One afternoon last summer I splashed along Piccadilly with the rain spray-painting the back of my tights, thinking how much nicer Paris in the sunshine would be. And then, from nowhere, a neglected memory darted into my mind. It was of me, aged 18, eating a sandwich and reading Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse on a sunlit bench in the Tuileries Gardens.
I had been a student on a budget holiday so cheap that ‘economy travel’ seemed the posh end of the market. But that lunchtime in Paris was one of those moments which strike so rarely, when life appears perfect. I was reading an entrancing book and I was in the French capital. In those days I thought that anything ‘a bit French’ was the height of sophistication. I still do actually, but at least I know how to pronounce Sagan’s name now. Back then I used to pronounce it ‘Sag-Anne’, like the nickname of a plump and ageing bag lady.
My memories of Paris carried me through the rain as far as Waterstone’s. I was now obsessed with the thought of rereading Sagan’s first and most famous novel. I headed for Modern Fiction to find a replacement copy for the one I had loved and lost all those years ago.
‘Excuse me,’ I asked confidently at the till, ‘where do you keep your copies of Bonjour Tristesse?’
‘We don’t,’ the assistant replied with a distinct lack of interest. ‘Unless you want to try the children’s section.’
What’s happened to poor old Bonjour Tristesse since my love affair with it twenty years ago? When did this scandalous novel about teenage sex and treachery plunge from the top shelf to the nursery section? My creased orange Penguin copy seemed to exude the aroma of dangerous things: illicit liaisons, Gitanes and Pernod. But in Waterstone’s it’s squished sadly between Ballet Shoes and The Little Prince.
Françoise Sagan became an international sensation when Bonjour Tristesse was first published. The story of 17-year-old Cécile and her roué father Raymond was considered so shocking that Sagan earned a papal denunciation. Readers were electrified by a novel which not only reeked of promiscuous sex but which had been written by a mere 18-year-old girl. The gorgeous, golden-skinned Raymond and Cécile are holidaying in the South of France, with Raymond’s vivacious, silly mistress Elsa. They get drunk, they all stay in bed until lunchtime, and Cécile is free to have as much sex with her boyfriend Cyril as she likes.
But then the sophisticated and intellectual Anne arrives. Not only does she tempt Raymond away from Elsa, she also bans Cécile from seeing Cyril. Worst of all, Raymond and Anne announce that they are getting married. Cécile can’t tolerate the thought that her father is planning to wreck their decadent lives by doing something so tame and bourgeois. What’s a self-obsessed teenager to do? She plots to have Anne removed.
What has happened to our critical judgement that we now regard this anarchic and salacious novel as more suitable reading for children than grown-ups? It’s only fifty years since Bonjour Tristesse was published.
Then, a parish priest refused to officiate at Françoise Sagan’s wedding because he considered her writing to be shockingly immoral. Sagan even had to plunder her nom de plume from Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu because her father objected to her besmirching the family name of Quoirez. But now we relegate Bonjour Tristesse to the also-ran pile at the back of the children’s department. Françoise Sagan would have been appalled.
I love the fact that Sagan blew her £75 advance for Bonjour Tristesse on whisky and a chic black sweater. But she got the last laugh, and plenty more jumpers, because the novel was eventually translated into twenty languages, sold 2 million copies and was made into a film starring David Niven and Deborah Kerr. John Updike reviewed Bonjour Tristesse and praised it to the hilt, and critics wrestled to outdo each other in extravagant plaudits. But Sagan never recaptured the brilliance of that moment in 1954. She went on to write dozens of increasingly repetitive, derivative and tedious stories, and reviewers started to retreat in panic from their first gushing assertions that here was a bold and revolutionary writer, a ‘symbol of fashionable rebellion in post-war Europe’.
Even so, Sagan’s decline shouldn’t dent our enthusiasm for her first perfect achievement. When I reread Bonjour Tristesse I wasn’t disappointed. Cécile is just as spoiled, petulant and amoral as I had remembered. She lives her life according to the Wildean doctrine that ‘sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world’. Her father, Raymond, is the same weak, vain, hedonistic man. His fiancée Anne is as icily clever and beautiful, but now that I’m the same age as her, I find her more vulnerable and tragic than I once did.
Where Cécile and Raymond are shallow and sybaritic, Anne is fierce and puritanical. When Cécile protests that one of her father’s ghastly friends has a ‘form of intelligence’, Anne replies coolly that ‘what you call “forms” of intelligence are only degrees’. Sagan loved smart remarks like that, although as she grew older and frailer she was increasingly mocked for them. A dress wasn’t just a piece of clothing to her but something which ‘makes no sense unless it inspires men to take it off you’; and jazz wasn’t just music but ‘an intensified feeling of nonchalance’.
The part which the teenage Cécile plays in Anne’s violent death is as casually planned and executed as a trip to an ice-cream parlour. Sagan herself was obsessed with fast cars and nearly died in an accident in her Aston Martin in 1957. She thought she was paying Anne the highest honour by killing her off as she races away from her traitorous lover in his sports car.
Françoise Sagan died in hospital on 24 September 2004, lonely, frail and short of money. She was 69 years old. She once observed wryly that being old meant still ‘being wild in the head, but some mornings the teeth chatter’. She had lived a riotous life, filled with scandal and notoriety. By the end, the glamour, the attention and the glitzy friends had deserted her. But for me she will always be the woman responsible for that moment of perfect – and adult – contentment on a park bench. And for that I will always be grateful.
© Charlie Lee-Potter 2008, Slightly Foxed Issue 14