‘Bonjour Tristesse’ by Francoise Sagan

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‘Only when I am in bed, at dawn, listening to the cars passing below in the streets of Paris, my memory betrays me: that summer returns to me with all its memories. Anne, Anne, I repeat over and over again softly in the darkness. Then something rises in me that I welcome by name, with closed eyes: Bonjour Tristesse!’

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan, pg.108

I started reading Françoise Sagan’s short novel, Bonjour Tristesse (first published in 1954), before I started my Trinity CertTESOL course and despite its comparatively short length, I am afraid to say I have only just finished it! Due to this I feel that my opinions and review of the book may be slightly disjointed as I cannot fully remember every detail of what I read as it seems like forever ago when I read it.

Bonjour Tristesse begins with the protagonist – seventeen-year-old Cécile – recounting the events that unfolded the previous summer.

‘A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. To-day something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me’.

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan, pg.9

It is evident that these events have forced her to mature – to think about the consequences of the events that took place in the summer she spent with her father and his mistress in the French Riviera. In a blissful, carefree summer spent sun-bathing and attending wonderful parties and drinking too much, Cécile and her father, Raymond, have their lives turned upside-down when a friend of Cécile’s mother shows up – Anne. Anne is an older, more sensible woman who captures the heart of Raymond – a vicarious womaniser. When he decides to abandon his mistress and get engaged to Anne, Cécile feels she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands.

Despite the seemingly immature actions of the protagonist, it is in her introvert thoughts that we, as the reader, witness the intricate struggles she faces. Although Cécile may be disillusioned by her father’s carefree and hedonistic lifestyle, she is far from disillusioned by the nature of human relationships, which I am guessing she witnesses from her father’s own treatment of the opposite sex. As she states:

‘His only fault was to imbue me with a cynical attitude towards love which, considering my age and experience, should have meant happiness and not only a transitory sensation’.

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan, pg.21

Cécile is, therefore, not the typical female teenager we witness in novels and it is extraordinary that Sagan was only eighteen – a teenager herself – when she wrote this novel. From my own experience as a teenager I cannot imagine having such a detached and balanced opinion on relationships. Furthermore, Cécile’s ‘interest’ in the novel, an older university student named Cyril, is not a typical teenage romance. Cécile is able to distinguish between love and lust in a way that most people wouldn’t. I think it is this detachment from love and lust which may have caused quite an outrage when Bonjour Tristesse was first published in 1954. As the blurb of my Penguin copy states: ‘Bonjour Tristesse scandalised 1950s France with its portrayal of teenager terrible Cécile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and responsibility to choose her own sexual freedom’. I think this is spot-on and the reason why Cécile is so threatened by the prospect of Anne is because she represents the old-fashioned, traditional views of femininity. Cécile’s lifestyle with her father enables her to have a greater sense of liberty and freedom:

‘The liberty to think, even to think wrongly or not at all, the freedom to choose my own life, to choose myself; for I was only soft clay, but still I could refuse to be moulded’.

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan, pg.47

I thought this book was remarkable and I would love to read it again – maybe in one sitting this time rather than fragmented. It would also be interesting to read the rest of Sagan’s work, it looks like she has published quite a few novels and plays.

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