Hello, sorrow

#50 of 2012 • Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan;
translated by Irene Ash.

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me, but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.

It’s amazingly French, this book—as French as my keep-things-neatly-catalogued mind makes it seem like. It’s recklessly decadent, more than a little sensual (alarmingly so, at times), and full of brats—young and old alike—that could rival any in Fitzgerald’s drawing rooms. Everyone is bored; everyone is a little in awe of the summer and of the many possibilities it offers.

It’s the fifties. We have Cécile, seventeen and self-absorbed—the latter because there’s never been reason to be anything else. It’s the height of summer, and Daddy’s girl is lounging with him and his mistress in the French Riviera. Widower Daddy Raymond is more than a little “amoral,” too suave and seductive for his own good, whilst mistress over there is too-young and too-fluffy in the noggin. To add to the salad of franco-fied Electra complex—Cécile likes to go around baring her finely corded shoulders at Daddy’s friends, feels the tiny twinge of jealousy over Mistress Elsa (a jealousy never fully realized because, lo and behold, Cécile figures she’ll soon be out of his life anyway; that’s Daddy’s thing). Eventually, Cécile realizes she’s seventeen and hooks up with Cyril, a boy still a lot older than she is. This more legitimate sexual exploration is jeopardized, of course, by Raymond’s continuing treatment of Cécile as an adult, complete with jaunts at the casino in a sparkly slinky dress.

Enter Anne, a friend of Cécile’s dead mother—come to visit the trio and wreck the nearly-sybaritic hodgepodge in the seaside cottage. Anne is an adult (finally), sophisticated, a little snooty, but lady’s got class. And she’s quick to act as a mother’s figure to Cécile, who’s obviously been lacking in one. Cécile accepts this—she loves Anne, doesn’t she? Well, she does, until Raymond breaks up with Elsa and announces his engagement to Anne. Cécile goes bonkers, managing to both act with an adult deviousness and hold on to her childish self-absorption—and convolutedly, Hollywood-movie-ly plots to eject Anne from their lives.

Yeah, healthy role models right there, guys.

Cécile , make no mistake, is a little brat. But I liked her. I could tolerate her. Because what saves this novel from Cécile’s push-and-pull of admissible naïveté and plain cruelty is the self-awareness of the adult-Cécile that narrates this story. We’re not talking to seventeen-year-old Cécile here—we’re being told about her by a decidedly more sane version of her. We can share in that Cécile’s careful remorse, her frustration with herself, her younger self, and her shenanigans. It’s the gift of hindsight, one that’s never abused as to coerce us into un-subtle meditations on the follies of youth. And it’s this hindsight that, somehow, lets us forgive Cécile her faults—it’s what lets one deal with the seventeen-year-old running amok the French Riviera; after all, who among us haven’t been this stupidly full of ourselves—or wished we were, then. And, perhaps, even now.

Yes, I liked the sensuality. Of course I did. I liked the suggestions of illicitness, the flagrant amorality and the faux. The possibilities, the wrongness of certain thoughts. But I liked its simplicity too, and the crispness of the storytelling—another thing that “saves” this book from utter melodrama. Here’s the sea, it says, its strong and humid breeze pressing against your face. The sun’s unrelenting against sin, straps of thin summer dresses catch on shoulder blades. Those long , lazy stretches of the afternoon and, later, the weight of the nights compelling you to youth—are an approximation of it.

I’ve missed these kinds of books. Slim and spry on its feet—a thin book, a Why Not? book—even if the little pocket of respite from real life comes in the form of this privileged, scheming, sorrow-a-greeting sensualite.

PSA: I bought Bonjour Tristesse on sale (20% off during the Summer Sale) from National Bookstore (the Cubao branch, methinks!). Original price is PhP395.

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6 comments

  1. p2c2u · · Reply

    I found this to be a surprisingly easy book to read, not just because of its slimness. Usually books which dwell on pain and sorrow are unbearably pretentious, but like you said, what saves this book is that its written from adult Cecile’s point of view. What I find really astonishing, however, is how young Sagan was — 19, I believe — when she wrote this book. To be able to bring such a mature perspective to the story is quite an achievement.

  2. She can’t possibly be brattier than Ardita from Fitzgerald’s “The Offshore Pirate?” If so, I’ll have to check it out. —- I’m not sure what it is, but brats as character types slowly begin to work on you. Maybe it is because they assert themselves in a world where most people often default to acquiescence. And assertion, bratty or not, is high style.

  3. It’s been on my TBR for years, always waiting for the French Reading Challenge that never comes. I have, however, see the movie, which seems to capture the atmosphere you described. Deborah Kerr can do no wrong.

  4. This was all the rage for teenage girls to read in Japan. I think there’s also a film featuring Jean Seberg. It’s amazing to think Sagan wrote this when she was only 18!

  5. […] an interesting dynamic surrounding Cécile’s character. As Sasha so eloquently puts it: “Cécile , make no mistake, is a little brat.” And she is. And I generally do not […]

  6. Just read this book myself in July; a fascinating piece of selfishness and manipulation gone awry in my opinion. I liked the parent/child “study”, I liked the brevitiy, I liked the honesty of Francois Sagan at 18. I even likened Cecile to Briony in Atonement in my mind.

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