Françoise Sagan Essay - Sagan, Françoise (Pseudonym of Françoise Quoirez) (Vol. 6)

Françoise Quoirez

Sagan, Françoise (Pseudonym of Françoise Quoirez) (Vol. 6)

Sagan, Françoise (Pseudonym of Françoise Quoirez) 1935–

Mlle Sagan, a French novelist and playwright, is the author of Bonjour Tristesse, a best seller in twenty languages. Brigid Brophy, who has called her "the most underestimated presence in postwar French writing," writes that Mlle Sagan is "making, creating, artistic gestures in the face of life, and elegance is of the essence of a gesture."

It has taken me years to come to appreciate Françoise Sagan's kind of smoothness. I pick up one of her books and think, how trite; why do they like her so much? Then against my puritanical will I get involved, slide over the shining marble floors on her seemingly effortless construction.

What a pleasure then, to pick up "Scars on the Soul" and find the heroine, Françoise Sagan herself, wondering also whether to get involved. (p. 6)

Lest dedicated Sagan fans fear that the precocious author of "Bonjour Tristesse" has drowned in existentialist or philosophical pomp, let me say at once that she has not. She confesses to boredom and uncertainty and approaching middle age (she's 39); she procrastinates. But she does, eventually, write the sentence that she is either destined or doomed to write….

Sagan is no Borges, and she knows it. What she can do is turn a neat sentence, order a wonderfully economical story. She has that French essential, mesure. No Saxon tantrums or Germanic hurricanes for her. She keeps you exactly informed of where her characters are—in sublet apartments in Paris, in elegant villas in the south …—and what they are up to….

With supreme confidence Sagan ties a knot in the handkerchief of literary self-doubt and makes it into a modish hat. She shows she knows what she is about, and enjoys it too—and that writing fairy tales is as good a profession as any other. (p. 7)

Marian Engel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 14, 1974.

[What] label, exactly (or even approximately) is one to put on the books of Françoise Sagan? It is a question that has vexed more of us than would probably care to admit it, at least aloud. Is she, after all, nothing but an entertainer, a superficial romantic, or is she something disturbingly more subtle? True, her books have brought a suspicious amount of pleasure to a wide readership, mostly feminine; worse, they have proven easily transposable into a certain sort of motion picture. Why, then, does she trouble us?

Foremost is the problem of her subject matter—the frivolous people, the night clubs, the fast cars, the brittle affairs, the soft focus and the easy dooms, the hermetically sealed, bittersweet world of the love story. In terms of social consciousness, her books seem to have no more weight than their author's reflection in the mirror, no more relevance to the affairs of the real world than so much well-concocted marzipan.

And yet even among her most ardent (and, at the other end of the scale, studiously indifferent) detractors, there has dwelt a persistent, uneasy, and half-baffled sense that she is really up to more than she seems to be, that behind the mask there lurks a shrewd seriousness of intent that defies and perhaps even deliberately mocks analysis.

Scars on the Soul marks a radical and important departure from this sort of writing. It is not, I think, a significant work of literature, as such things are judged: its Ionesco-like effects are more than a trifle shopworn, and she cannot resist entertaining us even at the moments of greatest pain. But as a document of a writer's agonized self-appraisal, as a plea almost for help, and above all as a promissory note to be redeemed in the future, it deserves both our sympathy and close attention.

L. J. Davis, "Bonjour Tristesse," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 28, 1974, p. 2.

["Scars on the Soul"] is full of philosophizing and devoid of almost everything else. A fiction of sorts unfolds between pages of musing and self-display: two gorgeously languid characters from her play, "Castle in Sweden," the van Milhem siblings Sebastian and Eleanor, are revived ten years later and allowed to drift through a plot whose subsidiary characters keep dropping away (one commits suicide, others are abandoned or forgotten by the author) like petals from a vase of tired roses. The plot is in fact a subplot; the real plot, and the more exciting one, traces the chic, bored, speed-crazy ex-prodigy's attempts, through Normandy vacations and automobile accidents and spells of acedia, to push this little book through to its ending. End it does, with Françoise Sagan, as a character, in the arms of her paper hero, and this bit of origami may be, in her mind, her ticket of admission to the ranks of the New Novelists….

One must be fair. There is a dainty wit, a parody of decadence, in the delineation of the ethereally incestuous and cheerfully parasitical van Milhems. Not all of the author's aperçus are banal; she knows her world of night clubs and vacation villas and remorselessly self-conscious love. The book reads easily; it is company. The author's cry of personal crisis, which leads to a novel that haltingly invents itself under our eyes, feels sincere; she is honest even in her lameness and limpness of thought, and her self-exposure, as "someone tapping away at her typewriter because she's afraid of herself and the typewriter and the mornings and the evenings and everything else," has its fascination, as do, on this side of the Atlantic, the lurching franknesses of Mailer and Vonnegut. However, there is about "Scars on the Soul" an arrogant flimsiness that invites a quarrel, just as the generous margins and blank interchapter pages invite contentious jotting. "Oh, tush!" and "Ho-hum," I discover myself to have written, respectively, beside [various] pieces of Mlle. Sagan's wisdom…. (p. 95)

We have indeed come a long, heavy way from "Bonjour Tristesse," with its sparkling sea and secluding woods, its animal quickness, its academically efficient plot, its heroes and heroines given the perfection of Racine personae by the young author's innocent belief in glamour. The van Milhelms, those blond leeches, seem—by this retrospect—degenerate forms of the incestuous affection between Cecile and her father in "Bonjour Tristesse." Incest, self-love's first venture outward, feels deliberately burlesqued; Mlle. Sagan—at this juncture in her career, at least—has ceased to love herself, and has lost with love the impetus to create a fictional world. (p. 96)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 12, 1974.

Françoise Sagan has written an 'experimental novel' [Scars on the Soul]. It would have been a brave gesture anyway. In the event it's a triumph. To the classic Sagan structure she's added a new wing, in modern idiom. This, far from wrecking the symmetry and economy, enriches and solidifies them: with new avenues of irony and also with a new emotional dimension, tragedy, and a new imagist one, surrealism….

In keeping with her preoccupations ('the only God I acknowledge is Time'), her characters' sometimes limited perceptions (Robert, who loves him, sees Bruno as 'like one of those characters in Proust, of whom he had read only the biography') and her own choice of writing surname, Mlle Sagan—or, as it now seems only right to call her, in double tribute, Princess Sagan—extrapolates her 'modernism' from Proust rather than the at present more fashionable founding father, Joyce. She has taken the ambiguous assonance between Marcel Proust and his I-narrator who may be called Marcel, unravelled it and re-sorted the strands into a pattern where they sometimes counterpoint each other and sometimes … converge.

The device of admitting, within a fiction, that the fiction has an author is as old as Cervantes (not to mention Jane Austen and Thackeray). Since it's a distancing device, it suits Princess Sagan's ironic and architectural talent…. After a couple of pages her own tone of voice sounds firmly through and she starts on her donnée proper, the fine literary conceit of resuming two of the characters from her play Château en Suède.

This resurrection, by referring back to an act of authorship outside the frame of the book, establishes the author in the book. From then on she propounds, interleaved and sometimes confluent, two narratives…. Finally the two narratives mate….

Each story metaphors the other. The author of this book has no resources except the most aristocratic, most unfairly distributed, of all: talent. That is, by the way, why Sagan seldom gets from intellectuals the praise she deserves. (p. 626)

Brigid Brophy, "Princess," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 1, 1974, pp. 626-27.

Today, Bonjour Tristesse seems tame enough, but back in the '50s, a novel in which the narrator, a young girl just out of convent school, plots successfully to get rid of her charming libertine father's wife-to-be, all the while having her first affair with a handsome student—an affair that admittedly involves simple pleasure rather than love or commitment of any sort—was considered a real breakthrough. Then too, Sagan wrote a spare, clean prose, defining her heroine's sensations with precision and economy. Only a few reviewers discerned at the time that behind the hip, cool manner and the "classical" prose, Sagan had a simplistic, sentimental vision of life, that the vague sense of "tristesse" the heroine feels when her father's mistress finally commits suicide pretty well reflected Sagan's own response to human suffering. And indeed, the success of Bonjour Tristesse was not to be repeated. Sagan went on to write pulp fiction and gradually faded into oblivion. Mention her name to most undergraduates today and they will probably respond with a puzzled "Françoise who?" (p. 1)

Marjorie Perloff, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 6, 1975.