Paris in July: Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
by Francoise Sagan
translated by Irene Ash
published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics
first published in 1955
With a name like Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness), you know something bad is imminent in this novel. And the way that our narrator tells her story, with heavy foreshadowing throughout, one reads with one’s heart in one’s mouth.
“I will pass quickly over this period, for I am afraid that if I look at it closely, I shall revive memories that are too painful. Even now I feel overwhelmed as I think of Anne’s happy laugh, of her kindness to me. My conscience troubles me so much at these moments that I am obliged to resort to some expedient like lighting a cigarette, putting on a record, or telephoning to a friend. Then gradually I begin to think of something else. But I do not like having to take my refuge in forgetfulness and frivolity instead of facing my memories and fighting them.” (p. 115)
I was reminded of Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. While some maintain that she was innocent in terms of meddling in her sister’s affair, I will always believe it was intentional. In this case, Cecile meddles with her father’s affairs quite purposefully. They had enjoyed a life together of rather shabby morals; she accompanied him to bars, smoking and drinking like an adult, taking on Cyril has a lover when they vacation in the summertime. He went through mistress after mistress, never taking any of them seriously until Anne. Anne was a friend of Cecile’s mother, now deceased, and when she re-entered their lives Cecile’s father quickly abandoned his current amour, Elsa, for her. At first Cecile is happy about her father and Anne. But then she concocts a plan for this relationship’s demise.
Why does she do this? Because she wants to test her powers over her father? Because she resents Anne’s intrusion into their happy life? Because she can? At any rate, it is decided that Cyril and Elsa will cavort around the beach, and in the woods, purposely creating the effect that they are lovers in order to distress Cecile’s father. Cecile never thinks that anything will come of this; she seems to assume that her lover, and her father’s ex-lover, will play this game until everyone returns to Paris and their normal lives.
Sadly, this isn’t what happens at all.
Francoise Sagan wrote this novel when she was eighteen years old. While I question the power of its writing (such foreshadowing! Such telling of emotion rather than showing!) I can attest to the fact that she captures the heart of a selfish young woman spot on. And the suspense one feels while reading to the end is rather incredible. But, I will not tell you what the tristesse is. That you’ll have to discover for yourself.