Matt Forney
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Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

bonjour-tristesseNovels written by young people typically have a short shelf life. The basis of good fiction is being able to craft interesting and believable characters and stories, which requires both maturity and life experience. An 18-year old, drowning in her own self-absorption, has neither the wisdom nor the patience to be able to craft a truly memorable novel. At best she can retell events in her own life with some minor details fudged, and while the result might be entertaining, it’s not going to be compelling to anyone outside of her age group.

Am I saying that Bonjour Tristesse is a bad novel? Hell no. In fact, it’s far better than any novel written by a teenager has the right to be. The problem with Françoise Sagan’s masterpiece is the same problem that On the Road and other novels by young people have: there’s no depth. Barely old enough to smoke equals barely aware of the world, of human emotion and suffering, and it shows in Bonjour Tristesse.

It’s a book that teenagers will love; everyone else will be wondering what the fuss was all about.

Bonjour Tristesse concerns two months in the life of 17-year old Cécile, Sagan’s unsubtle literary surrogate, as she deals with both her transition into adulthood and the fragmentation of her life. Her father Raymond, a cad known for the long string of women he’s bedded, has chosen to settle down with Anne, a friend of Cécile’s late mother and a dedicated buzzkill:

He sat down next to Anne and put an arm around her shoulders. She turned toward him in a way that made me lower my eyes. She was no doubt marrying him for just that; for his laughter, for the firm reassurance of his arm, for his vitality, his warmth. At forty there could be the fear of solitude, or perhaps a final upsurge of the senses… I had never thought of Anne as a woman, but as a personality. I had seen her as a self-assured, elegant, and clever person, but never as weak or sensual. I quite understood that my father felt proud—the proud, reserved Anne Larsen was going to marry him. But did he love her, and if so, was he capable of loving her for long? Was there any difference between this new feeling for her and the feeling he had had for Elsa? The sun was making my head spin, and I shut my eyes. We were all three on the terrace, full of unspoken thoughts, of secret fears, and of happiness.

Jealous of the attention Anne gets from Raymond and not wanting her carefree lifestyle to be disrupted, Cécile and her older paramour Cyril hatch a plot to drive a wedge between the two. It’s not a terribly complex plot, and Sagan’s constant whining doesn’t add to it in any way. Cécile’s ennui-fueled laments about life are about as deep as you’d expect a teenager to spout. If you’re in the same age bracket as Sagan was when she wrote Bonjour Tristesse, you’ll no doubt love the book’s philosophy; grown-ups will shake their heads in exasperation.

Despite Sagan’s immaturity, Bonjour Tristesse still succeeds as a portrait of both teenage life and France in the 1950’s. Cécile is an immensely conflicted character; while she desperately wants to emulate her father’s dissolute lifestyle, she still harbors a childish naivete about the world. Her attempts to forge a relationship with Cyril and to break up Raymond and Anne’s relationship are fueled by this naive-yet-mature approach to life:

He glanced once more at Elsa, who lay there in all her youthful beauty, all golden, with her red hair and with a half smile on her lips. She seemed indeed a young nymph trapped at last by love. Then he turned on his heel and walked on at a brisk pace. I could hear him muttering: “The bitch! The bitch!”

I should mentioned that Sagan’s immaturity is in relation to other novelists; in terms of depth, Bonjour Tristesse is miles beyond anything that a teenage girl today could come up with.

Decline of civilization, anyone?

Put simply, if you’re a teenager, Bonjour Tristesse is worth reading as its message of listlessness and adolescent conflict will resonate with you. If you’re older, the book is worth reading provided you lower your standards and take it for what it is: a first-time novel from a teenage girl who was a bit wiser than her peers. As an examination of a transitional period in world history (the rise of adolescence as an independent stage of life), Bonjour Tristesse is a true classic.

Click here to buy Bonjour Tristesse.

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