This book came to my attention when I read Max’s wonderful review of it which inspired me to add the book to my to-read list instantly. In an attempt to lift myself from my recent reading slump I looked over my list and, remembering how I felt about the book when I added it, I reserved a copy at the library.
Bonjour Tristesse is told by Cécile, a seventeen-year-old girl holidaying in the French Riviera with her father and his young mistress, Elsa. It’s summer and Cécile’s days are blissfully spent sunbathing, swimming and drinking. Until her father invites Anne to the villa. Cécile likes Anne, but she is the antithesis of Cécile and her father’s lifestyle: where they indulge in fluid lives with no responsibilities, Anne stands for structure and routine. Anne’s arrival puts Elsa firmly out of the picture. When Cécile’s father announces that he and Anne are to be married, Cécile realises that the union will spell an end to their carefree lives, and devises a plan which will have devastating consequences.
The first line of Bonjour Tristesse sucked me in completely.
This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me with its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’ (p. 5).
It pulled me in and, reading it again after finishing the novel, perfectly links with the ending. The language throughout is sensual and atmospheric; it’s delicious and gorgeous. I read Bonjour Tristesse in a kind of heady haze, being pulled in by the language and by the characters. The rhythm of the language mimics the lethargy of Cécile and the pleasant weariness that comes with laying in the summer sun. The prose feels indulgent and rich. The opening chapters remind me in some ways of the beginning chapters of Ian McEwan’s Atonement when Cecilia is trying, and failing, to read. They both have that summertime feel about them – the languor and lethargy that comes with the balmy, oppressive summer heat and of having nothing to do.
‘The next day I awoke feeling perfectly fine, barely tired, just with the back of my neck aching slightly as a result of my excesses. As it was every morning, my bed was bathed in sunlight. I pushed back my sheets, took off my pyjama top and turned my bare back to the sun. With my cheek resting on my folded arm, I could see close up the coarse texture of the linen sheet and beyond that, on the tiled floor, the vacillations of a fly. The sun was warm and gentle, it seemed to make my bones expand beneath my skin and to take special care to bestow its warmth upon me.’ (p 81)
I love the detail in this passage, especially the part about the bones expanding. The prose throughout the novel is evocative like this: in this passage, I can feel the sun on my skin and see that linen sheet with a startling clarity.
As the events of the novella come to a head, the language’s rhythm changes and becomes sharper, more urgent, more powerful. To my reading, the translation is wonderful to capture this.
I don’t find Cécile likeable, but I do find her compelling. She’s young and carefree; she’s self-centred; she’s dramatic and emotional. There’s a line in the book when Cécile says to Anne, “I don’t attach importance to anything” (p. 84) and this encapsulates her character for me. There’s a kind of surreal unreality to her life: she doesn’t think of the consequences of her actions, not because they don’t matter necessarily, but because she has no concept of the future. It’s as if her life will always be like this: this period of time when nothing really matters all that much. In fact, Anne says to Cécile: “You don’t think much of the future, do you? That’s youth’s privilege.” (p. 84)
I think the fact this book is set in summer is key. While this sense of unreality has something to do with Cécile’s youth, it’s also due to the season. The sense that you’re on holiday from real life, that summer is a time unto itself and you behave and act differently during those months than the rest of the year. Of course, Cécile and her father’s lives have been the same way for a while, but there’s a sense that even though Cécile knows what she’s doing, she sets no importance by her actions and their consequences because they won’t exist outside of that time and her youth.
There’s a stark juxtaposition between Cécile and Anna. Youth versus maturity. Cécile’s emotions are big and expressive, unrefined and dramatic; Anna is restrained and controlled, aloof and intimidating, knowing. It’s an interesting dynamic to see unfold. I found one exchange between the two of them quite powerful:
[Anna says to Cécile] Your idea of love is a rather simplistic one. Love isn’t a series of isolated sensations…’ It struck me [Cécile] that that was just what all my experiences of love had been: a sudden surge of emotion at someone’s gaze or gesture or kiss…radiant moments without any underlying connection, that was all the memory I had of them. ‘It’s something different,’ Anne was saying. ‘It’s about constant tenderness, gentleness, missing a person…’ (p 24)
Bonjour Tristesse is a book that has made me fall in love with reading again. I’ve sat down to write this post immediately after finishing it (something which hasn’t happened in a while), I wrote down quotes upon quotes I love either because of the language or the feelings they express (and if it hadn’t have been a library book, several passages would be underlined). There’s a second story – A Certain Smile – in the version of the book I have, and I’m leaving it a little while before indulging in Sagan’s writing again, in order to savour what I’ve just read. Part of this is because of the language, and another is because I feel like I need some time to process this story. For one that takes place over only 100 pages, it’s a very powerful one and I feel like it’s going to be on my mind for a while.
Thanks again to Max for his review which inspired me to pick up this book. Have you read Bonjour Tristesse or any other of Sagan’s works? What did you think?