1950s French author re-translatedIn 1954, 18-year-old failed Sorbonne student, Francoise Sagan published her first novel. 'Bonjour Tristesse' was a huge success and she followed this in 1956 with 'A Certain Smile'. 'Bonjour Tristesse' was considered too racy for the English reading public, so the English version had the explicit sexual scenes removed.
Now, we can be trusted not to get over-excited, so Penguin's Modern Classics have republished these acclaimed novellas with a fresh translation by Heather Lloyd that includes the uncensored text for the first time. And to be honest, in 2015, I really didn't come across anything that would have reddened granny's face in 1950 or today. Maybe someone felt sensations in the groin but if you're looking for sexual explicitness, you're unlikely to spot it here.
Described by 'The Guardian' as 'the French F Scott Fitzgerald', Sagan had a bestseller on her hands with 'Bonjour Tristesse'. Her writing is sophisticated and mature for an 18-year-old and she gets inside the heads of her characters, male and female, astutely. Her writing is rich and vibrant and her plots are credible and imaginative.
Bonjour TristesseTold in first person by the rather sad 17-year-old Cecile, during a holiday in the Med with her womanising father, Raymond (aged 40), she finds herself sharing their villa with his 26-year-old mistress, the redheaded Elsa Mackenbourg. This is not so bad as she forms a relationship with nearby neighbour Cyril (26) a law student holidaying with his mother. The trouble begins when her late mother's friend, sophisticated fashionista Anne Larsen turns up, having targeted Raymond as her future husband. Pleasant, but distant, divorcee Anne can be intimidating but she does have her softer side.
Cecile, like the author, fails her exams, Cyril falls in love with her and Elsa is out of the running. But fearful that the regimental Anne is about to create structure in their lives and rob her of her best friend - her father - Cecile sets about destroying her. And she works out a diabolical plot. If you've ever discredited someone behind their back, then discovered how nice they were when it's too late to redress the damage, you'll know what guilt feels like and I couldn't help feeling for Cecile's predicament. Her mind seems like a wood full of thorny branches entangled in one another. It's a tragedy so be prepared for an unhappy ending.
A Certain SmileAlso told in first person by Sorbonne student Dominique, fellow student Bertrand's uncle becomes the centre of Dominique's life when uncle Luc and his wife Francoise, take her under their wing. They buy her expensive clothes and introduce her to their friends. Dominique thinks Luc is attractive and a typical seducer and she's not far wrong there. But she becomes obsessed and poor Bertrand is relegated to a back seat. Dominique seems bored with life but this sophisticated couple make life more exciting for her.
When Francoise goes to stay with friends for 10 days - how convenient - Luc takes Dominique out for dinner alone. What flattery! He impresses upon her how much he loves Francoise but he would like to have an affair with Dominique. Pretty textbook behaviour for his type, making it quite plain that this is simply that - an affair - and she should not expect anything else from it. He will never love her. Of course, she ignores the warnings and she ends up having the affair and doing what most dejected mistresses do, sitting by the phone and making excuses for his neglect of her. She feels humiliated. This also has a sad ending.
I had the impression that some of Sagan's work could be autobiographical or based on the lives of people she knew, for her attention to detail and understanding of human nature and behaviour are too accurate to have come from the mind of an inexperienced 18-year-old student.
FilmsOtto Preminger presented his version of 'Bonjour Tristesse' in 1958, starring David Niven, Jean Seberg and Deborah Kerr. The same year, the Jean Negulesco film of 'A Certain Smile' starred Rossano Brazzi and Joan Fontaine.
It's worth investing in this double bill from Penguin Modern Classics, as both stories are beautifully written.