When Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954 it was an overnight sensation. Françoise Sagan was only eighteen. The last of three children, her older brother had just died when she wrote her first novel in just three weeks. In his piece in Le Figaro when it was awarded the Prix des Critiques, François Mauriac referred to her as “a charming little monster”. Seventy years on, a special anniversary edition is being released this week by Julliard, her publisher, on 11 January, and for the first time it is part of this year’s French baccalauréat.
Sagan’s novels generally revolve around the relationships, existential dilemmas and hedonism of the privileged French bourgeoisie, reflecting the author’s own upbringing and background. Her central characters are typically youthful and disillusioned beneath a veneer of sophistication and wit. They are driven by self-destructive attitudes and behaviours as they navigate the complexities of love and existential angst in the brittle, treacherous world of entitled ennui.
Bonjour Tristesse was followed by A Certain Smile, Those Without Shadows and Aimez-vous Brahms, all of which capture the spirit of a particular time and social milieu which is far less powerful and dominant today, thanks to a series of profound economic and societal tectonic upheavals over the past half century.
Françoise Sagan’s Heart of Darkness
Sagan’s devil-may-care frivolity belies a heart of darkness. Her father did not want the family name Quoirez on the front cover of her novels, so as an avid reader of Proust she chose the nom de plume ‘Sagan’ of one of his aristocratic characters. She was a signatory of The Manifesto of the 121 in 1960 calling on the Gaullist government to recognise the Algerian War as a legitimate struggle for independence, which enraged her family. In 1967 she crashed her Aston Martin and as a consequence became addicted to opioids to cope with the pain of her injuries.
The Four Corners of the Heart is Sagan’s last novel. Unfinished and raw, it is an excellent example of her fully-formed style and sharp observations of soulless privilege and treachery in a bucolic setting. Husbands and lovers are protectors. Women are the second sex and expected to “be beautiful and be quiet (sois belle et tais-toi!), a typical epithet used by men in that milieu to keep their women in their place and get their way. Women consider their husbands and lovers to be their protectors and usually submit. Sophie Lewis’ beautiful translation captures to perfection the air of insouciance and underlying cruelty.
Home Sweet Home
Ludovic returns to La Cressonnade in the Touraine, the family home, having “emerged from a series of sanatoriums to which he’d been consigned by a road accident so disastrous, so horrific that neither his doctors nor his lovers could have dreamed he would survive.” His beautiful young wife, Marie-Laure, had been preparing for his funeral and is furious that he has recovered. A social-climbing bitch in Chanel, she despises his fragility and tramples on his love for her. Ludovic’s countrified industrialist father, Henri a.k.a. ‘the Hawk on High’, decides to throw a party and invite 300 guests to celebrate his son’s safe return. When Marie-Laure’s charming widowed mother – her polar opposite – decides to visit, both father and son are smitten . . .
Arguably, Sagan’s novels are the French answer to those of Jilly Cooper (recipient of an OBE in 2004, a CBE in 2018, and in this year’s Honours, a Damehood of the Order of the British Empire) whose novels offer keen observations and a satirical perspective on the British upper class, their idiosyncrasies, romantic entanglements, ambitions and social climbing in a variety of settings.
Sagan’s novels are dramatic and extravagant, satirical and brilliantly well-observed, set in glamorous worlds with a melancholic undertow. They prompt that classic question: ‘Can money really buy you happiness?’
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