It is the task of a novelist to create a world that appears to be very close to life, so close that it resonates within the reader’s own imagination. In fact, fictional worlds are much more consistent and formally structured than random lives. It is only the art of the novelist that creates the illusion of worlds resembling reality. By imposing a structure—a consistent artistic vision—on a realm of whatever scale he or she chooses, the novelist is able to reveal the significance (or insignificance) and the coherence (or absurdity) of human experience.
The world examined and transformed in the novels of Françoise Sagan has been so much of a piece that critics have been known to refer to it as “Saganland.” It is a place where the idle rich amuse and torment themselves with the pleasures of love, dashing away in their sports cars when they need to feel the fresh wind in their hair. The backdrop for their existence is the Riviera, Paris, New York, or Hollywood. The mood is one of bored cynicism, sophisticated disillusionment. It is an essentially frivolous and trivial world that has caused many literary critics to begrudge Sagan serious consideration in spite of the classical elegance of her writing style.
Given the tendency of critics in the 1970’s to greet each new Sagan novel with condescension, the success of her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, turned out to be a decidedly mixed blessing. At the time of its publication, Sagan was a teenager who became an overnight celebrity; yet the novel, until Sagan’s later writing, seemed to set the standards for and define the limits of Sagan’s fictional world.
The story takes place on the Riviera near Cannes, where seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending an idyllic summer with her father, Raymond, who has been a widower for many years. The presence of Elsa, her father’s current mistress, does not trouble Cécile, accustomed as she is to her father’s sophisticated and liberal sexual mores. In any case, she is too busy having her own first fling to be troubled by her father’s unconventional household. Instead, the shadow cast over her happiness is that of Anne, a refined and beautiful woman of her father’s age whom he seems prepared to marry and who threatens to bring order and discipline to the cheerfully bohemian existence of father and daughter.
Sagan prefers to deal with triangular relationships; Elsa is thus quickly expelled from the household, not to reappear until Cécile arranges to dangle her as bait before her father’s roving eye. Beneath Anne’s cool self-control lies a highly developed sense of honor and commitment. When she happens upon Elsa and Raymond embracing in the pine woods, the denouement is swift. Anne drives off, her face a mask of grief and betrayal. Raymond and Cécile are waiting like two guilty children when the news arrives that Anne’s car has plunged over a cliff. Although it appears to be an accident, Cécile will always think of it as suicide, Anne’s perfect and magnanimous gift to the careless and irrepressible pair.
Anne’s death brings to an end the affairs of summer. Father and daughter return to Paris, where, after a month’s seclusion, their life begins again in its old way, with young men for her, young women for him, and the prospect of another summer on the Riviera. Only at dawn, alone in her bed, does Cécile sometimes feel troubled by the memory of Anne, unable to escape the knowledge of sadness beneath the gay laughter of her carefree existence.
A Certain Smile
In her second novel, Sagan transfers the same themes of love and commitment, youth and age from the sparkling sea and pine forests of the Riviera to the student cafés and lodgings of Paris. In Bonjour Tristesse, Anne represents the stable, mature personality in confrontation with the youthful, changeable character of Cécile, still searching for herself, unwilling to risk being molded by any exterior discipline. The heroine of A Certain Smile, Dominique, resembles Cécile as she might have been two years after the fateful summer in Cannes.
Dominique is a student at the Sorbonne, and, although she has a faithful and dependable lover in Bertrand, a fellow student, she is vaguely bored and dissatisfied with her life without understanding why. As in Bonjour Tristesse, the interest of A Certain Smile lies in the psychological development of the characters rather than in action or physical description. As in all of Sagan’s novels, the settings serve merely as backdrops to characterization. The café where Dominique meets Bertrand at the beginning of the novel is not described at all. The jukebox exists only for the psychological effect of its song on Dominique, and the glass Bertrand hands to her is there to demonstrate Bertrand’s proprietary manner toward Dominique and her somewhat abstracted response.
Through Bertrand, Dominique meets his Uncle Luc, whose restless search for pleasure rouses Dominique from her languor. At the same time that she is becoming Luc’s mistress, Dominique must deal with her feelings toward Luc’s charming wife, Françoise, a warmer, more human version of Anne. Françoise begins to treat Dominique as a daughter, and Dominique, whose own mother has withdrawn from life psychologically, accepts her kind attention at the same time that she betrays their relationship. With the amorality that is typical of Sagan’s characters, Dominique agrees to spend two weeks in Cannes with Luc.
In the end, Dominique recovers from her unrequited passion for Luc and accepts the episode as her sentimental education, no different from a thousand other love stories. She feels wiser than her pretentious student comrades but does not seem able to fill the vacuum with anything more positive than a cool indifference to emotional involvement. Henceforth, she will accept the pleasures of the sun, sports cars, and sex as they are offered, with no illusions that they will last beyond the present moment.
Those Without Shadows
The moral ennui seen in Luc and Dominique was to pervade Sagan’s novels for the next twenty years. Those Without Shadows, her third novel, introduces a group of characters that reappear from time to time in later novels. Structurally, the plot of Those Without Shadows proceeds as a series of interlocking triangles. The cast of characters consists of four couples of the Parisian artistic intelligentsia plus Édouard, the typical “young man from the provinces” who arrives in Paris seeking his fortune and his own sentimental education. Although, in comparison with her first two novels, Those Without Shadows comprises a greatly expanded cast of characters (as well as marking a shift innarrative perspective from the first to the third person), the focus at any given moment is on a particular three who form an amorous grouping.
It seems logical to refer to the characters as a “cast,” because Those Without Shadows and Sagan’s subsequent novels consistently depict bittersweet dramas played out on the stages of fashionable cafés, drawing rooms, and beaches where the idle rich play their parts. No longer students, these characters are actresses, writers, and producers. The line is blurred between theatrical illusion and reality; often there is nothing behind a character’s mask, as though Sagan is duplicating in her characterizations the superficiality of the characters themselves.
The sensation of reading a script is accentuated in these novels by the lack of description, absence of color, and simplicity of detail. What counts...
(The entire section is 3148 words.)