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.