Bonjour Tristesse & A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan
The young protagonists of Françoise Sagan’s first novels explore their sexuality and morality through their relationships with older men. Bonjour Tristesse sees 17-year-old Cécile find a carefree if co-dependent partner in her father, while her lover indulges her every whim. Meanwhile, law student Dominique finds her desire split between her lover and his uncle in A Certain Smile. The original English translation by Irene Ash omitted anything likely to offend the delicate sensibilities of the British reader, be it sexual or, in Bonjour Tristesse‘s case, analytical. In this Penguin Modern Classics edition of the novels, Heather Lloyd’s 2013 translation not only reinstates the passages which so scandalised the 1950s public, but also hopes to give “a fresh new dress […] to the young Sagan’s remarkably stylish and perceptive” work.
Bonjour Tristesse is a twisted piece of bourgeois disillusionment. Young Cécile has been without parental guidance for over a decade; her mother is dead, and she has spent many years in boarding school. Now living with her father, Raymond, to whom she represents “the dearest, most marvellous of toys”, Cécile whiles away the hours in the Riviera heat, ignoring her studies and flirting with Cyril, a man in his 20s. Raymond, who usually finds a new mistress every six months, announces that Anne Larsen – a friend of Cécile’s late mother – is coming to stay, and it soon becomes clear that they intend to marry. Drawn to the secure mother figure Anne represents, but horrified by the prospect of losing her carefree, pampered lifestyle, Cécile concocts a plan that can only end in tragedy.
Cécile is a viciously intelligent teenager. She neglects her education but maintains a keen interest in philosophy and literature, spending the summer exploring her sexuality freely with an older man. It is this freedom that she is liable to lose if Raymond marries, and while a part of her clearly craves stability, her current life is all she knows, and the fear of disruption overcomes her desire for something more ‘normal’. Interestingly, Cécile used to live with Anne, and through the indignant fog of her adolescent fury it is clear that Cécile likes Anne, and that Anne in turn has Cécile’s best interests at heart. Perhaps more than wanting to be Raymond’s wife, she wants to be Cécile’s mother. These conflicts of interest simmer and sizzle and finally explode in Sagan’s desperate, despondent novel.
Similarly, the protagonist of A Certain Smile is also exploring her sexuality and searching for some kind of stability. Dominique likes Bertrand well enough, but she is completely enamoured of his uncle, Luc. When Dominique agrees to spend two weeks with Luc in Cannes, it is under the condition that it be a purely physical affair. However, Dominique finds herself falling in love with him, and struggles to balance these passionate feelings with her relationship with Bertrand, and her growing affection for Luc’s wife, Françoise. Her guilt and desire – both sexual and for the parental figures so lacking in her own life – draw her down a dark path.
There is a great sense of confusion in Sagan’s second novel. Dominique is drawn to Luc and Françoise, who represent the warm, loving parents she wishes she had (her mother has been depressed for as long as Dominique can remember), but while Françoise remains a kindly mother figure, Luc perverts and exploits his position. In the throes of a passionate sexual affair, Dominque continues to refer to him as a father; she is aware of his power and calls herself a “little girl”. This may not be her first sexual relationship – she sleeps with Bertrand and enjoys brief encounters with strangers – but it is certainly her first experience of love, and she naïvely convinces herself that if the affair continues, eventually he will love her, too.
In both novels, the protagonists seem ill at ease with themselves and the world. Cécile tells her tragic tale in hindsight, looking back on the summer she spent with her father and prospective mother. There is a hopeless air about it, a feeling of guilty confession; she knows that it was her fault, and that she will never be able to go back to whoever she could have been if she had made a different decision. Dominique is arguably the more sympathetic character. While both girls struggle for parental guidance, Dominique is manipulated by a man who should be a father figure. At times, the consequences of his emotional abuse seem staggeringly huge, and the trust she put in him is tested. At the end of the novel, his power over her remains. Does she still hope he may one day love her, or does she see no other option than to keep responding when he calls?
Françoise Sagan’s first novels are fascinating. Twisted and tragic with stylish flourishes, they explore adolescent desires and mistakes with an at times painful realism. It is no surprise that Sagan was only a teenager herself at the time of Bonjour Tristesse‘s publication; she has captured adolescent confusion, intelligence and introspection perfectly. In Rachel Cusk’s 2008 essay (which introduces this Penguin Modern Classics edition), she praises Sagan’s “psychological realism” and this especially is beautifully showcased here. From Cécile’s guilt and desperation to Dominique’s tragic naïveté, Sagan expertly navigates her protagonists’ dark psychological narratives and brings them, kicking and screaming, into the light.