Wednesday, December 09, 2009

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:

Personal life

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.)[3] 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.[1]

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."


mybillcrider said...

You and I remember a lot of the same books, Ed. I can still recall the cover on that paperback, which I'd bet money was a Dell. I was thoroughly impressed with the book, and not just because Sagan was about my age when she wrote it. I didn't realize she'd had such a sad life.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Her life doesn't sound so sad to me. She had her kicks, that's for sure.

Todd Mason said...

How to get the teens to read. I've managed never to read a Sagan novel, and now feel it's mandatory...certainly I would've appreciated someone offering a copy of BT as I was putting down the S. E. Hintons I attempted.

As with Grace Metallious, "Vin Packer," Patricia Highsmith, to some extent it was Write what you know, indeed...glad that you picked a book from your youth for the Forgotten Books Kids' Week...albeit not the sort of book that too many school libraries have ever stocked, I suspect...

Fred Blosser said...

BONJOUR TRISTESSE (Goodbye Sadness?) is a lovely title, but THE ASS BANDIT has a nice ring too.

Cap'n Bob said...

Thanks, Ed. I've heard of this title but never had an inkling of what it was about, lowbrow that I am. Quite a woman, this Frenchie.

MP said...

I read the book around the same time you did, and loved it, but haven't read it since. Also haven't read anything else by Sagan. So perhaps I should give it another look. I did see Preminger's movie about six months ago, and think you should give it another chance. It's really quite good. It may well be the only thing I've seen with Seberg other than "Breathless", and I thought she was terrific.

priyanka said...

i read BT when i was 17 and much out of sorts with life, the capturing of a Proustian moment of memory and transferring of it to the identity of a developing self, to the insidious suggestion of some Oedipal complex, Sagan used it all...and still sounds so serenely simple and pretty.

jhegenbe said...

Merci, mille!

Anonymous said...

"Bonjour Tristesse--which wasn't much of a movie"

It was pretty good, actually. It was on at the NFT in London a couple of years ago. Apart from Seberg, it gave David Niven one of his few opportunities to do more than go through a routine, and he did it well.
Sagan was also a compulsive gambler - there is a fascinating account of her finding out she would be bankrupt if she elft the table at Aspinall's in London and calmly betting money she didn't have to get back to parity.