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 promis
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