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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720

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When Bonjour Tristesse first appeared, Françoise Sagan was only nineteen. Her remarkable achievement in producing a stylistically masterful novel at such a young age accounts to a large degree for the worldwide celebrity that immediately ensued. Sagan, whose pen name was borrowed from a character in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1922; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), was romanticized by the public, which saw the novel as an allegory of adolescent alienation and identified the author with her tragic heroine. Sagan tried to live up to the image she had created, using literature to achieve the kind of celebrity later associated with Elvis Presley and Andy Warhol. As such, she remains an important figure who bridges the gap between high and popular culture and whose status as a media icon has at times overshadowed her accomplishments as an author, playwright, and filmmaker.

The tragedies of Sagan’s own life, such as a near-fatal accident in her Aston Martin in 1957, her history of alcoholism and addiction during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and her physical collapse while accompanying French president François Mitterrand on a trip to South America in 1985, have dominated tabloid headlines in France and around the world. Her love of fast cars is in itself famous, and she has used the image of driving at the limit of control as a metaphor for life. She became addicted to painkillers during the recovery from her car accident, an experience that she recounts in Toxique (1964), a powerful text on the psychological effects of drugs.

Sagan has always been aware of the dangers associated with wealth and glamour, and she even addressed those dangers prophetically in her first novel. The manner in which the frivolous, pleasure-seeking world of her characters tends ineluctably toward tragedy and emptiness is a remarkably clear-sighted commentary on the mechanism of popular culture to which Bonjour Tristesse belongs. The novel is a best-seller that manifests literary ambition and philosophical overtones, yet it is a best-seller all the same. If Sagan had deliberately set out to write the book that would bring her the greatest amount of fame in the shortest amount of time, she need not have done anything differently.

In the light of the sensationalism that accompanied the novel’s release, it is ironic that much of its early fame (or infamy) was partly the result of misinterpretation: It was widely assumed that Cécile represented a new, amoral generation that echoed, though in a more superficial mode, the atheism and pessimism of the existentialist movement. That early response, while contributing to the novel’s popularity, failed to take into account two important elements: first, that Cécile learns her nihilistic attitude from her elders, especially her father; second, the fact that the entire novel is written as a confession, as a purging of guilt, and not as the proud manifesto of a new amorality. As time passed, the scandalous reputation of Sagan and her work subsided, and appreciation of her talent became more subtle; the artificial public image that it created, however, continued with little change.

People were perhaps not too far off the mark, on the other hand, when they saw a connection between Bonjour Tristesse and the existentialist movement which by that time had become a solidly entrenched fashion in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris. In 1980, Sagan kept Jean-Paul Sartre company during the last days of his life, after having published an open letter in which she declared her admiration for him and his influence on her career. Since this is one of the few examples of Sagan’s claiming any kind of intellectual heritage, it needs to be studied carefully. Certainly, Bonjour Tristesse is not far from being an existentialist novel. Centering as it does on the irremediable consequences of one’s actions, it is a kind of moral parable in the spirit of many of the fictional works of Sartre and Albert Camus. Sagan was steeped in the spirit of French cultural life of the early 1950’s, and the impact of that particular time reverberates throughout her work. For some time, the roots of her novelistic sensibility in the period of her own early adulthood made people think of her work as outdated, but that judgment, like many others made over the years, is gradually losing credibility.


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