Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3148
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 are the relationships between characters, their conversations and their interior monologues. Although her restrained, spare style seems very modern, Sagan continues a nineteenth century novelistic tradition in her willingness to reveal the thoughts and emotions of her characters.
One of these figures, the attractive Josée, appears in three novels and seems to embody both affirmative values and entrenched dilemmas in Sagan’s fiction. By following Josée’s career, one can perceive themes and patterns that recur throughout the novels. In Those Without Shadows, Josée is a wealthy, rootless girl, vaguely uneasy about her lack of purpose in life. She feels completely adrift, spared as she is from even the necessity of earning a living. She is in love with Jacques and is loved by Bernard. The fact that Jacques is a serious medical student seems to provide an emotional anchor for Josée. Nevertheless, at the end of the novel, Bernard and Josée note that only the passage of time is reliable; in a month, or a year (dans un mois, dans un an, as in the French title), Josée will probably no longer love Jacques, nor will Bernard love Josée. Nothing, however, will really have changed: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (The more things change the more they are the same). When Bernard wonders what it all means, Josée’s advice is that it is best not to think about it. Thus, life goes on in Saganland.
The next two novels in which Josée appears intensify Sagan’s focus on the actions of those in love and particularly on the illogical twists and turns of the amorous psyche. Wonderful Clouds finds Josée in the United States, enmeshed in a peculiar marriage to Alan, a rich American who is handsome, neurotic, and obsessively jealous. Their perverse relationship has isolated Josée from her former social network in France and has all but extinguished her zest for life. The Florida sun is relentless rather than soothing and nurturing.
Beneath Josée’s despairing cynicism, however, remains an unquenchable spark of spontaneous gaiety, an enduring joie de vivre that distinguishes all of Sagan’s most sympathetic characters. If they are careless of others, irresponsible, and capricious in love, they are also capable of nostalgia for a lost innocence, a wistful longing for a paradise that has never been and that their worldly selves would assert could never be. They are soothed by the simple, sensual pleasures of the sun, the wind, a musical refrain, or the fragrance of spring. As long as these things can be felt, a naïve, basic joy in living remains. This childlike spirit responds to and believes in a friendship of a selfless nature, and while no fuss is made over friendship and fresh air, the possibility of rediscovering such wholesome joys is frequently all that prevents a character from giving up life altogether.
In Josée’s case, it is Bernard’s friendship that helps her break away from Alan’s cruelly possessive spell. Unfortunately, her husband follows her to France, where the plot follows their psychological struggles set against the backdrop of Josée’s old artistic and literary crowd. In the end, Josée and Alan reach an empty truce: Having killed their love, they are too exhausted to part from each other.
Lost Profile, written more than a decade after Wonderful Clouds, offers an even more bizarre twist in the puzzle of freedom and bondage that threatens to overwhelm Josée in her relationship with Alan. At the beginning of Lost Profile, she is literally a prisoner in their Paris apartment, until she is forcibly rescued by a powerful businessman, Julius Cram. He then provides her with a job, an apartment, and designer clothes, arranging everything so that the credulous Josée is unaware of the source of her “good fortune.” Julius makes no physical demands on her, and eventually she meets Louis, a handsome veterinarian who represents the wholesome, sane country life.
Julius’s apparent disinterest turns increasingly menacing, even as he reveals his delight in Josée’s lively spirit, the one thing that never bores him. At the same time, Josée has been growing more and more confident in what she believes is her new life as an independent woman. When Julius’s masquerade disintegrates in an explosive scene that reveals him as a madman with delusions of absolute power over Josée’s life, she flees to the country, to Louis and their dog, to their marriage and their baby. Her illusory freedom from Alan had been only another perverse gilded cage, a grotesque form of bondage, manipulated by the spiritually frozen Julius, who is as much a victim of his machinations as is Josée.
Sagan’s other novels of this twenty-year period are essentially variations on the same theme. There is always a confrontation between youth and age, frequently between an attractive middle-aged woman and a younger man. The young man who pines for Paule in Aimez-vous Brahms? reappears in The Heart-Keeper as a Hitchcockian psychopath who kills anyone who annoys his adored mistress, a fact it takes her four murders to realize. In La Chamade, the Josée-like heroine returns to her older protector, unable to manage the realities of life without wealth. This group of novels ends with an affirmation of enduring love, however, as Béatrice and Édouard, who had an unhappy affair in Those Without Shadows, rediscover, in The Unmade Bed, what promises to be a lasting commitment to each other.
In 1972, Sagan published an unusual book, Scars on the Soul, in which she weaves bits of first-person narration within a sketchy fictional tale involving two characters from her play Château en Suède. The narrator, who resembles Sagan in almost every respect, discusses her craft of fiction and the state of her soul, carelessly picking up her story from time to time, occasionally dropping a character who bores her or whom she has simply forgotten. Eleanor and her brother Sebastian, the fictionalprotagonists, are a pair of elegant, insouciant freeloaders who care only for each other. In the beginning, they have arrived in Paris, penniless and seeking “patrons.” At the end, they have joined the narrator for a respite from society at her country house near the Atlantic coast. Critics scarcely knew what to make of this perplexing text. Some accused Sagan of lazily combining her own woolgathering with a threadbare plot. Others took the novel as a shallow attempt to write a New Novel in the intellectual manner of modern French novelists such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, or Michel Butor. Most agreed that Scars on the Soul seemed to reveal an author who had lost her taste for the glamorous, worldly society she had chronicled ever since her first best seller.
It is not surprising, then, to note that the novel following Scars on the Soul is Lost Profile, in which Josée turns her back on Parisian high society to follow her veterinarian to the country. For once, there is the suggestion of something to fill the emptiness. Where Lucile’s experiment with love and commitment in La Chamade ends in abortion and defeat, Josée, pregnant by Louis, has at last discovered a plenitude, a purpose for her heretofore aimless existence.
The Unmade Bed
In The Unmade Bed, Sagan’s last novel of the 1970’s, Béatrice and Édouard also return from a social life of changing partners and relationships based on ambition or proximity more often than on any real bonds. Their sensual hideaway, a repeated motif in Sagan’s novels, becomes for the first time a positive symbol. Sagan’s previous variations on the theme of the secluded love nest always implied a break in time after which the lovers return to the world and to inevitable separation. Dominique and Luc (in A Certain Smile) or Josée and Bernard (in Those Without Shadows) simply step out of their usual lives for a brief, idyllic tryst. Gilles and Nathalie (in A Few Hours of Sunlight) are tragically unsuccessful when they try to transfer their privileged moments of isolation in the provinces to the new setting of Gilles’s full life in Paris. Alan, of course, completely reverses the image in the perverse prison from which Josée barely escapes. In contrast to all of these novels, The Unmade Bed depicts a secret refuge in the heart of Paris where Béatrice and Édouard can renew their private commitment and where they may find lasting fulfillment.
Having achieved a more positive view of the possibility for happiness between two individuals, Sagan published a startlingly different novel in 1980 that seemed intended as a reply to critics who wondered whether she was capable of writing about anything other than the gilded jet set. This novel, Salad Days, is set in a grimy working-class boardinghouse near Lille. As in Sagan’s other novels, the structure of the plot is classically simple, although the novel is filled with descriptive detail. The focus is on the emotional relationship between a young man and an older woman. This man, however, is one of life’s awkward losers, and she is his landlady, a well-worn former gangster’s moll. The story is in the tradition of Guy de Maupassant. A young man finds a cache of jewels whose mere presence in his shabby room transforms his life. Believing that he murdered to gain possession of the jewels, his landlady gazes upon him in admiration. He responds by acting the part of an aggressive type, capable of sudden violence. They become lovers, their love nest a deliberate parody of all of those glamorous hideaways in Sagan’s earlier novels. In the end, the young man proves his own worth, just as Sagan proves her ability to depict a shadowy underworld miles away from the sunny Riviera.
The Painted Lady
With The Painted Lady, Sagan returned to the world of the very rich, but in this novel they are observed from a distance. No longer sharing the embrace of her two main characters, as in Scars on the Soul, the narrator here keeps an ironic and omniscient eye on her socialites, whom she sets forth on a luxury cruise ship aptly named Narcissus. In this more loosely structured novel, Sagan seems to have chosen the traditional novelist’s way of combining an entertaining story with witty social commentary as she observes life in the luxury class aboard her ship of fools. A pure soul, reminiscent of Josée, is detached from her cruel spouse by her love for a happy-go-lucky con artist. An ambitious starlet is revealed as a foolish, heartless creature, while her director finds true friendship, and perhaps more, with an elegant, aging socialite. Each is revealed as flawed in some more or less amusing way, to the degree that each retains good humor and a passionate, spontaneous zest for life. In Bonjour Tristesse, these qualities made Cécile appealing instead of appalling. In The Painted Lady, these values remain, Sagan’s true gold beneath the gilt. The former enfant terrible showed herself to be a perceptive chronicler of human nature, recounted with Gallic humor, charm, and elegance.
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