Translated by Irene Ash
I’ve been reading a couple of French books for the #1954club week, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. This is a bi-annual week celebrating books first published in a particular year, and I’ve only been organized enough to participate once before but I have read lots of interesting posts over the past couple of years or more.
Bonjour Tristesse is a book (first published in French in 1954) that I have definitely read before, I think as a teenager, but could remember nothing of it, except that I liked it back then, and also maybe liked, even admired, the glamorous but rather diabolical 17-year-old protagonist, Cécile. This time round even Cécile’s 40-year-old playboy father, Raymond, is younger than me, so I came at it from a different perspective: instead of admiring the shallow, manipulative – but essentially neglected – Cécile, I felt faintly sorry for her.
Cécile has been brought up solely by Raymond, after her mother’s death many years before, and having left her restrictive convent boarding school two years earlier is now floating around savouring her freedom, spending much of her time in Paris, and her summers on the French Riviera with her dad, who finds himself a gorgeous new girlfriend every six months.
Cécile’s dad is vain and decadent and not much of a father figure, treating her instead as a confidante and drinking companion. They circulate at glittering parties and they are both pretty hot/fit, and they know it, though Raymond makes no effort to ensure Cécile isn’t preyed upon by older men or sinking too many cocktails.
She takes this in her stride, and it is her father’s very fickleness that creates a sense of stability for Cécile, as she is sure that none of his mistresses – including his current squeeze, the beautiful but dull Elsa – presents a real threat to her status, her total liberty or her sense of security.
Cécile spends her days on this latest holiday sunbathing and flirting, and finds herself an attractive holiday beau, with the uninspiring name of Cyril. However, when her father announces that an old friend of her mother’s, Anne Larsen, will be coming to stay, it throws everything into disarray.
Anne is more cerebral than Raymond (though he can be witty I guess), but is very attractive, poised and sure of herself. Soon after Anne’s arrival he declares himself not only in love with her, but also announces their impending wedding. Elsa is ejected, and Anne soon attempts to impose some rudimentary boundaries on Cécile, who begins to plot a way of restoring the status quo.
Sagan – who led a wild life herself – wrote the novel in her late teens and it shows, but that doesn’t detract from the novel’s pleasures, it simply means that the first person voice is convincingly young:
“At forty there could be the fear of solitude, or perhaps a last upsurge of the senses … I had never thought of Anne as a woman, but as an entity … Did he love her, and if so, was he capable of loving her for long? Was there any difference between this new feeling and the affection he had shown Elsa? The sun was making my head spin, and I shut my eyes.”