Friday, November 02, 2018

Reading group: Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Warning: some plot spoilers.

I suggested this French novella which none of us had read (apart from John) but were glad to do so, understanding it as a classic and knowing that on its publication in the fifties it had been considered scandalous for its apparently explicit sex scenes - excised for the British translation of the time - and the amoral way of life it depicted. It had also been a sensation for the youth of its author, only eighteen when it was published, and the contrast of her apparently bourgeois background.

After such expectations, in the event I wasn't quite sure what to make of the book, and it turned out that everyone present for the meeting felt the same. It's the first-person narration of Cecile, looking back on the previous summer when she was seventeen. Cecile has been living a sophisticated but shallow Parisian life (involving fast cars and lavish dances and dinners and drink) with her somewhat philandering father - she writes of 'our fondness for entertainment and frivolity'. Now they have rented a villa for the summer on the Mediterranean, accompanied by her father's current, and young, girlfriend Elsa whose presence does not trouble Cecile since she is 'very sweet, rather dim and quite unpretentious', while Cecile, untroubled also by the fact that she has failed her exams at the Sorbonne, begins exploring her own sexuality with a student she meets on the beach, Cyril. However, very near the start of the book this sensual idyll is disrupted for Cecile by her father's announcement that he has invited to join them Anne Larson, a fashion designer and old friend of Cecile's dead mother, to whom Cecile's father 'packed her off' 'having no idea what to do with me' when she left boarding school two years earlier. Cecile's attitude to Anne is conflicted: she admires yet resents Anne's more serious, intellectual outlook and is pleased but, more, unsettled by her arrival. It is not long before Cecile - and Elsa - realise that Cecile's father is attracted to Anne, and, once Elsa has fled the household, they announce that they want to get married. After a brief moment of relief - 'it would be a life suddenly brought into balance by Anne's intelligence and refinement' - Cecile's resentment comes to the fore, especially when, challenging the popular interpretation of Existentialism Cecile espouses - basically that one should please oneself and give in to one's desires - Anne decides to take her in hand and make her study and stop seeing Cyril. Cecile then formulates a plot to get rid of Anne, a plot involving Elsa and Cyril intended to provoke her father's sexual pride and jealousy, and which will end in tragedy.

Narrator Cecile never remarks on her own motherlessness except briefly from her father's point of view: she writes that he had been a widower for fifteen years. It is easy from a contemporary perspective to see that the seventeen-year-old Cecile's conflicted feelings towards Anne are rooted in a need for the mothering she offers (a need of which Cecile herself is unaware, or denies) and sexual jealousy. Early on in the book, in considering Cyril (for whom she is making an exception), she muses: '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 lover'. This equation of 'father' and 'lover' underpins her whole relationship with her father with whom it is clear she often takes the role of companion on social occasions. Elsa, as a passing fling, is no threat - his feelings for such women, Cecile says, 'were transient' - but Anne is something else.

What was unclear to me was how conscious Cecile, as narrator, is of these issues. I felt for a lot of the time that she had to be, as protagonist Cecile herself is amazingly aware for a seventeen-year-old of her own torn emotional state, and articulate about it, delineating clearly her switches of attitude, her moments of not knowing what to feel, and even summing up cleverly at one point: 'that was what I held against Anne: she prevented me from liking myself'. However, the lack of any overt signalling of the Freudian psychological implications of those emotional convolutions made me wonder, and I wasn't clear how ironically the narration was intended. There is an admirable objectivity about the life Cecile and her father have been leading - 'the people we spent time with were noisy and insatiable - all that my father asked of them was that they be good-looking or amusing' - and there were sentences that I felt must surely be read as ironical: 'For, after all, what was our aim in life, if not to be attractive to others?'; 'A cynical idea ... occurred to me, and I was pleased by it, as I was by all my cynical ideas. Bolstered by a sort of confidence and a sense of colluding with myself that was quite intoxicating...' This last is surely self-irony. On the other hand, the narrator tells us, apparently without irony: 'I am still not ashamed of enjoying those shallow pleasures, and anyway I only call them shallow because I've heard people say they are.'

Others in the reading group hadn't seen irony at all in the prose. I said, Well, what about this sentence, near the beginning, describing Cecile's father on the beach: 'My father worked through various complicated leg exercises with the aim of getting rid of a small paunch that did not suit his image as a lady-killer.' ? The slightly ridiculous picture of the father conjured here - the paunch, the complicated  leg exercises - juxtaposed with his glamorous aspirations and the word 'lady-killer', must surely be ironic. However, Jenny didn't see that sentence as ironic, and no one else backed me up.

Basically, people were all a little baffled by the book's reputation and success. John said that as well as being amazingly insightful about Cecile's emotions, it was brilliant on the level of prose - economical, getting right on with the story straight away, and vivid - someone, Jenny or Clare, commented that the descriptions of the Mediterranean setting made her feel hot - and everyone agreed. (Though someone said that it was hard to read the book without the acute consciousness that it had been written by someone of only seventeen or eighteen and feel amazed at the achievement for someone so young and then afterwards wonder if you were giving it special allowance). However, all also agreed that they couldn't engage with the characters - they seemed stereotypes - and therefore with their emotional dilemmas, and that the plot did seem a little forced and even silly - John said, something of a soap plot cliche. The ending, too, which I won't give away here, seemed melodramatic, with someone acting quite out of character, and Cecile's interpretation of what actually happened both unrealistic and self-dramatising. Clare noted that there is no explanation for Cecile's departure from her boarding school at fifteen into the care of a father who at the time she hardly knew and who 'didn't know what to do with her'. She had read that Sagan herself had been expelled from her boarding school for bad behaviour, which makes this an autobiographical detail that remains unaddressed in the novel, leaving a gap, and which perhaps reinforces the notion that Sagan was also unable to address the Freudian implications of what she was writing.

On the whole, in view of our discussion, I felt that yes, the book was very clever for its author's age, and that there was indeed a level of irony but, because of the author's age, it was not sustained throughout the book. We had all read a modern edition in which all of the text is restored, and people noted with amusement that the so-called sex scenes were extremely modest and implicit by present-day standards, but we did appreciate that in its depiction of an amoral, hedonistic lifestyle the book must have seemed pretty shocking in the fifties.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here
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