This is the text of the book reviews from episode fifty-eight.
This episode’s book reviews are two novels by Francoise Sagan. Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile. The versions I read were both in one edition by Penguin Modern Classics, translated by Heather Lloyd in 2013. These are the unexpurgated versions of the books. Certain passages had been cut when initially issued in the fifties, though reading it now I couldn’t figure out which ones they’d be without the help of the notes in the book. It’s not exactly scandalous.
I’ll start with Bonjour Tristesse. Which means ‘Hello Sadness’ in French. This is the opening paragraph.
This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’. It is a feeling so self-indulgent and complete in itself that I am almost ashamed of it, whereas I had always looked upon sadness as being a worthy emotion. Before, I did not know what sadness was, though I knew what it was to be languorous, to have regrets and, more rarely, to feel remorse. Today it is as if I am enfolded in some silken thing, soft and enervating, that sets me apart from others.
It’s about a carefree young woman, Cecile, and her equally carefree widower father, Raymond. They’re spending the summer on the Riviera with her father’s girlfriend-ish sort of person, Elsa, and an old friend arrives. Anne. Anne is the Dominant who would straighten out their lives if they’d let her. Neither of them are very responsible human beings.
This is how the narrator protagonist describes her very early on:
Anne was a fine person. To my mind there was nothing mean-spirited about her. She would guide me, she would take responsibility for my life, in every circumstance she would show me which path to follow.
A Dominant by any other name would still run your life.
Then there’s this:
‘My poor little girl,’ Anne’s voice went on quietly. ‘My poor little Cecile. It’s my fault in a way. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so strict. Do you believe me when I say that I didn’t wish to cause you distress?’
She was gently stroking my hair and the back of my neck. I didn’t move. I had the same impression as I did when, on the beach, the sand disappeared from beneath my feet, sucked away by a receding wave. A longing for defeat and gentleness had overcome me and no other feeling, not anger, not desire, had ever swept me up as this one did. I wanted to abandon the play-acting, to entrust my life to her, to put myself in her hands for the rest of my days. I had never before experienced such an intense and overwhelming sense of helplessness. I closed my eyes. It seemed to me as if my heart were ceasing to beat.
Cecile is supposed to be studying for exams and she’s only seventeen but spending time with an older boy and that’s only going to get her into trouble with a capital baby.
Of course, as she’s so different from what they’re accustomed to, they’re both attracted to her—she offers a sort of stability and structure that’s foreign and therefore intriguing.
But she’s also, ultimately, radically different from who either the girl or her father is on a fundamental level.
Cecile, the little manipulative minx she is, concocts a plan to break up her father and this woman—though she also still wants her in her life (she’s quite indecisive) by getting the guy she likes, Cyril, to pretend to be romancing Elsa, the woman her father threw over for Anne. Raymond is the sort of man who’ll be wildly jealous and will cheat with Elsa, thereby ruining the prospective marriage with Anne.
It’s very French.
Sagan published this when she was eighteen, which is remarkable for multiple reasons—one of which is the self-awareness. It was originally published in 1954.
This book came up as recommended when I was looking at Georges Bataille books and the blurb said, ‘Funny, immoral and thoroughly French.’ I thought, ‘Check, check and yes, please!’
Both books are amusing in a dry sort of way, and they are very French. ‘Immorality’ is, however, subjective. I kept waiting for the immorality to kick off and… it turned out to be people having extra-marital affairs. Which I suppose was immoral in the mid-50s, but I thought was par for the course in France.
Really, the characters in both novels could have benefited greatly from some ethical non-monogamy workshops, as the woman in the committed couple and the ‘other woman’ always have a sympathetic relationship. I kept hoping they’d get it together and be a happy menage.
It’s like when you’re watching a film from the 80s and think, ‘All of this would be over in five minutes if even one person had a mobile phone. Or the internet.’
On to the second book.
A Certain Smile was published in 1956 when Sagan was twenty. It’s similarly self-aware and angsty. But the first novel’s protagonist was quite flighty and carefree and the second one was more cynical. They seemed to be polar opposites.
The general plot is young woman-has-affair-with-married-man-while-admiring-his-wife. The plot is the affair—from start to end. This time the ‘other woman’ is a university student, Dominique—the author would have been twenty when the novel was published. It’s written from the point of view of the student.
Something the author writes about in A Certain Smile on more than one occasion is what it’s like not being allowed to be yourself—having to perform a version of yourself. Something those of us with low affect can identify with. Here’s an example, she’s talking about going to visit the man she’s having an affair with:
My visit to her depressed me. I went to Luc’s without much enthusiasm and even with some trepidation: I was going to have to chat, be friendly and project an image of myself to them. I would have preferred to have lunch on my own, twirl a jar of mustard round between my fingers, and be vague, vague, completely vague.
It’s interesting that in both books the young, female protagonist greatly admires an older, more sophisticated woman and likes being doted on by that woman, but also does things that makes that woman’s life difficult. Not intentionally—not, ‘I’m going to wreck this woman’s life because I like her,’ but, ‘Boy, I really like so-and-so; she’s great! It’s too bad this other thing I want means I have to make her miserable.’
Stop wrecking these women’s lives over men. Screw the men. They don’t care about you! The women do! The women think you’re great!
Here’s one of the passages from A Certain Smile that was swoon-worthy for me. Francoise is the wife.
Francoise took me into her bedroom to try on one of her coats, which was more stylish than mine. She got me to put on one or two, made me turn round, stood the collars up. At one moment, while doing so, she held my face between the two lapels of the collar and I thought, stifling the same laughter: ‘I’m at her mercy. Perhaps she is going to suffocate me or bite me.’ But she merely smiled.
‘You’re drowning a bit in this.’
‘That’s true,’ I said, not thinking of the coat.
‘I really must see you when you come back.’
‘That’s it,’ I thought. ‘Is she going to ask me to stop seeing Luc? Will I be able to?’ And the answer came to me straight away: ‘No. I couldn’t do it.’
‘Because I’ve decided to take you in hand and dress you suitably and introduce you to things that are more fun than those students and libraries.’
‘Oh, goodness,’ I thought, ‘this is not the moment, it’s not the moment to be saying that to me.’
‘Should I not?’ She went on, in response to my silence. ‘I rather felt I had a daughter in you.’ (She laughed as she said that, but in a kindly way.) ‘If that daughter is going to be rebellious and purely interested in intellectual things…’
‘You are too kind,’ I said, stressing the word ‘too’. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘Just let yourself be done to,’ she said, laughing again.
Neither book was what you’d call explicit. As it was recommended for people who enjoyed Georges Bataille I was expecting a sadomasochistic, or as least sexually explicit, good time.
Alas, these are more delicate and poetic, which is nice some times.
Here are two passages from Bonjour Tristesse.
And then began love’s merry dance, where fear goes hand in hand with desire and where, too, there is tenderness and rage and then that brutal hurt giving way to the triumph of pleasure. With Cyril’s gentleness playing its part, I had the good fortune to discover it that day.
My body responded to him, became fully itself and blossomed when close to his. I kissed him passionately, I wanted to hurt him, to leave my mark on him so that he would not be able to forget me for one instant that evening and would dream of me that night. For the night would be endless without him, without him close to me, without his lover’s skill, his sudden passion and his long caresses.
I do recommend the edition I read—the Penguin Modern Classics Edition—the particular translation and with both novels, as they compliment one another beautifully and highlight the parallels as well as differences between the protagonists and stories.
If you’d like to really experience the mercurial moods of a teenage girl, these are the books for you—they’re exceedingly well-written—Sagan is far more eloquent than many authors twice her age—but they were an accurate representation of a certain period of my life that I do not miss.
I could also see how reading about a person who doesn’t seem to know her own mind could feel like an experiment in self-torture. So, pick these up accordingly.
I give both books 4/5.