Finally. I’ve finished. I don’t mean that with sarcasm or irony; more of a Au Revoir Tristesse, as it is a sad couplet of novellas. But all the same, they are quite charming and make you chuckle.
Françoise Sagan was 17 or 18 when she wrote Bonjour Tristesse in the 1950s, and then A Certain Smile was published a year or so later. I had heard of Segan from my mother, I think, who has always had a love affair with French culture, language and literature. In fact affair is the perfect noun for these two stories, as infidelity plays a vital role in both.
Both stories are somewhat biographical. They’re written in first person and from the perspective of a teenager. Bonjour Tristesse is about a wealthy Parisian girl who holidays in the South of France with her beloved yet free loving father, who has invited a girlfriend half is age, while also inviting another lady. This causes fireworks and a lot of meddling and trickery from the father’s daughter.
I can’t say much about A Certain Smile because the premise of the story is the affair; I shall not share more, although it seems to be written by a slightly more mature Segan. In fact both stories are well above her age. She demonstrates a philosophical view of infidelity, a depth and understanding of human behaviour and adult relationships and temptation, showing disregard for the cheated, while somehow knowing there’ll be painful consequences.
I can’t say I’ve read masses from French literature written the 1950s. Saying that, I’ve read very little in general from the 50s. It’s hard to say if it is groundbreaking. I understand that France was very Catholic and conservative at the time, so a girl to speak so freely about her affairs might well have been refreshing, or caused a fuss, at least.
I’ve read some negative reviews about both, although especially aimed at Bonjour Tristesse, claiming they didn’t like it as the characters weren’t likeable. I’d say that these characters made the novel. They are flawed and amoral for sure, not relationship material, but they’re perfect for an infidelity plot. The males are the more careless, irresponsible characters, while the women aren’t much better. What I like is their female indecisiveness, broken thoughts, bouncing between love, temptation and remorse. While there’s a fair amount of melodrama, the characters have a realistic bite to them, written liberally and innocently, but also with great technique. Very inspiring.
They also have hint of Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the bipolar moods mixed with the style and charm. Funnily enough I read that Françoise Sagan and Trueman Capote we close.
There were various quotes and snippets that made me chuckle or reflect. These are just some:
I am writing ‘God’ instead of ‘chance’, but we did not believe in God. We were fortunate enough in the circumstances to be able to believe in chance. – Bonjour Tristesse
It seemed to me perfectly normal to live your life without experiencing any genuine emotion. Living, essentially, meant seeing to it that you were as content as you could be. And even that wasn’t always so easy. – A Certain Smile
When Luc was on the scene things moved very quickly, they really speeded up. Afterwards, time seemed to lapse back with a bump and be once again measured out in minutes, hours and cigarettes. – A Certain Smile
They ought to give one cinema over to mediocre films, just for people who are short of companions. – A Certain Smile (personal favourite).
Would I recommend it? Yes. To those who love French culture, thought and charm. I preferred A Certain Smile to an extent, but it does drag on a little. The monologues are fine, but the rollercoaster of emotion and the disregard for people’s lives gives you a sombre feel at the end.
I’m sad to finish it, although like the men in the book, I’m glad to move on to something different.
I give it 4/5.