Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Summer of France: Bonjour Tristesse

From the opening pages of this slim novel, the voice of its young narrator takes center stage. It’s an assured voice, with poetic strains—observant, pensive, strangely aloof. When the book was published in 1954, the author, Françoise Sagan, was only eighteen, particularly poised to write from the perspective of her 17-year-old protagonist, Cécile. The setting: the French Riviera, where Cécile and her playboy father are vacationing with his mistress du jour, Elsa. Cécile has been in her father’s full-time care for two years, after leaving convent school; they live a life of parties and indulgences. Her mother died when she was quite young. Of her father, she says:

“He was a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and very attractive to women. It was easy for me to love him, for he was kind, generous, gay and fond of me. I cannot imagine a better or a more amusing companion.”

As for Elsa, she’s agreeable as well, and the three are enjoying a harmonious vacation until Cécile’s father receives notice that another guest will be arriving—Anne Larson, an old friend of her mother’s and a serious, practical woman who has taken Cécile under her wing at times. Cécile points out to her father the disharmony this arrangement would possibly create:

“She’s too intelligent and has too much self-respect. And what about Elsa? Have you thought of her? Can you imagine what Elsa and Anne can talk about? I can’t!”…
He laughed softly and rubbed the back of my neck. I turned to look at him. His dark eyes gleamed; funny little wrinkles marked their edges; his mouth was turned up slightly. He looked like a faun. I laughed with him as I always did when he created complications for himself.”

Cécile begins to fear that Anne will wreck the carefree lifestyle she’s been living with her father and begins to plot against the older woman. This is the setup for the novel—a beautiful, Mediterranean setting, a triangle (or quadrangle) of sorts emerging. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because if you are looking for a quick, summer read that will distract you from the real world and transport you despite a lack of actual, physical travel, this is your book. Oh, I almost forgot. Cécile has a love interest as well:

“On the sixth day I saw Cyril for the first time. He was hugging the coast in a small sailboat and capsized in front of our cove. I had a wonderful time helping him to rescue his things, during which he told me his name, that he was studying law, and was spending his vacation with his mother in a neighboring villa. He had a typically Latin face—very dark and very frank.”

And to give you more ideas about 17-year-old Cécile:

“Usually I avoided college students, whom I considered brutal, wrapped up in themselves, particularly in their youth, in which they found material for drama, or an excuse for their own boredom. I did not care for young people; I much preferred my father’s friends, men of forty, who spoke to me courteously and tenderly—treated me with the gentleness of a father—or a lover.”

Because, you see, Françoise Sagan caused quite a scandal with the publication of this book, which quickly became a bestseller. Cécile runs with adults and begins an affair with Cyril. And despite her detached voice and steady gaze (and Anne’s determined interference), we begin to see the chinks in Cécile’s armour. This is no old-fashioned novel of manners; matters of sexuality and love are addressed frankly and often, strangely dispassionately, through Cécile's lens. She's a character I won’t forget for a long time.

I finished the novel in two sittings and immediately watched the film version, which came out in 1958 and starred the perfectly cast Jean Seberg as Cécile and Deborah Kerr looking as beautiful as she ever was as Anne. David Niven is Cécile's dandy father. You know, the film was okay, but it took the subtleties of the novel and made them painfully overt, through voice-overs, dialogue and song. There was lots of singing and music, in fact. It worked well from time to time, but it didn’t really feel like the vibe of the novel, at least to me. I think in hindsight, I would have rather given myself more time to digest and enjoy the book before watching this adaptation. I recommend Bonjour Tristesse, the novel, very highly. It was an entertaining, surprising and nuanced read, a breathe of fresh air in my summer reading.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka