Yes, I’m going back to 1954 again. Blogger’s prerogative.
As you may recall from this post last year, when I sat down and looked at the ten books I’d selected to read to represent the 1950s, I was deeply ashamed to realise that they all had something in common: they were all written by men. I hadn’t included a single novel written by a woman.
So, even though my Book to the Future reading list is already several kilometres long, I’m adding two novels written by women to my line-up for the 1950s.
Add to that the extra reading I’ll be doing for the Australian Women Writers project, and…gosh, I have a lot of reading to do. I’d better get this review written so I can get back to it.
by Françoise Sagan
Published in 1954
Bonjour Tristesse is one of those books that I live for as a reader. It’s the kind of novel that, before you even realise it’s happening, captures you, dazzles you, bewilders you.
Written when Sagan was herself just nineteen, Bonjour Tristesse introduces us to sixteen-year-old Cécile, who has lived an idle, pleasure-oriented existence with her widower father, Raymond, since leaving her strict boarding school two years ago.
Staying for the summer in a beach house on the French Riviera, Cécile and Raymond – together with Raymond’s current (much younger) mistress, Elsa – are perfectly at ease. In the meantime, Cécile meets Cyril – a university student, and the two begin a shy relationship.
Everything is perfect – until Raymond invites another woman to stay at the beach house.
The newcomer is Anne Larsen; a friend of Cécile’s late mother. Unlike all of Raymond’s previous lovers, Anne is elegant, sophisticated – and the same age as Raymond. The sudden sexual energy between Anne and Raymond begins to simmer until, the morning after a dizzy night out at a casino, Anne and Raymond have an announcement for Cécile: they’re engaged to be married.
Cécile knows her carefree life will never be quite the same again unless she does something.
From the opening page, Bonjour Tristesse conjures a sense of bliss – albeit fragile. Sagan is unashamedly playful; the novel invites you into its own world of warm sand and golden skin; bedsheets and and sea-salt. It’s a physical world, a world of the senses. The novel’s first part is utter, sensuous joy:
“He [Cyril] folded his arm round me with an angry little exclamation, and gently pulled me out of the boat. He held me close against him, my head on his shoulders. At that moment, I loved him. In the morning light he was golden, as soft, as gentle as myself. He was protecting me. As his lips touched mine we both began to tremble, and the pleasure of our kiss was untinged by shame or regret, merely a deep searching interrupted every now and then by whimpers” (p. 29)
Then, in the second part, all that changes. Suddenly, naïve, flirtatious Cécile takes on a more manic tone; the novel twists, warps – until the sadness that’s been lingering over the novel slowly, steadily moves into view like a dark cloud.
Although I became a little more absorbed in Bonjour Tristesse than I intended, I couldn’t help but notice Sagan’s existentialist undertones. Cécile and Raymond are perfectly free and content to live their unconventional, pleasure-oriented existence. It’s only when Anne enters their lives that Cécile and Raymond are forced to explain the way they choose to live, and to modify their behaviour to suit her expectations.
The novel’s message is clear – in a world where complete freedom is possible, it’s essential to keep in mind that every decision has consequences. Bonjour Tristesse explores the pleasure of the physical world, but it’s a pleasure that’s imbued with the awkward reality of human relationships.
It’s been a miserable, cold summer here in Sydney, but Sagan’s sultry Bonjour Tristesse certainly fogged up my glasses. If you’re after the kind of novel that you can simply fall into, and escape from the world for a while; a little literary holiday that will still make you think – Bonjour Tristesse is the perfect choice. Especially if you, like me, enjoy your love stories a little on the twisted side.
For the few days you spend reading it, Bonjour Tristesse will become your life.