Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (1954) – a review

Bonjour Tristesse cover

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (1954) is the story of Cecile, an amoral seventeen-year-old, who goes on vacation to the south of France with her father, Raymond.

Raymond is a widower who leads a life revolving around multiple affairs with women, usually short-lived. Cecile, despite her age, is fully aware of her father’s love life.

Raymond has rented a well appointed villa, and Cecile, her father, and her father’s mistress of the moment, Elsa, depart for a month of sun and relaxation. 


An idyll interrupted

The first days are devoted to sensual pleasure. They lie in the sun, they eat, they drink. Through the characters we feel the warmth of the sun and see the cool brilliance of the sea.

The idyll is interrupted when Anne, an old friend of Cecile’s mother (and Raymond’s dead wife), comes to join them. Raymond and Anne end up making love, Elsa is pushed out, and Anne and Raymond make plans to get married in the fall. In the beginning, Cecile admires Anne, because she has a certain confidence and poise that her and father lack.

In keeping with her upcoming marriage to Raymond, Anne begins to take on the role of mother to Cecile. Cecile in the meantime has taken a fancy to Cyril, a twenty-five year old student who is staying at a neighboring villa.

Anne catches Cecile and Cyril in the woods in a state of semi-undress, and then attempts to reign in Cecile’s passions, saying that this sort of behavior “will end up in the hospital.”

Cecile rebels against Anne’s motherly direction after Anne tries to force Cecile to spend time studying for her baccalaureate instead of seeing Cyril, Cecile plots a way to break her father and Anne apart.

Cyril and the cast off Elsa begin masquerading as lovers, provoking Elsa’s father to see her one more time, resulting in tragic consequences for Anne.

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A certain smile by Francois Sagan (1956)

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An affront to French morality

What shocked France at the time of this book’s publication was the depiction of Cecile’s permissive family life – she and her father were more like buddies than father and daughter.

Even more shocking was the fact that Cecile had sex with Cyril not because she was in love with him, but because she enjoyed the pleasure of their love-making. This was scandalous to French society in the religious and morally strict pre-pill 1950s.

The amorality and sensualism of the characters seem less shocking today. The novel is written in a matter-of-fact, existential style that evokes Camus.

The characters feel – the sun, the sea, sex, gambling at Cannes, riding in fast automobiles. They don’t think. Cecile experiences guilt for her actions, but once in the languor of the sun the guilt evaporates. Things happen and are accepted.

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Bonjour Tristess cove

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A capsule of bygone France

It still seems a bit shocking that a seventeen-year-old in the 1950s was capable of such behavior, but we understand her character and the consequences of her actions. The psychological study of Cecile is very satisfying, and her relationships with her father and Anne are well drawn.

Bonjour Tristesse stands today as a fascinating look at a France that no longer exists. It is an invocation of an era, of a time when young people were beginning to seek freedom from the strict bourgeois society of France after the end of the Second World War.

In this sense, the novel is similar to Jack Kerouac’s On the RoadOn the Road is a weightier novel than Bonjour Tristesse, but it too opens a window into the mores of its country in the 1950s, and shows the era through the eyes of characters who no longer accept those mores.

Read the rest of the article from which this is excerpted: Françoise Sagan: Sex, Drugs, and Literature

Contributed by Marc Eliot Stein from Literary Kicks, reprinted by permission.

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