.

          Reply
  2. kimbofo

    Great review, Jacqui. I read and reviewed this one in my early days of blogging and recall being quite shocked by it. My impression was that Cécile wanted to keep her father to herself, hence her devilish plan.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Kim. Ah, I’ll take look at your review once I get a chance. – it’s always good to compare perspectives. Yes, there’s definitely an element of Cécile wanting to keep Raymond to herself here. It’s interesting to note Cécile’s lack of jealousy over Raymond’s relationship with Elsa, but then again the latter probably isn’t a serious long-term rival for his affections. Anne, on the other hand, is another matter altogether…

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    I can see how the world described would seem like paradise to an adolescent and how alienated one be towards someone who threatened it. I can see also see how such a situation could lead to great fiction.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a really interesting book from a moral standpoint as the dynamics are actually quite subtle in spite of how they might appear at first sight. As Gert mentions above, I suspect one’s sympathies may vary depending on age and level of life experience at the time of reading. In some respects it’s easy to blame Cécile, but then again one could argue that Raymond has failed her in his duty as a ‘responsible’ parent. It would make a great choice for discussion with book groups.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, yes – definitely worth a re-read. It’s actually more subtle than I had expected from the basic outline of the story. Quite an achievement for an eighteen-year-old all told…

      Reply
  4. Jonathan

    This is on my ‘I really must read’ list along with many others. The way her life changes from a carefree existence to a more structured one is just like the ‘end of summer holiday’ feeling; it also made me think of the excellent Bergman film ‘Fanny and Alexander’.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, it’s definitely worth making time for this one. Yes, there’s a definite ‘back-to-school’ feeling about the translation from the lazy days of summer to the kind of structured existence Anne attempts to impose on Cécile (and on Raymond too for that matter). I haven’t watched the Bergman for years so I’m due a refresher – thanks for the nudge!

      Reply
  5. naomifrisby

    I’ve been after reading this for ages but am going to choose the edition carefully, I think. Did you see Rachel Cooke’s piece in The Guardian on the variation in translations?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I did! That’s partly what I’m planning to cover in my thoughts on the translation. If I get time, I’ll post a brief piece about it later this week. There’s are pros and cons to both versions, but I’ll try to say a little more about these in my post.

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    Great review Jacqui. I read this a while ago and remember being drawn in by the hypnotic twists and turns and the underlying sense of manipulation throughout. But it’s a long time since I read it. I agree it seems a very accomplished book for such a young woman.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, hypnotic is a good way of describing the mood of this one. The sense of manipulation and focus on the physiological remind me a little of some of Patricia Highsmith’s novels. A sort of evocative, summery version of one of her magnetic stories. Glad you were drawn it by it too.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely worth revisiting as it feels sufficiently nuanced to stand up to a second reading. As Gert mentioned above, I suspect it’s a book that may well elicit different responses depending on the reader’s age and level of life experience at the time. I wonder how I would have felt about the characters had I read it as a teenager…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Only one way to find out. In some ways, it reminded me a little of some of Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially given the insight into Cecile’s thoughts and motivations…

          Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always Jacqui! I read and reviewed this a while back in the older translation, which I very much loved. It’s such an evocative story, though I suspect from my reading of her other books she may have peaked early…. Nevertheless, I had picked up on some of the translation issues being mentioned, so I’ll look forward to what you have to say. I think I would have felt very differently about the book had I read it when I was younger – now I feel much less sympathetic towards Cecile than I’m sure I would have!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’ll take a look at your review, Karen. I do recall you posting on another Sagan, but I may well have missed this one. I’ll drop by when I get a chance.

      Yes, I can appreciate how readers’ reactions towards Cecile might change over time. I suppose I was trying to see the situation from more than one side. While it seems natural to point the finger at Cecile, I feel Raymond must shoulder some of the blame for failing in his role as a parent. There was no sense of any moral framework or guidance influencing Cecile’s actions until Anne appeared on the scene, so things were bound to get messy as soon as the dynamics changed. It’s a great read, though – glad you loved it too!

      As for the translation, I’ll try to post a few thoughts on it later this week – just a short piece as long as I find the time. My edition also contains A Certain Smile, which could be the one I recall you reviewing. I’ll definitely read it but will lower my expectations accordingly in light of your comments on Sagan peaking early. What a shame as I was hoping for another delectable page-turner!

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I bought this fairly recently (I’d hope to read it this month but, as usual, I’ve been too ambitious). The Penguin Classics edition comes with another story (A Certain Smile) – did you read that?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Not yet. It’s on my Classics Club list (partly to encourage me to make headway with Sagan) so I hope to read it next year. Maybe I’ll pencil it in for the summer!

      Reply
  9. Anokatony

    I suppose I avoided reading Bonjour Trieste because it was written by an 18 yeasr-old girl and have avoided Francoise Sagan because that was her most famous work. I couldn’t imagine an 18 year odl doing anything important.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s petty impressive stuff for an eighteen-year-old. I wish I’d read it as a young girl as I’m sure it would have knocked me sideways in my youth. Even so, it’s well worth reading at any stage in one’s life. Such an evocative read for a sunny afternoon.

      Reply
  10. Bibliosa

    This has been on my list for so long, it’s embarrassing. I think your review has finally given my the push to bump it up! I didn’t know the author was 18 when she wrote it. Incredible success for someone so young.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s good to hear! Well, by rights I really have should read this as a teenager, but better late than never. It’s such a great story, very poised for the work of an eighteen-old-year. It made curious about Sagan’s own life, what she had experienced before writing the novel and the source of her ideas for the story. There’s a little bit about it in the intro to the latest Penguin edition, but it would be interesting to discover more.

      Reply
  11. Emma

    I love Françoise Sagan. It’s an amazing book for an eighteen year old writer. I’ve read several of her novels and I was never disappointed. She’s such a good reader of people.

    I’m looking forward to reading your post about the translation. I read it in French, of course but I’m curious about the English translation anyway.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, brilliant. That’s great to hear as I was a little worried when Kaggsy said she thought Sagan may have peaked a little early. Yes, her understanding of the complexity of emotional dynamics at play is pretty astonishing for an eighteen-year-old. I love the way she gives us access to Cecile’s inner thoughts and reflections – such subtlety on display here, especially in this element of the narrative.

      My post on the translation has just gone live. Basically, I think I need to read the Irene Ash translation to see how it compares. Both versions seem to have their own pros and cons.

      As a slight aside, have you ever read anything by the Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe? Her novella, Marie, shares some similarities with the Sagan, another evocative story set in France. Bourdouxhe hung out with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Queneau in the literary cafes of Paris back in the day. I think you’d find her of interest if you haven’t read her already.

      Reply
  12. cleopatralovesbooks

    A brilliant review of what sounds like a delightful read – having been so taken with The Go-Between this is going on my list straight away, I’m dying to know what plan Cecile hatches – thanks for sharing your thoughts Jacqui and bringing this book to my attention.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Cleo. It’s a wonderful novel, and I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it too. It captures that hazy, languid feeling of a glorious summer rather perfectly. A very evocative read for this time of year.

      Reply
  13. Pingback: Bonjour Tristesse part 2 – a few thoughts on the translation | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Yes, this would be a good one for discussion. I’m rather hoping someone from my book group will pick it as a future read. If not, I may have to suggest it myself…

      Reply
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  16. Caroline

    I went through a major Françoise Sagan phase and m ust have read at least a dozen. They were all good. Mind you, I was very young, much younger than the writer when I read her. Still, I’m pretty sure I would still like her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really wish I had discovered her many years ago. She feels like the perfect writer to read as a teenager or young girl in her twenties. Still, better late than never! I’d like to read A Certain Smile, too – well, it’s on my Classics Club list, so I hope to get to it next year.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        To be honest, reading her so young wasn’t ideal for me. Bonjour Tristesse was OK but the later works paint such a depressing picture of love. My favourite was Aimez-vous Brahms? which has been made into a movie with Anthony Perkins.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, right! I can understand that. I was thinking of giving my goddaughter a copy of this book as part of her next birthday present. She’ll be sixteen next year, which should be fine for this one. I think she’ll like it, but it’s really useful to know about the others – at least I can warn her if she takes to Sagan. Oh, and I’ve made a note of Aimez-vous Brahms? Thank you.

          Reply
  17. Max Cairnduff

    It really is excellent isn’t it? I’m glad you liked it, but not remotely surprised. It’s remarkable how elegant a novel it is given how young Sagan was when she wrote it.

    Right, I’m off to read your translation piece.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s brilliant. Another contender for my end-of-year list – but then again I’ve read so many wonderful books this year I may well have enough ‘highlights’ for two round-ups, an embarrassment of riches so to speak.

      Returning to the book for a mo, I couldn’t help but think of your review when I came to the passage where Cécile has the orange and a cup of scalding hot coffee for breakfast. Even though I hadn’t revisited it before reading the book, your quote from that section must have stuck in my mind as I recognised it immediately. Your comparison with Les Liaisons Dangereuses was spot on too. There’s definitely an element of Cécile playing with other people’s emotions with little regard for the consequences. The way she leverages all those emotions was quite something. What impressed me most though was the insight Sagan gives us into Cécile’s inner thoughts. This element of the novel turned out to be far more subtle and sophisticated than I had expected, especially from an eighteen-year-old. It made me curious to read about Sagan’s life at some point, to learn more about her own experiences in those early years. Anyway, a marvellous book – so glad I finally got around to reading it!

      Oh, and many thanks for your comments on the translation piece too. I’m in between various appointments right now but will reply a little later once I get a chance.

      Reply
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