Sagan, Françoise (Vol. 3)

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1077

Sagan, Françoise 1919–

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Ms. Sagan, a French novelist, is best-known for Bonjour Tristesse, a novel that was considered mildly shocking in its time, and won for its author the Prix des Critiques in 1954.

The irony now is that we can hear—every word; and every word is precisely articulated and justly placed. As the glass coach rolls by with Sagan inside, we are auditors of a series of low-toned but fluent and exactly calculated monologues…. What has escaped most people's ears is that they are works of art….

Good or bad, Sagan can't be ignored, a salience which seems so to irritate the intellectuad that, being obliged to deal with her, he deals carelessly….

Sagan's world contains hardly any objects. Never was a writer more free from the tyranny of the thing in itself (or in its associations or its symbolic value). There is weather, but scarcely vegetation—only the few trees necessary to be agités or figés, according to season, by the weather. The telephone exists (though implied by the most abstract possible phrasing) only for the conversation, alcohol only for the effects of one character's drunkenness on another. The thing in itself is all but suppressed—expunged, almost, from the very metaphors—in favour of the character in his relationships.

Even the characters are not quite there in their own right, apart from the structure they support and which supports them. They are slightly more caryatids than people. The author takes three, four or six of them, sets them down in well-thought-out positions and orders them to spin a roof over their heads. They do: the fabric of the book. It is neat, logical and pleasing. And thus each of the characters does stand up, but only thanks to his inter-relationships with the others….

Sagan's architecture is of the kind where the fabric—which is limited to the economical minimum consistent with logic—is only there to define the space enclosed. Short as they are, [her] books make the effect not at all of tours-de-force. They are neither condensed nor intense. They are empty. In these human still lives it is not the spatial relationships which matter—they are only there to give you the scale: it is the spaces.

Sagan is a relentless writer, but not a relentless expositor of human relationships. Towards those she is merely ruthless, in the cursoriness with which she will treat them. As relentlessly as Simenon evokes physical atmospheres to fill his books, as relentlessly as Firbank harps on the erotic, so relentlessly does Sagan harp on a single emotional mood and empty her books in order to accommodate it: for the mood is emptiness….

The fabric she creates is exactly one which leaves her characters room to turn round: to turn round and round: to notice how, though related to others, they are not interwoven to the last point of being compelled. Tour-de-force novels swaddle the character in a situation which in the end makes it imperative to commit that crime, leave this husband, go to bed with that mistress. Sagan, who sets her characters socially free from compulsions by making them rich and leisured, sets them free of emotional compulsions, too. In love, they are obsessed by the awareness that their love is not quite obsessive….

Autobiographical in nothing else, all Sagan's novels are autobiographies of mood. The characters exist in order that they may all dwell in a prolongation of one of those days when the earth looks flat…. Sagan's is the art of 'So what?' Her pessimistic realism insists that it is only one's deluded narcissism which sees momentousness. She is too realistically ironical to allow her characters the delusion that the plot and the situation are pressing upon them, compelling them in certain directions. She keeps the Perspex walls of their world a little apart from them, a little disdainfully—they can never complain they were ill-treated. The fabric of life must remain ambiguous—is it one's cage or one's shelter? By the same token she forbids her own narrative manner to impinge on or oppress the characters. They make no extravagant gestures; she flowers into no poetic improbabilities. The effulgence of a metaphor rarely crosses her pure style. Her very irony is kept to the subepigrammatic…. Her wit and observation are allowed to shoot no more than a shimmer of amusement across the surface….

Sagan's novels continue a tradition which passes through La Princesse de Clèves and Adolphe and is usually said to be peculiarly and untranslateably French. She writes—beautifully—the classic French prose which French people always warn English people against over-estimating; it can, they say, be written by any French person who has been to a lycée….

To say that Sagan's books are concerned with nothing less elemental than life is not to say that she makes statements about life. Indeed, it would be fatal to her art to do so. Art is declaration, not statement. Sagan is making, creating, artistic gestures in the face of life, and elegance is of the essence of a gesture. Her elegance is vital to her artistic integrity. She could no more afford metaphysics in her thought than woolliness in her style. She perfectly understands that to be a philosopher is merely to be earnest, whereas to be an artist is to be serious.

Brigid Brophy, "Françoise Sagan and the Art of the Beau Geste" (1963), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 269-84.

Françoise Sagan … belongs to that generation of young novelists who tried to express what separated them from preceding generations. In spite of an unexpected and extraordinary success that is difficult to account for, she is not the most gifted of them…. [She writes] simple stories, unelaborate and written in a classical, highly restrained style. Yet the restraint of manner conceals great audacity of purpose. These delicate stories describe the quiet, silent emancipation of a generation that has ratified the failure of its elders and which is no longer concerned with the rules of 'good breeding' and goes its own way. She wishes to live according to her own rules. She has no illusions.

Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, p. 118 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).

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Sagan, Françoise (Vol. 17)