When French author, Françoise Sagan, died in September 2004, she left behind more than one million dollars in debts and a little gem entitled “Bonjour Tristesse” (“Hello Sadness”). In his memorial statement, the then French President Jacques Chirac said of Sagan: “With her death, France loses one of its most brilliant and sensitive writers – an eminent figure of our literary life.”
Do you believe in love at first sight, what the French refer to as, ”le coup de foudre,” (“a lightening strike”)? No, I don’t either, thinking that it only happens in movies. At least, I didn’t until I decided to read Françoise Sagan’s masterpiece. Misconceptions about the boredom I thought I would experience would be swept away like desert sand in a storm.
I am ashamed of having left it so late to read Sagan’s literary work that I misjudged. I want to read it again, just to make sure that the love I felt was not a fleeting adolescent love that is so important at the time but soon forgotten as real life begins.
I set myself a time limit to read the book – a journey from Amsterdam to Lima. But I have cheated, having read the first few lines before my suitcases were even packed. And there began my infatuation for the written word that Françoise Sagan uses. Her adjectives and nouns, prepositions and verbs all flow from the written page to my enamoured soul, weaving a path of unmatched bliss as her words bind with my vision of what Sagan is sharing. I am captured yet again and there is no escaping,
A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow.
The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me, but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism.
I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow.
Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.
That summer, I was seventeen and perfectly happy.
“Bonjour Tristesse” is all about inner feelings, the welcoming of sadness at the end of a summer that was filled with illicit unconventionalities that existed only to fill lives that would otherwise have been boring. It is a mia culpa of a seventeen-year-old who admits that she did wrong, knew about it, and was not willing to stop.
All the elements of a drama were to hand: a libertine, a demimondaine; and a strong-minded woman.
Cécile is lonely and feels abandoned by her father. They are soul mates – a relationship that is upset by the arrival of Anne, a dominant woman who is threatening the stable and cozy life that Cécile has with her father – a relationship characterized by freedom and choice.
[…] she kept me from liking myself. I, who was naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced by her into self-criticism and a guilty conscience. Unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost.
Anne’s presence is synonymous with the restructuring of the family unit, encompassing a triangle – step-mother, daughter, father – that would strip Cécile of the possibility of self-love and would lead to the loss of who and what she is – a child full of irresponsibility turning into a complex young adult capable of experiencing the pleasures of physical love without commitment.
I took stock: she wanted my father; she had got him. She would gradually turn us into the husband and stepdaughter of Anne Larsen, that is to say, she would turn us into two civilized, well-behaved and contented persons.
Cécile rebels against Anne’s maternal instincts that would spoil her carefree existence and her father’s repeated romances. Elsa, his latest conquest who has accompanied them to the Côte d’Azur, would be much more suited to Cécile’s carefree approach to life. She is less intelligent, less demanding and, more importantly, naively in love with him. Cécile is very much aware of this and uses Elsa’s weaknesses to manipulate her into participating in a love game to push her father away from Anne, who accepted his marriage proposal, towards Elsa, who would make a much more accommodating mother-in-law.
Destiny sometimes assumes strange forms. That summer it appeared in the guise of Elsa, a mediocre person, but with a pretty face. She had an extraordinary laugh, sudden and infectious, which only rather stupid people possess.
Cécile’s summer is a stark reminder of the lengths to which people can go to get what they want. Although only seventeen, Cécile had meticulously thought of every possible outcome to her plan, only not to foresee the tragedy that actually happened.
The scars of what happened during that hot summer linger on into the dark nights of the Parisian winter. Cécile and her father can share once again a relationship where they can joke and discuss their latest conquests. It is only at dawn that Cécile’s memory betrays her and she comes face to face with a feeling that had always escaped her – sadness.
Only when I am in bed, at dawn, listening to the cars passing below in the streets of Paris, my memory betrays me. That summer returns to me with all its memories. Anne, Anne!
I repeat over and over again softly in the darkness. Something rises in me that I call to by name, with closed eyes. Bonjour, tristesse!
Tu es inscrite dans les lignes du plafond.
Tu es inscrite dans les yeux que j’aime
Tu n’es pas tout à fait la misère,
Car les lèvres les plus pauvres te dénoncent
Par un sourire.
Amour des corps aimables.
Puissance de l’amour
Dont l’amabilité surgit
Comme un monstre sans corps.
Tristesse, beau visage.”
Paul Éluard, “À Peine Défigurée”