Bonjour Tristesse


In 1954, 18-year-old Francoise Sagan stunned the Parisian literary scene with Bonjour Tristesse, a scandalous tale of decadence and teenage sexuality on the French Riviera. That she had recently failed the Sorbonnes (the French equivalent of the A Levels) made its maturity, sensuality, sin and deceptively sophisticated dialogue see it become an instant bestseller and Sagan hailed as an enfant terrible and propelled to instant fame. Like F Scott Fitzgerald before her, and Bret Easton Ellis after her, she had achieved literary stardom at a perilously young age.

I did not like young people. I much preferred my father’s friends, men of forty, who spoke to me with courtesy and affection, and treated me with the gentleness of a father or a lover.

Cécile, spending the summer on the French Riviera with her playboy father and his latest younger lover, is seventeen. She is careless, beautiful, free-spirited, curious and amoral, a cross between a sexualised Alice in Wonderland and Jane Austen’s Emma. When one of her father’s old flames, Anne, an older woman, arrives and coolly dispatches his other lover to claim him, and scares off Cecile’s new boyfriend Cyril, a 25-year-old law student, Cécile manipulates her way to revenge with tragic results.

When I was faced with people who were without any physical charm, I experienced a sort of uneasiness, a sense of remoteness, the fact that they were resigned to being unattractive struck me as being an unseemly failing on their part. For after all, what was our aim in life, if not to be attractive to others?

The novel has aged marvellously – it is romantic, melancholy and deliciously sinful. Perfect for modern millennial teenagers, sexy without being graphic and a slim read that would fit into any handbag or be read quickly on any device. In the internet age, where the humble book has to compete with smartphone apps, X Box and seemingly thousands of lukewarm TV box sets, I can imagine teenagers of both genders devouring Bonjour Tristesse in a matter of hours. The novel bursts with the bipolar thrill of puberty, and Cécile is an instantly engaging and charming narrator, and Sagan an elegant and subversive writer with a genuine flair for dialogue. When writing on love, it is easy to forget that the book was written by a teenager who flunked her A Levels.

“Love is something different,” Anne was saying. “It’s about constant tenderness, gentleness, missing a person. Things you wouldn’t understand.”

The quasi-incestuous relationship Cécile has with her father plays a key role in the novel.

My father leant forward and placed his hands on my shoulders.

“Why are you so skinny, my pet? You look like a little wildcat. I’d rather have a beautiful, blonde haired daughter, quite buxom, with China blue eyes…”

The reality is that many fathers flirt with their daughters, and there is a common mutual attraction. That an 18-year-old writer can so capably assess and understand this without becoming grotesque makes Bonjour Tristesse a small masterpiece. No wonder then it was an overnight success.

In 1958 Otto Preminger adapted the book for the screen in English, featuring both colour and black and white sequences (to express the mood swings of its pubescent narrator), starring Deborah Kerr as Anne, David Niven and Jean Seberg as Cécile.

Sagan survived the curse of so many who have achieved overnight success young, becoming a prolific novelist, essayist and screenwriter. Her celebrity at the time of her debut was momentous, but she escaped Fitzgerald’s fate of early death and Easton Ellis’s drug problems and eventual artistic failure. She died in 2004, remaining one of the few literary writers who keeps a candle burning for every kid who fails their A Levels. C’est parfait.

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