Forgotten Books: Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan
In the summer of 1958 I was sixteen years old and going through my first real heartbreak. My only solace was in books and movies. Seeing people was too painful. I mention this because my state of mind had a good deal to do with my reaction to a slender Dell paperback I'd been hearing about.
Bonjour Tristesse had been written by a seventeen-year-old French schoolgirl and it had the good fortune to become a scandal in both Europe and the United States. The story concerned seventeen-year-old Cecile whose wealthy and handsome father is what one might call, in crude Yankee tongue, an ass-bandit. His latest young thing is Elsa whom Cecile likes because she's the kind of trivial beauty her father will dump after a few months. But then Anne appears and Cecile must plot to get rid of her. Anne is serious competition to Cecile. She will take Cecile's father from her, at least mentally and spiritually. From here the story deals with Cecile's attempt to destroy a fine woman--and one of her deceased mother's best friends--before her father falls in love with her. The end is tragic.
The novel is about pain and betrayal and loneliness and is told so simply and directly it has the effect of a stage monologue. It was condemned by most of the old farts--the French Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac reviewed it and sounded as if he was making the case for Sagan's execution--while the more charitable critics found it earnest and compelling if not quite as important as all the fuss would have it.
There was an Iowa angle, too. Otto Preminger discovered eighteen-year-old Jean Seberg from Marshalltown, Iowa and starred her in his catastrophic production of St. Joan. The critics loved her melancholy beauty (who wouldn't?) but she certainly wasn't up to a role this difficult. This could have ended her career but she was quickly cast in Bonjour Tristesse--which wasn't much of a movie--and did a fine job. Later she would become a French film icon when she did Breathless with Jean Paul Belmondo.
But Seberg had a troubled life very much like that of a Sagan heroine. At least one of her husbands beat her and J. Edgar Hoover had his creeps stalk her here and in France. He tried to destroy her by feeding tales to the press of how she just might be seeing a black man and showing a definite interest in left-wing politics. She died at forty-one in circumstances that the authorities believed pointed to suicide. She had long struggled with depression.
I followed Sagan's career to the end because Bonjour had given me so much comfort that terrible summer. In France she was seen, at least early on, as a kind of J.D. Salinger, though I always thought her take on this vale of tears was far richer than his. And by the time she wrote Those Without Shadows a few years later she was far out of his league. And she certainly never disappointed the media. Here, from Wikipedia, just a bit of her life story:
Sagan was married twice; to Guy Schoeller ( married 13 March 1958, an editor with Hachette, 20 years older than Sagan, divorced June 1960), and to Bob Westhof ( a young American playboy and would-be ceramist, married 10 January 1962, divorced 1963.
Their son Denis was born in June 1963.) She took a lesbian longer term lover in fashion stylist Peggy Roche; and had a male lover Bernard Frank, a married essayist obsessed with reading and eating. She added to her self-styled "family" by beginning a long-term lesbian affair with the French Playboy magazine editor Annick Geille, after she approached Sagan for an article for her magazine.
Fond of travelling in the United States, she was often seen with Truman Capote and Ava Gardner. She was once involved in a car accident in her Aston Martin sports car - (14 April 1957) - which left her in a coma for some time. She also loved driving her Jaguar automobile to Monte Carlo for gambling sessions.
Also, in the 1990s, Sagan was charged with and convicted of possession of cocaine.
Sagan was, at various times of her life, addicted to a number of drugs. She was a long-term user of prescription pills, amphetamines, cocaine, morphine, and alcohol.When police came for inspection in her house her dog called Banko showed cocaine to them and also licks cocaine. Sagan told police " Look! he likes it too."