Friday 4 September 2015

Bonjour Tristesse

Françoise Sagan, 1954, 1956 [Heather Lloyd, 2013]
(August 2015)

Oh so very Gallic. Gamine young women; passionate affairs with older men; existential ennui: it couldn't be more French if it created continent-wide wide travel chaos through aggressive industrial work-stoppages whilst eating a wheel of cheese and listlessly smoking a Gauloises inside a Gitanes.

The two stories here were originally published as separate novels, though at about 100 pages each they're novellas by today's standards. Nothing very much happens in either: both pieces are more in the way of character studies of their young female narrators, coming of age stories that wrestle with the contradictions of love, passion, romance, and ultimately purpose and meaning. Most remarkably, Sagan wrote Bonjour Tristesse when she was only eighteen. It's an accomplished story in its own right, so to even think of comparing it to some of the shit I churned out at a similar age is a frankly insulting exercise in futility (which obviously didn't stop me from doing so).

The thought did occur, however, that the story itself is pretty traditional: it's basically a Wicked Step Mother fairy-tale, with the twist being that the step-daughter is no angel herself. Not wicked, but a pleasingly complex and confused character, so much so that the plot itself, so much as it is, feels like an afterthought. There's an interesting comparison to be made here with Boy, Snow, Bird, which I'd make more of if I had the time or inclination. Some other day, perhaps.

A Certain Smile, the second story here, is even more plotless. A university student has an affair with her boyfriend's uncle. That's about it. Once more the focus is on the endless task of unpicking the tangled knot of human emotions, this time as attempted by a narrator trying but increasingly failing to maintain her façade of cynical detachment. It's stylistically smoother than the earlier work (which is probably to be expected) and also in places genuinely laugh-out-loud funny (which definitely wasn't):

His wife and Bertrand's mother laughed in a knowing way. Luc was yawning. Bertrand was working up a speech that wouldn't get a hearing. With her usual good humour, Francoise was visibly trying to understand why these people were so boring.

If I ever manage to produce a line half as good as that that—a line that so perfectly balances patronizing generosity, fragile immaturity, and petulant cynicism—I shall consider all the hundreds of thousands of words of guff I've ever produced to have been an entirely worthwhile endeavour.

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