Modernist & Modern classics

Bonjour tristesse

Despite its title, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Françoise Sagan’s novel is a burning sun on the endless golden sand. “Bonjour tristesse” is the book with the most pregnant and memorable atmosphere that I’ve ever read. I can still hear the waves and smell the sea. Parties, gambling, sex, cigarettes and alcohol. Sagan was only 18 when she wrote the book and when it was first published it raised waves of intrigue and scandalized the 50s, depicting the controversial life of a young girl in a lost era of France.

Even if Cécile was only 17 years old, her deep sensibility helped her analyse the things around her on a more profound level as she formed her own ideas about love and other feelings. “For this was the round of love: fear which leads on desire, tenderness and fury, and that brutal anguish which triumphantly follows pleasure.” However, even if she was capable of understanding more about life than just its meaningless surface, she still took the path of hedonism, choosing to live freely and to only look for pleasure, for that seemed to be her only interest. She did not care about learning or reading during the summer she spent with her father in the villa on the French Riviera. Her father, Raymond, took her to all sorts of parties and she soon entered an adult world, finding the relationships with people her own age boring and unsatisfying. “Usually I avoided college students, whom I considered brutal, wrapped up in themselves, particularly in their youth, in which they found material for drama or an excuse for their own boredom. I did not care for young people.” She was not an adult yet, but she was mature enough to see her own place in the society she encountered. “What you call types of mind are only mental ages.” She basically did whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Until Anne came into the picture.

Anne was an old friend of Cécile’s mother and she eventually became her father’s lover, making Cécile feel like a significant part of her life was taken away from her. Anne was entering her reality like a subtle and stylish intruder, slowly taming both her and Raymond. She was feeling helplessness and sadness invading her as delicately as Anne’s attempts to educate her. I think at this point anyone would panic, seeing their own selves morphing into someone else and having no control over it. “The freedom to think, and to think badly and to think little, the freedom to choose my own life, to choose myself. I cannot say ‘to be myself’, since I was nothing but a moldable dough, but one that refused the molds.”

She starts feeling estranged from her father as Anne is gradually taking control over her whole life. This is an unbearable feeling for her, as she used to be very close to Raymond. She knew the two of them were the same to some extent. “…above else I was afraid of dullness, peace. To achieve our inner peace, my father and I needed an outer unrest”. And even if their relationship was disputable, that doesn’t disclaim the veracity of her emotions and fears of losing her father. And that brings even more sadness. “I am almost ashamed of it, whereas I had always looked upon sadness as being a worthy emotion.”

Towards the end of the novel, something strange happens – there’s a shift in the direction of Cécile’s sorrow. Her story ends in a terrible accident that will turn into a memory and the memory will actually take the form of her new sadness (or will the sadness take a new form?). Maybe that’s just the way of life – something really bad happens and then everything else seems insignificant, every old sadness becomes bearable or even in vain. So only at the end of the book we get to see this new type of sorrow, the real one, the one we awaited the whole time and thought we had found earlier through the pages of the book: “Only, when I am in bed, at dawn, when all that can be heard in Paris is the sound of cars, my memory betrays me: summer, with everything I remember of it, comes flooding back. Anne, Anne! I repeat that name very softly to myself, over and over in the dark. Then something stirs within me with eyes closed, I greet by its name, sadness: Bonjour tristesse.”

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