Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

This novel reads like a pretentious French novel written by a pretentious French teenager, which is exactly what it is. There's this 17 year old, Cecile who lives with her 40-something playboy father, Raymond (her mother is dead). Raymond has never accepted that he is no longer in his 20s. He has brief affairs with 20-something "stupid, frivolous women" (pg. 111), and he and Cecile sit around, smoke cigargettes, and talk about life, death, love, etc. Essentially, they live the pretentious French lifestyle. Needless to say, it's clear that Raymond isn't exactly the best influence for a 17 year old, and it's suggested that she has been involved with Raymond's friends - though the level of seriousness of these relationships isn't clear.

Father and daughter decide to take a holiday in the Riviera along with Raymond's girlfrield, Elsa. Later, Raymond invites Anne to visit. Anne is a friend of his late wife's who looked after Cecile while she was away at school. Anne is not the typical type this family hangs around with - she is intelligent, older, straight laced, etc. She also has feelings for Raymond. She shows up, and they all go to a casino. Raymond and Anne disappear for a long time, and Elsa and Cecile can't find them. Cecile eventually finds them in the car in the parking lot...wonder what they were doing... Nope, the text says that they were obviously having an intense conversation. They ask Cecile to tell Elsa that Anne was sick and Raymond took her home. Elsa knows what's up and leaves. They next morning Raymond and Anne inform Cecile that they're getting married. Cecile sees this as an end to their carefree lifestyle and hatches a plan in which Elsa and Cyril (Cecile's summer boyfriend who Anne has forbidden her to see) will pretend to be in love so Raymond will get jealous and leave Anne in order to win Elsa back. Tragedy ensues...but only for a short time. Then Cecile and Raymond return to their typical routine: "...Life began to take its old, when my father and I are along together, we joke and discuss our latest conquests...but we are happy." (pg 127)

Does Cecile feel bad about what she is doing? She hatches the plan out of jealousy – she doesn’t want to lose her lifestyle and her father to a mundane domestic life. It’s a game that she hopes will end before anyone really gets hurt. Her initial thoughts are that she wants Anne out of her and her father’s life. Later, she states that she hopes that they will all return to Paris before her father decides to pursue Elsa; however, she continues to instruct Cyril and Elsa on how to play their roles. That’s fine – most people might be conflicted out it…but if she really feels so bad about what she’s doing, why doesn’t she stop telling Elsa and Cyril what bar they are going to be and when? She doesn’t want to do what she is doing, but she does it anyway. Why?

What does Cecile want to see as the final outcome of her plan? At times, it appears that she wants Anne gone (“A clean break with Anne would in the long run be less painful [for Raymond] than living a well-regulated life as her husband.” Pg. 112). Other instances suggest that Anne just needs to learn a lesson (“I had no wish to humiliate her, but only to force her to accept our way of life.” Pg. 113). And, of course, at other times Cecile expresses enthusiasm and excitement about their new life with Anne. WTF? Conflicted is one thing…but contradictory is another, and there is never an actual of admission of conflict. Was Sagan aware of this contradiction? When Cecile’s plan succeeds, what is her reaction? Does she say to herself, “well this is sad but it’s what I wanted. It is the outcome of my actions”? Of course not. Cecile’s reaction is “we had to get Anne back.” So, like the morons they are, she and her father draft elaborate apology letters and are convinced that Anne will have to return because what they are writing is so convincing. I’m sure. Too bad Anne is already dead.

In a similar vein, did Cecile feel that Anne's reaction was justified? She first admits that Anne would be perfectly right to leave them based on Raymond’s dandy ways (“…not because Anne was jealous…but because she had made up her mind to live with him on her own terms. She was determined to put an end to the era of frivolity and debauchery and to stop his schoolboy behavior…in the future he must behave well and not be a slave to his caprices. One could not blame Anne; hers was a perfectly normal and sane point of view.” Pg 113). When Anne actually does leaves, however, Cecile states, “I felt sorry for [Raymond] and for myself too.” Why does she feel sorry? Because she chased away the only decent, intelligent woman your father has ever had as a mistress? Because you wish that you hadn’t dreamed all this up and caused everyone such misery? Nope: “After all, why should Anne act like this, leave us in the lurch, make us suffer so for one little moment of folly? Hadn’t she a duty to us?” Like a typical teenager, she is unable to accept responsibility for the consequences of her actions.

I read in a review of Bonjour Tristesse that Cecile is "such a believable character." That's true - she is a believable, spoiled, maipulative French teenage, and if you want to read about such characters - believable or not - than this book is definately for you. Some of this believability probably comes from the fact that Sagan was a spoiled French teenager when she wrote the novel. I, however, am infinitely annoyed by teenagers, especially ones like Cecile, so I was probably destined not to like this book. The prose comes across as juvenile and reminds me of what I tried to emulate when I was into writing stories in middle school.

Having recently read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Road, I cannot help but compare righting styles and I simply don't believe that Bonjour Tristesse is anywhere near their stylistic league, let alone in it.

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