A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

Last summer, I read and adored Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s seminal novella about love, jealousy and desire – in essence, the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions. This year I was keen to read her follow-up, the 1956 novella, A Certain Smile – this time in the Irene Ash translation which was rushed out in the same year. (You can read my additional post about Heather Lloyd’s recent translation of Bonjour Tristesse here). In summary, A Certain Smile is the bittersweet story of a young girl’s ill-fated love affair with an older married man, one that epitomises the emotions of youth complete with all their intensity and confusion. While I didn’t love A Certain Smile quite as much as Tristesse, I did enjoy it a great deal. It’s a lovely book for the summer, best read on a lazy afternoon in the sun with a cool drink by your side. Perfect reading for #WITMonth (women in translation) which is running throughout August.

The novella is narrated by Dominique, a law student at the Sorbonne, who is experiencing an overwhelming sense of boredom with life. She is bored by her rather immature and petulant boyfriend, Bertrand, by her studies at the University, and at times by the city of Paris itself. Dominique spends her days idling her time away in cafes, listening to records on the jukebox, and generally lolling around. Sagan perfectly captures this sense of ennui, the feelings of listlessness and detachment that stem from a lack of clear purpose in Dominque’s life.

Nevertheless, everything looks set to change for Dominique when Bertrand takes her to meet his Uncle Luc, a businessman and traveller. Luc is older than Bertrand, more self-assured and sophisticated. Naturally, Dominique is instantly attracted to him. In some ways, she sees Luc as a kindred spirit; his expression suggests a certain sadness, a weariness with the world in general.

He had grey eyes and a tired, almost sad expression. In a way he was handsome. (p. 12)

Luc, for his part, is also attracted to Dominque; somewhat unsurprisingly, her youth and freshness prove appealing to him.

To complicate matters further, Luc is married to the charming Françoise, a kind and generous woman who takes Dominique under her wing, buying her clothes and acting as a sort of mother figure in a gentle, subtle way. (In reality, Dominique’s sees little of her own mother who is still trying to come to terms with the tragic loss of her son, an event which took place some fifteen years earlier.)

In spite of her fondness for Françoise, Dominque finds herself getting more involved with Luc, especially once he invites her to dine alone with him without Bertrand or Françoise. Dominque knows she is playing a dangerous game here, but what does that matter? This is the most interesting thing to have happened to her in months.

I was young, I liked one man and another was in love with me. I had one of those silly little girlish problems to solve. I was feeling rather important. There was even a married man involved, and another woman: a little play with four characters was taking place in the springtime in Paris. I reduced it all to a lovely dry equation, as cynical as could be. Besides, I felt remarkably sure of myself. I accepted all the unhappiness, the conflict, the pleasure to come; I mockingly accepted it all in advance. (p.29)

In time, Luc asks Dominique to come away with him to the Riviera. He is keen to spend time with her alone, to show her the sea, and to teach her how to feel less inhibited. Even though she knows Luc will return to Françoise at the end of the trip, Dominque accepts his proposal, complete with all its inherent risks and uncertainties. She steels herself to be resilient, deep in the knowledge that Luc will not fall in love with her. It is clear that there have been other affairs in the past, so why should this one be any different?

‘Afterwards I’d go back to Françoise. What do you risk? To get attached to me? To suffer afterwards? But after all, that’s better than being bored. You’d rather be happy and even unhappy than nothing at all, wouldn’t you?’

‘Obviously,’ I replied.

‘Isn’t it true that you’d risk nothing?’ repeated Luc, as if to convince himself.

‘Why talk about suffering?’ I said. ‘One must not exaggerate. I’m not so tender-hearted.’ (p. 47)

Dominique and Luc spend an idyllic fortnight in Cannes, making love and generally enjoying one another’s company. They are united by a common lethargy, a weariness for the day-to-day business of life.

We walked in step, had the same tastes, the same rhythm of life; we liked being together, and all went well between us. I did not even regret too much that he could not make the tremendous effort needed to love someone, to know them, and to dispel their loneliness. We were friends and lovers. […] Sensuality was not the basis of our relationship, but something else, a strange bond that united us against the weariness of playing a part, the weariness of talking, in short: weariness itself. (pp. 64-65)

Somewhat inevitably and in spite of her best intentions, Dominque finds herself falling in love with Luc. She is young and inexperienced in these matters, and her natural emotions soon take over; but when the holiday comes to an end, Luc goes back to Françoise, leaving Dominque on her own in Paris to pick up the pieces.

Everything had turned to dust and ashes. I realized that I was not suited to be the gay paramour of a married man. I loved him. I should have thought of that sooner, or at least have taken it into consideration; the obsession that is love, the agony when it is not satisfied. (p. 101)

This is a book in which emotions are expressed both freely and openly. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicted emotions of youth; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. The prose is cool, clear and candid, a style that perfectly suits Dominique’s character and the nature of her story, while the mood is free-spirited and oh-so-French – like a Jean-Luc Godard movie or Mia Hansen-Løve’s appropriately-titled 2011 film, Goodbye First Love.

In spite of everything that has gone before, Dominque’s story ends on a more hopeful note. There are moments of brightness earlier in the narrative too, like this scene in which our narrator reflects on Paris, the ‘shining golden city’ that stands apart from so many others. I’ll leave you with this final passage which I loved for its youthful exuberance.

Paris belonged to me: Paris belonged to the unscrupulous, to the irresponsible; I had always felt it, but it had hurt because I was not carefree enough. Now it was my city, my beautiful, shining golden city, ‘the city that stands aloof’. I was carried along by something that must have been joy. I walked quickly, was full of impatience, and could feel the blood coursing through my veins. I felt ridiculously young at those moments of mad happiness and much nearer to reality and truth than when I searched my soul in my moods of sadness. (p. 28)

A Certain Smile is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has also reviewed this novel.

46 thoughts on “A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

  1. Col

    I read this almost 40 years ago and loved it. Bonjour Tristesse started me on Sagan and I tried to read everything I could get hold of including this. I used to alternate reading Sagan with Edna O’Brien’s books about Kate and Baba! Thanks for a nostalgic start to my Wednesday!!’

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! I wish I had discovered her a lot earlier. She feels like the perfect writer to read when you are young and innocent (and quite possibly in the first flushes of love).

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    Lovely review, this really appeals and I can’t remember ever reading a review of it before so thank you for introducing me to it. I too loved Bonjour Tristesse which I have read twice so I really must add this to my wish list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You are most welcome. The only review I could recall seeing was Kaggsy’s, maybe a year or so ago, but it was enough to make me seek out a copy of the Irene Ash translation I think there’s every chance you would enjoy this, Ali. While it’s not as dramatic as Bonjour Tristesse, it does capture that feeling of being young and somewhat uncertain about life.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. No problem at all about the link – it’s always nice to include one or two where possible. I really liked the Ash translation – it seemed to have a lightness of touch that complemented the story, a sense of fluidity if you like. That said, I haven’t compared it with Heather Lloyd’s version (which I do have somewhere as it came as part of the Penguin reissue of Bonjour Tristesse).

      That’s interesting about her later books. I recall some of your other less successful experiences – The Heart Keeper, if my memory serves me correctly? Do you think she peaked at a young age then? I guess I’m wondering if it’s worth reading any of her others…there are quite a few by the looks of things.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    I find that stories of world weary people to usually be interesting. Perhaps such characters reflect something of the troubles that are inherent in life in general. The relationships in this book also sound very interesting.

    Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    It’s fascinating how you can follow the life stages of a woman and her love affairs via Sagan’s books: from Bonjour Tristesse to A Certain Smile to Do You Like Brahms? Although she wasn’t necessarily the same age as her protagonists at the time (only in the first one).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I didn’t realise that! For some reason, I had assumed that most of her books were about the trials of tribulations of life as a young girl. Would you recommend I try some of her later books at some point? I wasn’t sure whether to leave her for a while, especially in light of Kaggsy’s comments…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Hmm, I’ve just had a quick peek, but the English translation looks hard to find. l might have to hunt around a bit for a copy of it. Love the sound of the film too, especially the Bergman-Perkins connection. Thanks, Marina.

          Reply
  5. hastanton

    Quelle coincidence ! This is on my TBR lined up for for my next book in french . I’m looking forward to it …..although her books are v short I find her extremely difficult to read in French ….the sentences are so complex ! As you say she certainly knows how to create an atmosphere.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Quelle coincidence indeed! I think you’ll enjoy this – it feels like the perfect summer read. Isn’t that interesting about her being difficult to read in French. At first sight, her prose (well, the English translation) seems so simple, and yet there is a degree of depth underneath – certainly in terms of the mood and emotions being conveyed. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with the French version. Good luck!

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    I still have my unread copy of Bonjour Trieste. I really should use this month as an excuse to read it! If only there were fewer books (or more time…)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Bonjour is the one to start with, for sure. Plus, as it’s only around 100 pages, there should be no excuse! Which translation do you have?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. It’s nice to be reminded of old friends very now and again. In some ways, I wish I had started reading her several years ago when I too was a young girl like Dominique.

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    I’ve only read Bonjour Tristesse by this author and really enjoyed it – this does sound very tempting! Surprisingly so, because I tend to find portrayals of young love tedious :-D But the beauty of her writing wins me over!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, I wonder whether part of the charm of these books stems from their brevity. 200 pages of Dominique’s deliberations about and Luc might get a little wearying, but around half of that length feels just about right. She is a reader’s writer if that makes some kind of sense – while her prose isn’t the most lyrical or flamboyant I’ve ever encountered, it has an effortless elegance which seems ideal for these stories of young love.

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    Similar territory to Tristesse, but then lots of authors explore the same territory repeatedly and to good effect. It does sound good.

    I have the Lloyd translation. What made you pick the Ash? It was the Ash version of Tristesse that I read and I admit I did find it very fresh and lively, but I had the impression the Lloyd was possibly more accurate.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed. They are recognisably the products of the same author – the style here is similar, even if the story is a little less dramatic.

      I actually have both translations of this as Lloyd’s version of A Certain Smile came with my Penguin re-issue of Bonjour Tristesse. That said, I haven’t compared them in detail, only the opening chapter to get a feel for how they would read. You’re right to say that the Lloyd is more accurate, certainly as far as Tristesse is concerned – that’s the reason I bought it in the first place. But then, just around the time that I was reading it, this article appeared in The Guardian suggesting that Ash’s original version was more bouncy – it had a lightness of touch or ‘spring in its step’ that seemed to be missing from the Lloyd.

      https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/24/subtle-art-of-translating-foreign-fiction-ferrante-knausgaard

      If truth be told, I think Ash did quite a bit of editing on Sagan’s original text when she translated it – not just the removal of sections or lines that were considered too risque for an English-speaking audience in the 1950s, but some smartening up of the prose as well. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I decided to read Ash’s version of A Certain Smile as a result of a) Rachel Cooke’s article on the translations of Tristesse, b) your very positive response to Ash’s translation of Tristesse, and c) my own preference for Ash’s version of the opening chapter of A Certain Smile compared to Lloyd’s. I have the Ash translation of Tristesse now (the one with the unmistakably French cocktail on the cover), so I may well read it at some point. It’s such a classic story, timeless in some ways.

      Reply
  9. lesserknowngems

    Great review. I read this a while back and felt kind of conflicted about it, and knowing you had read more of her work and liked it I’ve been curious what you’d think about this one. To me it never got more than a middle ground, I like some aspects of it, but not enough to feature it on my blog e.g. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, but one thing I did love about this book and would like to hear your opinion on is the fact (spoiler) that she named the wife of the uncle after herself. She did write the book when she was about the same age as the main character, so it’s so strange that she would give her own name to the scorned woman.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I can understand why some readers might find it a little underwhelming, certainly compared to the sheer perfection of Bonjour Tristesse. It certainly isn’t as dramatic as her debut. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the tone and mood of this book, that feeling of being young and uncertain and a little bit conflicted about life.

      You know, I hadn’t even thought about her use of Françoise as the name of Luc’s wife until you mentioned it here. Maybe that’s how Sagan imagined herself in the future, as the damaged wife whose husband has been unfaithful? In many ways, Sagan seems wise beyond her years with an acute awareness that love is often fleeting or short-lived. I certainly got that feeling with Bonjour and Raymond’s succession of attractive young playmates. What do you think about her use of Françoise here? I’d love to hear your thoughts on its significance.

      Reply
      1. lesserknowngems

        Honestly, when I looked up how young she was when she published the book it made me think if maybe there was something auto-biographical about the story. Maybe she did have an affair with an older, married gentleman and the feelings the main characters go through mimic Francoise’s. She did marry a man 20 years her senior just a few years after this book was published. In that sense naming the scorned wife could have been her way of trying to atone.

        But when I thought about it, that seems like a too shallow explanation. Not everything has to be auto-biographical. Maybe it’s more simple, that Sagan is pointing to the character that she wants to be more like. Often with books like this we see the main character and want to be her, despite or because they are young and reckless. Maybe Sagan is saying that’s not the “right” call, that it’s better to be the older, kinder, smarter women, even if you are cheated on.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s interesting. I like your second theory, the idea that Sagan wishes to be more like Françoise in the book – she certainly comes across as kind and gracious in her dealings with Dominique, at least at the beginning of the story before the affair gets going in earnest. I’d quite like to read another of Sagan’s books at some point, maybe something she wrote a little later in life to see how it compares.

          Reply
          1. lesserknowngems

            It kind of surprised me that she (the author through the main character) was so kind towards Dominique. You could easily have seen a character being jealous and smarmy, but she does reflect that what they are doing is wrong because it hurts Dominique (not so much her boyfriend). I agree it would be interesting to read some of her latest works. I do wonder why it’s not more known considering Tristess is so known. I mean C. Brontë is mostly known for Jane Eyre, but people still read her other works, mostly due to Jane Eyre.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              That’s a good point about the nature of Dominque’s feelings. I liked the way Sagan captured that aspect of her character. Also, by the end of the novel, there’s a sense that she’s ready to move on, to start afresh with the next phase of her life. I liked that too – there was a feeling of hope or optimism about it.

              Sagan later works seem much harder to get hold of than Tristesse and A Certain Smile, certainly in terms of sourcing the English translations. It’s strange, isn’t it? There must be an opportunity there for the right kind of publisher.

              Reply
              1. lesserknowngems

                I know. Most of her work has been translated into English at one point, but so often books are translated and never spoken of again, sadly. That’s why it’s so important that during times like #WITmonth we try to look at books that aren’t that read. To show publishers that it is worth their time to actually keep them going. Or even better, I know some publishers from smaller countries have English translation e-books on their sites next to the e-book in the original language. That makes it so much easier. But I doubt we’ll get French publishers to do that, as they tend to promote the language as much as the books XD

                Reply
                1. JacquiWine Post author

                  Good point. I hope someone does decide to reissue Sagan’s backlist. It would be great to see the English translations back in print!

  10. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked it a lot, especially in terms of the tone and mood. It’s not as compelling as Bonjour Tristesse, but worth considering nevertheless. :)

      Reply
  11. cleopatralovesbooks

    I have a copy of Bonjour Tritesse following your excellent review of this novella – this also sounds like one I’d enjoy especially as she has captured those youthful emotions so well.. Great review Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cleo. If you have the recent Penguin edition (Heather Lloyd’s new translation of Tristesse) then you’re in luck as it also includes her version of A Certain Smile. Think of it as an extra bonus – not quite as gripping as Tristesse, but still very evocative.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          You’re very welcome. Lloyd’s translations seem to be more accurate than Ash’s, but they lose something in terms of readability. Lloyd’s version of Bonjour Tristesse worked for me when I read it last summer, but then I ended up switching to Ash for A Certain Smile. You might want to take a look at both at some point, just to see which version you prefer.

          Reply

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