There are novels which most people devour during high school and which I didn’t bother to read at the time because their stories just didn’t tempt me. As a matter of fact, I never really cared for coming-of-age and young adult fiction. Then, in my thirties, I began to wonder if I might have missed some important works of literature due to my opinion of the genre and I decided to give it another try with a few of them. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye only increased my dislike, while I didn’t regret reading Bonjour Tristesse (usually untranslated and meaning 'Hello Sadness' in English) by Françoise Sagan which I’m going to review today.
Françoise Sagan was born as Françoise Quoirez in Cajarc, France, in June 1935. Stemming from a bourgeois family, she went to convent schools and then attended Sorbonne University in Paris although she failed the baccalauréat in 1953 and thus never graduated even from high school. At the age of 19 she published her first book Bonjour Tristesse (1954) under a pen name taken from the Princesse de Sagan in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The novella marked the beginning of a literary career which lasted almost until the new millennium. During her lifetime she wrote plays, autobiographical and biographical works, song lyrics and about thirty novels among them A Certain Smile (Un Certain sourire: 1955), Those Without Shadows (Dans un mois, dans un an: 1957), Aimez-vous Brahms? (1959), Wonderful Clouds (Les merveilleux nuages: 1961) or That Mad Ache (La Chamande: 1965). Françoise Sagan died in Honfleur, France, in September 2004.
Bonjour Tristesse is set in summer. Seventeen-year-old Cécile, her widowed father Raymond and his current mistress Elsa retire to a secluded white villa at the French Riviera for the holidays. They pass carefree days in the sun at the sea. After about a week Cyril, a law student in his twenties, turns up in the bay with his small sailing-boat. From then on Cécile and Cyril go sailing together every day. One night Raymond announces that a friend of his late wife, Anne Larsen, will be joining them. Knowing well her philandering father, Cécile anticipates difficulties with the two attractive women in the house and proves to be right during a night out in Cannes. Raymond leaves Elsa after dinner without a word. The following morning Cécile learns that Anne and her father decided to get married. Cécile’s feelings about the marriage are ambivalent. She admires Anne for her intelligence and style, but also feels that she and her father will have to give up their superficial and extravagant lifestyle. Soon Anne takes over the role of a mother towards Cécile and makes an end to her free intercourse with Cyril when she finds them kissing on the porch. In addition Anne obliges Cécile to pass part of the day studying for the baccalauréat which she failed in the first attempt. At this point Cécile knows that she must get rid of Anne in order not to be doomed to the life of boring monotony which she fears so much. She uses her sound knowledge of her father’s, Anne’s, Elsa’s and Cyril’s character to spin an intrigue to spoil the wedding plans. Everything works out although with unexpected consequences which make Cécile experience real sadness for the first time.
In 1954, when Bonjour Tristesse first came out, it caused a scandal. It was daring of Françoise Sagan to write a novella about seventeen-year-old Cécile who lives with her playboy father and doesn’t mind his changing affairs. Hypocritical post-war society was even less prepared for reading the first-person-narrative of a girl who doesn’t see any sense in studying, who drinks too much and who enjoys her first sexual experiences with her boyfriend Cyril without the faintest intention of getting married. I can well imagine people calling the novella amoral and dangerous for the youth. Certainly it was ahead of its time, ahead of the sexual revolution of the 1960s as we know now. However, it’s a psychological, not an erotic novel. In a simple and matter-of-fact language Françoise Sagan describes the confusion of the adolescent on the brink of adulthood who never had a mother to guide her and rebel against, nor a father accepting his role and responsibility. Cécile enjoys her empty and carefree life because she doesn’t know anything else. When Anne shows her that there could and should be more, she shrinks back since it means growing up and taking responsibility
There’s much truth in Bonjour Tristesse and it has lost nothing of its power. Quite on the contrary! In a society based on consumption and entertainment we’re all in danger to succumb to the temptation of a carefree and superficial life – if only in our spare time away from the inevitable duties and responsibilities of daily life. It’s not without reason that escapist books make up such a huge part of the market. I prefer literature which makes me think. As a teenager I might have benefited more from Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, but even at my age it has been an excellent read which deserves my recommendation.