Upon finishing reading this book, I felt quite conflicted… The main character was extremely vain, superficial, privileged and spoilt. The voice it was written in took the mindless state of existence during teenagerhood to its perfection. It was full of sexist remarks, uttered by both men and women. If you take it as a snapshot of the time it was written in though (1954), this might be a very fitting representation of reality. But most importantly, my opinion on the book changed completely upon finishing it. Everything made sense upon the ending and I understood the bigger purpose behind the way it was written.
“Je ne connaissais rien ; il allait me montrer Paris, le luxe, la vie facile. Je crois bien que la plupart de mes plaisirs d’alors, je les dus à l’argent : le plaisir d’aller vite en voiture, d’avoir une robe neuve, d’acheter des disques, des livres, des fleurs. Je n’ai pas honte encore de ces plaisirs faciles, je ne puis d’ailleurs les appeler faciles, que parce que j’ai entendu dire qu’ils l’étaient.” (p. 27)
” ‘Et votre examen?
– Loupé ! dis-je avec entrain. Bien loupé !
– Il faut que vous l’ayez en octobre, absolument.
– Pourquoi ? Intervint mon père. Je n’ai jamais eu de diplôme, moi. Et je mène une vie fastueuse.
– Vous aviez une certaine fortune au départ, rappela Anne.
– Ma fille trouvera toujours des hommes pour la faire vivre’, dit mon père noblement.” (p. 34)
While I’m still not at a point yet where I would be able to properly judge a book’s style that is written in French, I decided to read “Bonjour Tristesse” simultaneously in French and in its English translation (alternating reading chapters in the one and then the other language). Based upon my judgement, I felt like the book in French is even suitable to those who aren’t completely fluent in the language yet. Its style is quite simple and it’s easy to follow the plot, even if you’re missing the meaning of a couple of words. The same impression came across in English, so it’s not necessarily the style that it’s written in, that was responsible for its popularity in France but rather its contents.
To get the “cringe-worthy” moments out of the way straight ahead, here’s a warning that you will come across scenes of parents saying that their daughter doesn’t need education since she’d always be able to find a husband to take care of her, irresponsible sex without protection or the self-obsessed thoughts of a female teenager whose suffering revolves around being asked to study for a couple of hours every day in her room in a villa at the French seaside.
“L’amour me faisait vivre les yeux ouverts, dans la lune, aimable et tranquille. Cyril me demanda si je ne craignais pas d’avoir d’enfant. Je lui dis que je m’en remettais à lui et il sembla trouver cela naturel. Peut-être était-ce pour cela que je m’étais si facilement donnée à lui: parce qu’il ne me laisserait pas être responsable et que si j’avais un enfant, ce serait lui le coupable.” (p. 115)
“Je fumais beaucoup. je me trouvais décadente et cela me plaisait. Mais ce jeu ne suffisait pas à m’abuser : j’étais triste, désorintée.” (p. 77)
Forming my early judgement on the book, I made the amateur’s mistake of attributing autobiographic traits to the novel, having read about the similarity between the author and her main character: they both were the same age at the time the novel was written, as well as both having failed their philosophy exams before the end of their last grade at high school. When you manage to perceive the story with a certain distance to the author, you do understand how such a narrative would have been quite an achievement to have been written and invented by an 18 year-old. You can’t help but wonder though, how many other parallels really applied to Françoise Sagan herself. Her known passion for sports cars (just like the character Anne in the book), the car accident 3 years after the publication of the book, as if it has been foretold 1 or her tendency of having short lived marriages with men younger than her.
Nevertheless, there were A LOT of romanticised passages of a coming of age story (which I personally am not a fan of reading). Living through one’s first relationship, ones first kisses and the first sexual intercourse. All that written in a style as you would be able to find it within teenagers’ diary entries:
” ‘Tu as des drôles d’idées, dit Cyril avec son petit sourire de biais qui lui retroussait la lèvre et lui donnait l’air d’un bandit, un très beau bandit …
– Embrasse -moi, murmurai-je, embrasse moi vite.’ ” (p. 92)
“Il me tenait serrée contre lui, soulevée, la tête sur son épaule. En ce moment-là, je l’aimais. Dans la lumière du matin, il était aussi doré, auss gentil, aussi doux que moi, il me protégait. Quand sa bouche chercha la mienne, je me mis à trembler de plaisir comme lui et notre baiser fut sans remords et sans honte, seulement une profonde recherche, entrecoupée de murmures.” (p. 33)
What the author also manages to build up behind that facade though, is the portrayal of a strong father-daughter relationship and the importance of one’s own liberty in comparison to the possible hurt inflicted upon another person’s feelings. The longing towards living without any rules whatsoever, the fear of aging, the fear of the judgement by others and what is expected from one in order to lead the “proper” life, which is accepted by society. There are a lot of complex and underlying themes, which you suddenly get thrown into by the end of the story, so that the book stays in your thoughts even upon finishing it.
The general mood and setting of the book within the summer heat reminded me of a heterosexual South of France version of “Call Me By Your Name” and the social status, as well as the vanity that comes with the characters’ lives, as something you would read about in “The Great Gatsby”. It does feel like a very “typical” French-setting kind of book, so if you’re curious about that, it might be something for you. If you decide to go into reading it, brace yourself for a lot of cheesy teenage romance but also be ready to decipher the underlying meaning of it by the end of the story 😉
1. “Avril 1957, l’accident de voiture de Françoise Sagan“, France Soir, 23/04/2015.
Edition: ISBN 978-0-525-51219-6
Spiegel & Grau, 2019