Françoise Sagan, born Françoise Quoirez, was a child of a well-to-do family, educated at convent schools and at the Sorbonne. She failed her second-year examination to qualify for a higher academic degree at the Sorbonne, and in what she has suggested was an effort to placate her parents, she spent the summer writing Bonjour Tristesse (“Hello sadness”). She was only eighteen years old. The novel’s seventeen-year-old heroine, Cecile, narrates the story, which has been praised for its mature style, its perceptiveness of human character, and Sagan’s fine portrayal of an adolescent’s emotional confusion. The brief, 125-page novel was a huge commercial success, with more than 810,000 copies sold in France by 1958 and more than one million copies sold in the United States. It has been translated into twenty languages and was awarded the prestigious Prix des Critiques. Sagan’s lighter, escapist novel was a welcome change from the more profound, more philosophical or metaphysical writings of some of her literary predecessors. With this first and her subsequent novels, she was soon considered the spokesperson for a “particular brand of French upper-middle-class ennui.”
Divided into two parts, the novel first introduces Cecile; her worldly, amoral father, Raymond; and his mistress Elsa in Part 1. Cecile as narrator reveals herself as simultaneously intelligent, sophisticated, and naïve. As is true of many self-absorbed teenagers, she is familiar with many aspects of grown-up behavior while naïvely unaware of what mature life is really all about—although she thinks she knows all she needs to know and has seen it all. When Anne Larsen comes on the scene, a surprising side of Cecile is revealed. Though no more self-absorbed than most, her exposure to one kind of grown-up living under her father’s casual tutelage has caused her to be imprudent and selfish. She becomes manipulative and even perverse in her desire to reassert her position in her father’s affections and, lacking that, to stop the marriage between Anne and her father.
Part 2 expands this newly revealed side of Cecile, showing her evolving into an even more conflicted personality. She changes from moment to moment, from being a child longing to win back or hold onto the favor of a beloved parent, or surrogate, as Anne has been to her in the past, to being a crafty schemer with no scruples. Her ambivalence toward all the other major characters keeps her in shifting states of disquiet. By the time Anne’s tragic demise occurs, a reader has likely run the gamut of feeling about Cecile, from liking and disliking and being disappointed to feeling a vague optimism that she could turn out to be the person one hopes she is.
Cecile’s characterization is so well drawn that this young girl with all her flaws is completely believable. She is the recognizable teenage girl, motivated by the love she has for her father and by the jealousy his relationship with Anne has provoked. Twenty-first century readers may not be as shocked with Cecile as were the readers of the 1950’s. Most, however, will still be drawn to her typically teenage need to admire and even revere those adults important in her life, such as Anne, while she is still unable to resist an almost pathological desire to scandalize and even horrify them. Cecile flaunts her drinking, smoking, and sexual shenanigans with Cyril to encourage such reactions.
The novel features a deceptively simple structure, an attractive theme of an innocent in search of experience, and an artful portrayal of the decadence of a particular French social class, all delivered with irony and an easy narrative style. Sagan’s narrator speaks...
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from two points of view. Cecile tells her story after the events have occurred: At the beginning of Part 1, she says “That summer I was seventeen and perfectly happy.” Cecile narrates the story, however, as if unaware of the events that will transpire. Sagan moves back and forth seamlessly between the unaware Cecile and the aware Cecile. Also, while the reader gets an intriguing insight into the psyche of an adolescent girl on the brink of womanhood, Cecile’s and her father’s lifestyle provides a fascinating view of an aspect of post-World War II French society.
Until Sagan produced several more of the forty-five novels she would write in her lifetime, many critics dismissed her as a superficial novelist. Her first-person narrative style and her youth seemed to confirm that she was not mature enough to write anything with any depth. However, her great success with Bonjour Tristesse and subsequent works lifted her into the pantheon of important modern French writers. Bonjour Tristesse remains in print and, for a book more than half a century old, in reasonable demand.