EPS Review #220 - Bonjour Tristesse & A Certain Smile

Bonjour Tristesse & A Certain Smile , by Françoise Sagan, Penguin 2007 (1958), 213pp.

The Economist wrote up A Certain Smile as great summer reading, so I bought it along with Bonjour Tristesse -- together they still make up a slim volume.

I am showing a definite taste for French literature. I loved Bonjour Tristesse -- it was like Colette only with added poison. A young woman (Céline), released from convent school a couple of years previously, lives with her widowed father who is a rake. At their summer villa Céline toys with a young man she meets on the beach, and observes with horror how Anne arrives from Paris and persuades Céline's father to marry her, discarding his girlfriend of the moment, pretty red-headed Elsa. Céline reminded me of many a pathological protagonist in more modern, gimmicky fiction, except that she uses only normal household items to work her harm, like kisses, lies, and simple inertia.

My friend John likes to quote "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action" That's a male statement. And it is a thrill for this male to be given access to Celine's darker and more complicated desires, although on the face of it her only desire is to maintain the jolly, shallow equilibrium that she had been enjoying with her father.

Many a passage made me snicker:

He stopped dancing to welcome Elsa with polite flattery. She came slowly down the stairs in her green dress, a conventional smile on her face, her casino smile. She had made the most of her lifeless hair and scorched skin, but the result was more meretricious than brilliant. Fortunately she seemed unaware of it.

Céline's love, admiration and hatred for Anne is very well done.

Lots of reviews say this is a book about adolescence. I suppose so, and yet at that age we often see the adult world more clearly than the adults do themselves. Céline understands personal dynamics better than anyone except Anne, who in turn fatally underestimates Céline. The cracking introduction by Rachel Cusk, which I only just read thanks to its spoiler alerts, calls the book a critique of morality, upbringing, and family life.

Should one watch the movie? Can it possibly be French enough? I watched some clips and Jean Seberg has voice-overs -- ugh. And yet it is tempting.

I did not like A Certain Smile as much. Whereas Bonjour was a perfectly-formed thing that made me giddy and queasy, the second story wandered enough to make me think that Dominique was just vapid and unpleasant. It was equally sad at the end, though.

[ In Cannes, Luc was reading La Famille Fenouillard. I googled it to see what novel it might be, but it was France's first comic strip! And yet another Proust connection -- Sagan was keen on Proust.]

Laurie wrote: I read this (Bonjour Tristesse) in my francophile youth and it made a big impression. Thank you for reminding me of it... a re-read is required.

Ed wrote: Have you read any Mauriac? If you're in the mood for more French lit., I recommend Le Noeud de Vipères.