Aimez-vous Brahms… by Françoise Sagan (tr. Peter Wiles)

First published in 1959, Aimez-vous Brahms… was Françoise Sagan’s fourth novel – or maybe novella would be a better word for it as the early ones are all quite short. Unlike her first two books (Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile), Brahms features a relatively mature protagonist, Paule, a thirty-nine-year-old interior decorator living in Paris. It’s the story of a woman at a key point in her life, poised on the brink of entering middle age and everything this represents – particularly with regards to the nature of her relationships with men.

She had stationed herself at this mirror to kill time only to discover – she smiled at the thought – that time was gradually, painlessly killing her, aiming its blows at an appearance she knew had been loved. (p. 7)

For the past five years or so, Paule has been in a relationship with Roger, a rather independent, self-centred businessman who seems very self-assured. While Roger spends some of his nights at Paule’s apartment, he doesn’t live there permanently, preferring instead to maintain his own base in the city.

Right from the start of the story, it is clear that the nature of this relationship is far from ideal, certainly from Paule’s perspective. Roger has established a degree of flexibility with Paule such that he is free to have affairs with other women – usually young girls – whenever the urge arises. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this leaves Paule feeling rather lonely and neglected – effectively an unequal partner in the relationship.

No, she could not explain to Roger that she was tired, that she could stand no more of this freedom imposed like a law between them, this freedom of which he alone availed himself and which for her represented mere loneliness; she could not tell him that sometimes she felt like one of those ruthless, possessive females whom he so hated. Abruptly her deserted flat struck her as odious and useless. (p. 9)

One day, in the course of her work, Paule meets Simon, a handsome and intriguing young man in his mid-twenties. At first, Paule is reluctant to get involved with Simon even though she experiences a palpable spark of attraction. Simon, on the other hand, is determined to win Paule’s heart, pursuing her with considerable vigour and persistence during the days that follow their initial encounter. Naturally it’s not long before Paule succumbs to Simon’s charms – after all, he is very keen and attentive, if a little immature.

With Simon, it was different. He was so keen, so glad, so prompt to look after her, to open doors for her, to light her cigarettes, to anticipate her slightest wishes, that he had come to think of these things before she did, making them seem a series of attentions rather than obligations. (p. 93)

As Paule reflects on the passing of time and her quest for happiness, she is faced with a choice. Should she stay with Roger and the familiar yet unfulfilling existence that this represents, or take a chance with Simon and the freshness of youth he offers? It’s not as easy a decision to make as we might think, especially given society’s views about the suitability of certain relationships back in the ‘50s. In this scene, Paule imagines what others would make of it if they knew the true nature of her growing friendship with Simon.

She imagined the tone in which people – her friends – would say: ‘Have you heard about Paule?’ And more than fear of gossip, more than fear at the difference in their ages (which, as she very well knew, would be carefully emphasized), it was shame that gripped her. Shame at the thought of the gaiety with which people would spread the story, of the pep with which they would credit her, the appetite for life and young men, whereas she merely felt old and tired and in need of a little comforting. (p. 86)

Aimez-vous Brahms… is an insightful story of a woman who longs for personal fulfilment and contentment at a time when life seems to be passing her by. As we grow older, there is a sense that our options in life can narrow, become more limited as we settle into our existence. Nevertheless, new opportunities can come along at the most unexpected of times, and there is an element of that here in Brahms.

The characters are well-drawn and believable – especially the main protagonist, Paule. Sagan’s prose is cool and clear, the tone melancholic and thoughtful.

The novel’s title comes from a note Simon leaves for Paule inviting her to a classical music concert — that is if she likes Brahms. The line ‘Aimez-vous Brahms?’ prompts Paule to question her preferences in life – more specifically, her values and her own sense of self-worth. In some ways, it highlights how uncertain Paule feels at this point. What if anything will make her happy and is this really within reach?

Ultimately, the story comes with a sting in its tail, one that feels painfully believable and true to life. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to Paule as time passes by – in particular, where she might be a year or two down the line.

All in all, it was a pleasure to return to Sagan, particularly for Women in Translation month which is running throughout August. (Somehow her books always seem to be ideally suited to the summer months, even though the story in Brahms actually takes place during autumn and winter!)

My thanks to Marina Sofia of findingtimetowrite who recommended this book to me last year – it turned out to be an excellent suggestion.

Aimez-vous Brahms… was published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

35 thoughts on “Aimez-vous Brahms… by Françoise Sagan (tr. Peter Wiles)

  1. MarinaSofia

    So pleased you liked it. I kept thinking of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre when I read about Paule and Roger, for Simone’s own version of such a story, I recommend ‘She Came to Stay’. The film of Aimez-vous Brahms is also worth seeing: Ingrid Bergman, need I say more?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved it! Thanks so much for the recommendation. And there’s a film version with Ingrid Bergman? How cool is that! I’m off to track it down right away…

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    This sounds like a perceptive – and perhaps heartfelt – exploration of the onset of middle age and all that means. I wonder how old Sagan was when she wrote it. I’d echo Marina’s recommendation of She Came to Stay.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Interestingly, she was still very young – just twenty-four when it was published. It’s pretty impressive stuff considering the fact that she was still in the early flushes of youth at the time. It made me wonder about her life, whether she had experienced heartbreak or disillusionment with men by that stage or maybe even observed it through a close friend or family member. Either way, the emotions she captured certainly felt very true to life.

      Thanks for endorsing that suggestion of She Came to Stay – it’s great to hear that you would recommend it too. One to look up, I think.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui and I must admit this is appealing, particularly as Sagan is dealing with the issues facing an older woman. I thought of Sartre and de Beauvoir too, and that’s an interesting recommendation from Marina – I need to revisit They Came to Stay.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it felt a little different from Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile because of that focus on a different stage of life – and yet the writing still seemed fresh and very Sagan. I clearly need to take a look at the Beauvoir as it keeps coming up!

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Bonjour Tristesse is the only Sagan I have read, and twice at that. I really must explore more of her work. This does sound like a revealing and subtle work, and your hint about that sting in the tail particularly intrigues me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this, Ali, if you can get hold of a copy. It’s a shame that there isn’t more of Sagan in print at the moment. Quite a lot of her work seems to have been translated, but most of it seems to be oop.

      Reply
  5. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Yes, I wish there were more of her works available, this sounds like an excellent addition. I think I have that Simone de Beauvoir ‘She Came to Stay’ on the shelf, I may have to dust it off for WIT month too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That sounds like an excellent idea, Claire. I would love to see a review of the Beauvoir, especially given the recommendations above. If only I could speak French, then I would be able to explore Sagan to my heart’s content!

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Well yes, now I could just go down to the library couldn’t I – my neighbour was just here yesterday wanting to borrow French novels, since I’ve been fostering her reading habit – but I’ve lent her them all, change of plan – I need to send her to the library! :)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ha! Actually, speaking French might not do me any more good with Sagan, as I’m not sure how much of her work is still available/in print in France. Is she read much over there these days? I’d be curious to know.

          Reply
  6. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui. I read Bonjour Tristesse a while back and found the protagonist rather annoying and precocious (which I think was largely the point), but that aside it was an accomplished book. This sounds more up my street and equally accomplished. I enjoyed the excerpts, quite night tight slices of observation which I suspect makes this a very insightful book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. I think this would be more to your tastes as you’d probably find it more mature and thoughtful than Tristesse. Yes, Cecile is very precocious — deliberately so as you say. I think she has to be for the story to work as effectively as it does. :)

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    I remember reading this so long ago that the age of thirty-nine seemed quite elderly to me. Now….. And yes, the relationship between de Beauvoir and Sartre has always been a troubling inconsistency in her life. A noxious fellow.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s funny isn’t it, how ‘old’ our parents and their friends seem to us when we are young. At fifteen, I can recall thinking my mother’s sister was ancient even though she was only in her early fifties at the time – that’s still comparatively ‘young’ of course, especially by today’s standards. I definitely need to take a closer look at de Beauvoir, a writer I’ve never read in spite of my fondness for French lit.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        She Came to Stay, although fiction, gives quite an insight into what she must have suffered from Sartre’s pecadillos., and The Blood of Others, about Paris during the German occupation, made me cry. Her autobiographies are also very good, but I wasn’t so keen on her highly regarded The Second Sex. Maybe it just seems dated now.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          You know, I think it’s the idea of The Second Sex that has been putting me off de Beauvior for years. Somehow, it has never really appealed to me. Thanks for those alternative suggestions which I will definitely check out.

          Reply
  8. Lady Fancifull

    You brought it’s definitely autumnal feel, that melancholy coolness, into life. I do remember reading this many many years ago, when people in their 30s seemed absolutely ancient……

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I really liked the melancholy feel of this story. It felt very true to life, if that makes sense – a reflection of Paule’s mood and circumstances as the ending played out.

      Reply
  9. Caroline

    I read almost all of Sagan as a teenager, so I can’t remember all of this. I saw the movie too which is very good. I remember that most of her novels are a bit pessimistic when it comes to getting older although she can’t have been very old when she wrote this. I love the Brahms concerto that is mentioned in the book.
    Ha, novella. My pet peeve. So many modern French novels are short. It’s a cultural thing, I’d say. And they are called novels. I really need to look into this some day but I think calling short novels novellas is a marketing thing. Initially, a novella was a long short story not a short novel. but in recent years, in English speaking countries they are called novellas. We had this discussion before.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, she wasn’t very old when she wrote this – just twenty-four, which makes it all the most impressive considering the authenticity of the portrait she creates. Do you have any other recommendations of where to go next with Sagan, any other favourites? I would definitely like to read another.

      Ha! I had forgotten about that conversation on novellas, but it’s all coming back to me now. I think you’re right, it’s probably a lazy term that has slipped into use in the English-speaking world. I shall try to banish it from my vocabulary forthwith!

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I didn’t see your reply. Ususally WordPress flags it.
        I’ve read so many but I’m not sure about the English titles. Ok, just checked Wikipedia:
        Un certain sourire (1955, A Certain Smile, translated 1956)
        Dans un mois, dans un an (1957, Those Without Shadows, translated by Frances Frenaye, 1957)
        Les merveilleux nuages (1961, Wonderful Clouds, translated 1961)
        La chamade (1965, translated 1966 as La Chamade; newly translated 2009 as That Mad Ache)
        Un peu de soleil dans l’eau froide (1969, Sunlight on Cold Water, translated 1971)

        I enjoyed these very much (as you’ve read Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smilealready I didn’t mention that.) I find Bonjour Tristesse is quite different. Some of those I mentioned above are a bit like a cycle.
        I’d pick Wonderful Clouds or Sunlight on Cold Water.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, no worries at all – WP can be very flaky sometimes! Thank you for those recommendations, that’s really great. I will definitely take a closer look at the two you suggest.

          Reply
  10. 1streading

    Perhpas this should have been in the lost books category? It’s great to hear about Sagan’s other work as she has become a writer famous largely for one book. This does mean it will be great fun tracking down the rest of her work though!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes! It would fit right in with your Lost Books feature. I’m glad I read this as I think it’s given me a broader feel for her work. Whilst there are some similarities with Bonjour, the focus on a more mature woman on the cusp of middle age given it a different ‘feel’ – more poignant, I guess.

      Reply
      1. madamebibilophile

        Yes I would, it’s quite different. Its a story interspersed with Sagan’s reflections on writing it, so I think for some people it would be a frustrating read, neither one thing or the other. I enjoyed it though!

        Reply

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