On the Docket: Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (Translated by Irene Ash)

Genre: Translated Fiction

Source: Personal Copy

The Publisher’s Plot Blurb:

Cecile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, the sand, and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy.

First Impressions: Well! What a little fireball of a book! Before I dive into my review, I would like to share a biographical note on the author, as it is quite interesting and impressive from a literary standpoint.

Francoise Sagan (1935-2004) took her nom de plume from Marcel Proust’s Princesse de Sagan and was eighteen years old when she wrote her bestseller Bonjour Tristesse. Having failed to pass her examinations at the Sorbonne, she decided to write a novel. It received international acclaim and by 1959 had sold 850, 000 copies in France alone.

Bonjour Tristesse scandalized 1950s France with its portrayal of teenager terrible Cecile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and responsibility to choose her own sexual freedom.

I was initially uncertain what to think about Cecile, the bratty adolescent girl at the heart of this powerful tale of manipulation and morality. Never in my life have I been so charmed by such a questionable character of cruel tendencies. What impressed me the most was Sagan’s ability to capture the frivolity of Cecile’s age while simultaneously portraying her moments of vengeful abandon with unbearable bluntness. She made me dislike Anne; she convinced me! Perhaps I shouldn’t have allowed myself to be seduced by the beach, sun, and heat as well, but Anne’s sophistication started to bother me with the same intensity it hammered away at Cecile.

The ending, however predictable it may have been, was still a shock to me. It was perfect evidence that when you interfere in situations that are better left alone, you can never be certain what you’ve caused or simply ushered along to its inevitable end. I found it difficult to believe that Cecile on her own was capable of orchestrating the entire drama as it unfolded. I think that assumes that Cecile’s father is blameless in this situation, which, in my opinion, is a problematic argument to make. Cecile was simply reading her father’s behaviour, whose tendency to gravitate toward and conquer beautiful women is at the core of this drama. Raymonde, who often takes a back seat to Cecile’s scheming, manages to avoid some rather damning character analysis.

I should also mention that Anne and Elsa are also very instrumental in this story. Their characters, though very different, are pillars of Cecile’s impression of the world. Anne, whose bourgeois way of life clearly clashes with the frivolity of partying Raymond, is never truly explained to my satisfaction. There were times when her parenting techniques were bordering on abusive; her humanity was seriously lacking in warmth. Everything about her was cold and her tendency to change the people in her company (and expect them to follow suit and agree with her) was very off putting. I suppose that, in the grand scheme of the plot line, Anne’s characterization falls into the “unreliable narrator” pit, a bottomless pile of information we can only understand through Cecile’s eyes. So, is Anne as awful as she was portrayed? I guess we’ll never know.

Final Verdict: I was very enchanted by the world painted by Sagan. The cast of characters that populated Bonjour Tristesse walk an intriguing tightrope between varying worlds of morality and frivolity. You will think of Elsa, Anne and Raymond long after you’ve completed this fabulous little book. Cecile, on the other hand, isn’t as hateful as I initially thought. She occupies a very strange, grey area in this novel, where she serves as the conductor, but also the observer of human psychology; she can read the people around her incredibly well. What do I think of her? I still can’t decide.