July 17, 2013

Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile

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This summer I’ve been soaking up the good weather and some really great reads in equal measure. This collection of short stories was lent to me by a lovely friend, who has a brilliant and pretty dark taste in literature so I knew I was in for a treat! I drank up the pages, every page making me thirstier for more, and had these stories ticking around my head for the next week: the mark of a perfect read! Devouring this collection was easy: Sagan writes two compelling Bildungsroman stories, both with beautifully depicted settings in her native France and an intriguing cast of characters.

Sensual, evocative, perplexing, beautiful – all of these adjectives sprang to mind when I finished reading Françoise Sagan’s first short story collection – followed by sheer astonishment when I discovered that Sagan was only 18 years old when she wrote Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile and did so after failing her exams. When I was a teenager I didn’t have the creative drive to become a novelist. I did, however, pass my exams. I feel Sagan’s achievement is slightly more spectacular, not least because her work has been read, admired and critiqued far more than my A level William Blake essays ever will be.

At just 18, Sagan’s literary output and command is astounding. Her stories are full of understanding about the complexity and perplexity of human relationships. The protagonist of Bonjour Tristesse, Céline, is an almost psuedo-biographical version of Sagan; a late teenage girl who, having failed her exams, is attempting to retake them, whilst holidaying in the south of France with her doting, philanderer father and his latest fling. Sagan captures the intensity of Celine’s desire, anger, infatuation and remorse with vivid clarity as she is able to channel her own youthful experiences, unhampered by adult hindsight, into her writing.

Sagan’s ability to write with maturity from an immature perspective is demonstrated from the outset of Bonjour Tristesse:

‘A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am ashamed of its complete egotism. I have known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me.’

Céline’s first experience of sadness highlights her youth and the awareness that it is slipping away from her. The simile of her sadness as a ‘silken web’ relates her belief that developing new tender, mature emotions (a symptom of the unique initiation into adulthood) equates entrapment; wrapping around her like a thin shroud intent on burying her youth. The film of this ‘web’ isolates her, from both her former self and the adult world she is entering, suggesting that her core identity will be lost through this transition. For Céline, contemplating adulthood is dire: it means the loss of pleasure and the taking up of responsibility. Anne, Céline’s late mother’s old friend, symbolises this transition within the novel and Céline’s gradual acceptance of the beauty and joy of adulthood as well as the sacrifice and pain bound within it.

Sagan’s strength lies in being able to skilfully fuse a detailed and precise plot with the immediacy and intensity of the pubescent transition. As this transition is one that everyone must go through, not just fictional characters, considering at 18 Sagan was able to write from the other side of this transition, whilst possibly still going through it, demonstrates just how talented Sagan was.

Best read: Stretched out in the sun on a French beach in summertime

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