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Françoise Sagan 1935–
(Pseudonym of Françoise Quoirez) French author of novels, plays, short stories, screenplays, songs, and autobiographical works.
The success of Bonjour Tristesse made Sagan a world-wide literary celebrity before she was 20. Acclaimed by some as a born writer for the artistry of her spare prose, Sagan was said to have captured the mood of her generation. Like most of her later characters, the protagonist of Bonjour Tristesse is self-indulgent and restless, struggling with little success against the inertia that deadens her comfortable life. The skill evidenced by Sagan's early novels earned her many comparisons to the French novelist Colette.
The links between her personal life and her writing remain mysterious at best, despite the publication of several autobiographical works. Many readers were surprised by her ability while still a teenager to write about sexual involvements with precision and distance. Though she became the subject of countless interviews and endless curiosity she claimed to be affected by her success only in that it allowed her to own fast cars. A crash in 1957 nearly killed her, and led to a temporary morphine dependency about which she wrote in Toxique, but it appears doubtful that her belief in the fragility of life was greatly changed by the experience.
Over the years Sagan's novels have been both praised and blamed for their unrelenting focus on one theme: the futility of love in a world where people are preoccupied by superficialities. Subtlety is essential to the cool, analytical tone in which she describes each failure, and few critics challenge her technical skill. Recently, however, some have suggested that her subject itself is disappearing under the gloss of her style. Yet others see her worldly wise pose as that of the eternal adolescent, whose alternating moods of indifference and excitement are youth's true experience of life. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)
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["Bonjour Tristesse"] is a charming story, and I pay tribute to the chief of its charms—the author's youth. Reading along, one almost pictures a young girl deciding to be an author. Vacation has begun, so she sits down at her table, pushes aside her textbooks and starts writing…. All the depth of the past in the light of the present; so much life lived, so much still to live and all kinds of possible "psyches" to set free….
More often than not, in such aspirations to authorship, things go wrong. Yet Mademoiselle Sagan gives proof that she has the right qualities; she moves at once from amateur to professional status. She has talent and facility. She has read, too. She knows a thing or two. She won't let out a long romantic wail, nor refurbish some worn out philosophy of the absurd or of the superman. No, she is modest, even when rather naughty. And she remains a good girl. She can lead her heroine to her lover, but not as far as a child. In short, she has a sense of proportion—even in cocktails.
For it really is a cocktail—as smooth and stimulating, and as complicated as you could wish from a young girl…. It's nature to the life….
You can guess … the mixture; a little perversity, a dash of false candor, a tinge of involuntary frankness; a suggestion of "Claudine" (the Claudine of Colette), a hint of Raymond Radiguet, that teenage novelist of the Nineteen Twenties, whose "The Devil in the Flesh" was so memorable. Here and there, we find those small lapses of syntax or of spelling by which, no doubt, the youthful author sets out to show that she is out of college. In brief, nothing is missing; the cocktail is not too strong for the palate, but it titillates agreeably.
So it's a success. After that, let us not be too difficult. The theme lacks probability…. The plot savors of the artificial, the characters are a little too conventional and slightly superficial. All the same, the fact remains that the writer disarms us and that her book is light and fragile and pleasant to read from beginning to end (or almost so). Perhaps we would expect more from her if she had given us a more clumsily constructed story through which pierced a more peremptory note. Yet, in the end, between two exams, it is a success.
Marcel Arland, "A Piquant Situation," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 27, 1955, p. 5.
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[Bonjour Tristesse] is as preposterous a book as one is likely to come across in a long time…. Bonjour Tristesse is childish and tiresome in its single-minded dedication to decadence. (pp. 163-64)
The whole long short story reminds one of nothing so much as of [Daisy Ashford's] The Young Visiters. It has that same almost incredible naïveté, but with none of its charm and unconscious humor. It is over-explicit and it is pompous—the doggedly wayward child's view of the grown-up world, seen through a glass immaturely. (p. 164)
[There] never really is any gaiety whatever. The decadence, such as it is, is remarkably tepid and dull. [The characters] all plod so earnestly in the vague direction of pleasure. (p. 165)
Nora L. Nagid, "The Decadent Life," in Commonweal (copyright © 1955 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 6, May 13, 1955, pp. 163-65.
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[Bonjour Tristesse] is heavy with the hum of the noonday plage, weighted with sand and ice cubes, full of the scent of pine needles—it has everything Mr. [Cyril] Connolly implies in his phrase, "the arrogant private dream." (p. 727)
Mlle Sagan tells her story exquisitely, in a melodic, fast-flowing prose that is ideally suited to the material….
It has been suggested that this novel is slick and meretricious. Personally I do not find it so. Setting aside Mlle Sagan's extraordinary precocity, the book seems to me a considerable achievement, a work of art of much beauty and psychological perception. If the writer falters anywhere, it is, I think, in her melodramatic ending and, perhaps even more, in her portrait of Anne, who never quite comes alive except as a paragon and as a victim. But with the father and daughter Mlle Sagan excels. Cécile and Raymond, like M. [Albert] Camus's amoral Outsider, like the lady in [Samuel] Johnson's Rambler, are "neutral beings." It is their complicity, their "arrogant private dream" that their creator has rendered so perfectly. (p. 728)
John Raymond, "Two First Novels," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1955 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XLIX, No. 1263, May 21, 1955, pp. 727-28.∗
Bonjour Tristesse was written by a girl of nineteen in little more than a month. As such it is a considerable achievement. Mlle. Françoise Sagan unquestionably possesses a precocious insight into emotional entanglements, and she writes clearly and straight forward, if without any distinguishing merit of style. Yet even so her story, the situation she describes in it and the manner in which she does so, are only at one remove from the more banal form of romantic novelette….
Mlle. Sagan gives a vivid impression of the intensity as well as the intransience of adolescent moods; at the same time one had hoped to find in Bonjour Tristesse better justification for its startling success.
"Somewhere East of Suez," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1955; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2778, May 27, 1955, p. 28.
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[With the publication of "A Certain Smile"] Mlle. Sagan comes a bit more into focus. She has been listening to herself in the age-old wise way of born authors, has grown less shrill, allowed herself a bit more humor, even if wistful, and is less the pert voyeuse.
"A Certain Smile" takes the young first person protagonist from perhaps seventeen in the first book to nineteen or twenty when the current tale opens. Dominique, Mlle. Sagan's protagonist, is now a "serious" student at the Sorbonne and faces that vacuum of emotional direction so characteristic of the threshold of maturity. This little girl, whose capacity for life and love grows as she learns to avoid existentialist attitudinizing—is au fond a groping youngster with wit and perception….
In the process of emotional growth she is stripped of pretense, of indifference, and of a certain preoccupation with non-feeling very akin to living death.
At the book's end Dominique has met emotion in many forms. She has even acquired some nascent capacity to sense the hurt of others….
If Françoise Sagan, a growing human being, is given a chance to stand back and look at herself in relation to future work, is not jounced by a fiction-hungry public into continuously premature performance, she can achieve a certain power. Her books are swift with insight and growing emotional capacity. Her style is honest, direct, and her dialogue true. But for her sake let's hold back those invidious comparisons. Colette indeed! She might turn out to be Sagan.
Frances Keene, "Encore for Mlle. Sagan," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIX, No. 33, August 18, 1956, p. 13.
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For ["A Certain Smile"] the author of "Bonjour Tristesse" has chosen a theme closer to experience, less armored in adolescent dream, and consequently a good deal more familiar than that of her sensational success of two years ago. Again we are exploring the shifting territory that lies between the generations, again our protagonist is a young girl the same age as her creator. But Dominique, if less original than Cecile, the bad seed of "Bonjour Tristesse," is more believable. Her story is more of a novel and less of a tour de force.
As an indication of Mlle. Sagan's future. I find this heartening. "Bonjour Tristesse" was a precocious book. It stamped a pattern of impossible, though amusing, events upon reality in a teen-age dream of wickedness, seduction, sophistication and power—for Cecile controlled and manipulated the adults about her at will. Her story was pure wish-fulfillment, carried off by the intensity and immediacy with which it was told, but inclined, whenever the author's concentration faltered, to turn sheerly absurd. Cecile's fascination with, and rage against, the adult world—the world that is threatening to manipulate her—are very telling. But her revenge never gets out of the realm of daydream or fairytale.
In "A Certain Smile" Mlle. Sagan has placed her young heroine, Dominique, in a situation which corresponds more closely with reality. Like Cecile, Dominique's central experience is of contact with the adult world; but it is a much more plausible contact. Indeed, Dominique's story is a retelling of one of the classic, one of the oldest, tales in the world: she falls in love with a man old enough to be her father….
Mlle. Sagan's version is valuable … on two counts. First, she manages to make the old legend moving in itself. And secondly, she tells it so honestly that the bare bones of her story indicate how the contemporary situation creates variations in the legend. (p. 1)
Mlle. Sagan is thus writing about something more than the sexual episodes which determine the actual narrative of her books; although a good part of her sensational success is no doubt due to the fact that she does write about them in some detail. One cannot absolve either book of exhibitionism. Indeed, there are times when both heroines, Cecile and Dominique, seemed to be crying insistently, "See how young I am! See how bad I can be!" This is dull, certainly, for any reader over the age of, say, 22, and if it were all that Mlle. Sagan had to say, her books could be dismissed as adolescent naughtiness. But there is more to her work than this. She is writing as well about the pathetic, greedy, touching, selfish efforts of youth to learn the rules by which the world is governed, to discover where points of pressure and centers of power are located, and how one goes about becoming part of the universe of action and event.
To tell this story Mlle. Sagan employs a style which has been highly praised, but which seems to me to have serious drawbacks. Her technique is that of setting down a series of immediate perceptions, of particular sensations…. The result is that Dominique, Luc and the rest seem to have little internal life of their own. They act without explaining themselves, and therefore they act abruptly and mysteriously. Mlle. Sagan may intend thus to convey the effect of ineluctable Fate moving among men; but the impression the reader actually receives is something different—that of a determined author manipulating her characters.
This is, I believe, a fault of youth. As Mlle. Sagan comes to trust her own ability more, she will be ready also to trust her characters to communicate her theme and convince us of it. Another youthful fault is the narrowness of her book. Stage-center, under a bright light, is Dominique. Everyone, everything else, shades off fast into darkness and dubiety. (pp. 1, 18)
This is, to sum up, a book by a young writer of talent. How much talent? Enough for her books to be moving and perceptive in spite of perhaps unavoidable sillinesses; enough for her second book to create reality more convincingly than her first. What she has already given us is worth thinking about. We have here a message elliptic, egoistic, but honest and intense, from the next generation. It is seldom, indeed, that we get such a message, for inarticulate youth, which is most youth, can only act, and then be unable to say why; and articulate youth has usually soaked itself so thoroughly in its reading, in trying to learn from the past, that it speaks more conventionally than its elders. (p. 18)
Elizabeth Janeway, "Dominique and the Old Magician," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 19, 1956, pp. 1, 18.
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The French have been rided and derided to considerable lengths on their presumed special affinity with amour and its ramifications, but Sagan's books (it is difficult, in discussing generalities, to treat them separately), deal with nothing else, and it would be silly to ignore the insinuation that this, together with her pungent, cynical manner of handling the subject, might account, in substantial measure, for their fascination among French readers…. Our fascination, in the case of A Certain Smile, tends to spring more from wonderment rather than interest: wonderment in the first place, why anyone should want to write a book, even a very short one, about a not-very-unhappy, one-sided, inconsequential love affair, and secondly, why it should be acclaimed by a nation which is reputed to know so much about the subject already.
The conviction apparent in both of Sagan's books arises from an honesty in elaborating situations in which she feels intimately at home, but this very honesty is also a limitation in the sense that while the characters are made to fill different roles in the two books, enough parallels can be drawn that one already has doubts as to what seemed to be a fictional imagination and originality of first rank. In both books we have the amoral young girl, her counterpart, the amoral "older man," and the foil to these two, the older woman who personifies middle-class morality. In both books, the mother-figure is done in (in different ways, to be sure) because she poses a threat to the child's happiness with the father-image—in Bonjour, her father himself; in A Certain Smile, her lover. The obvious Freudian implication makes a perfectly all-right psychological setup for as many novels as you like, of course, but it is hard not to wonder, first, how obsessively Sagan means to dwell on this interrelationship in forthcoming novels, and second, whether it wouldn't have been more discreet to have postponed writing A Certain Smile. It really is rather early, and a little too easy, to be drawing on her past work to this extent.
Even more disappointing, though, is the story of this second novel, which lacks the demonically dramatic conflict of Bonjour—the psychological tug-of-war between the daughter and her father's would-be-bride. Not only is there no drama in A Certain Smile, but the tone is so casual as to make the reader miss, more and more acutely as page follows page, that pleasurable weightiness which is part of the excitement of reading a new novel…. (p. 19)
If you can overcome a certain aversion to [her plot's] inanity, it is easy to admire Sagan's penetration of subtle and fleeting emotions—sometimes mere intimations of emotions—and her facility in getting them on paper. The dialogue is always natural, expressive and custom-made for each of the four characters (the uncle's wife has a minor part), and the various degrees of personal attraction, from disgust to tenderness are sensitively and poignantly analyzed. The characters live, certainly, but the question remains whether bringing them to life was worth the trouble. (pp. 19-20)
Robert Parris, "Grin, Grimmer, Grimace," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1956 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 135, No. 8, August 20, 1956, pp. 19-20.
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If there is any difference in merit between [Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile], it lies in the plots. The action in A Certain Smile is more ordinary; there is less suspense, and the heroine drifts with the tide instead of manipulating events like a juvenile Iago. A Certain Smile is truer to life on the level of general probability. On the level of imaginative excitement and surprise, it is not quite the equal of its brilliant predecessor.
Miss Sagan is a born storyteller, however, and even with a rather commonplace plot on her hands she can compel interest to the end. Her heroine is giddily charming, a quality which doesn't appear at all in the straight narrative but is conveyed with great skill through dialogue alone. She is indolent, inquisitive, and quite without scruples…. This unremarkable girl remains interesting because, for all her candid description of her actions and feelings, she never really explains herself. This is reasonable. Dominique is as puzzled by Dominique as anybody. The question that keeps the simple plot rolling is whether Dominique's agreement to conduct a brief love affair, with no affection on either side, will hold, and the author juggles it until the final curtain with great deftness.
Miss Sagan is a technician of a high order, working with exceptional economy and elegance in the tradition of Colette and Benjamin Constant. If there is any cause for concern in A Certain Smile, it is the lack of a sign that the author has tried to expand her view, vary her methods, or explore more deeply in the minds of her characters. A Certain Smile is a bull's-eye, true enough, but on the same range and the same target.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Life & Letters: 'A Certain Smile'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1956, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 198, No. 3, September, 1956, p. 82.
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Mlle. Sagan may very well have demonstrated that she is in the line of a great fictional tradition, reaching from Mme. de La Fayette, a seventeenth-century writer, through Benjamin Constant and Stendhal in the early nineteenth century, to the literary giant, Proust, with his Remembrance of Things Past. (p. 258)
Confronted with such a success, we may legitimately ask if this should be attributed to Mlle. Sagan's literary qualities alone, or whether there is something in the books that expresses the deeper yearnings of a generation. (p. 259)
[The present tendency of French youth] toward sober decisions finds an immediate explanation in the deceptiveness of extremist ideologies, on the one hand, and in the promises of a soon-to-achieve economic stabilization, on the other. But at a different, socially more sophisticated level, young French men and women have a greater difficulty in readjusting their vision.
One may safely say that part of Françoise Sagan's success and significance has its roots in the profound understanding she displays of the plight of her peers. This plight has little to do with poverty or prosperity: it is the result of the political-philosophical disappointments which, at this level, are experienced as failures of a class and as personal failures. Mlle. Sagan is, naturally, not a spoiled brat with a leopard-skin coat and a Jaguar, as popular magazines like to portray her; she belongs to a circle of young persons, sons and daughters of the Republic's most distinguished leaders in the field of politics, the letters and the arts.
As such, their personal history, that of their parents and social equals, coincides with the history of World War II, occupation, underground, liberation and the establishment of the Fourth Republic. The political, artistic, etc., philosophies of the last two decades may be said to have been elaborated in the circles where these young men and women live, and where doctrinal refinements, debated by half the world, are associated with the very men who propose them. It is easily understandable why the prestige of certain ideologies dies harder in these milieus, and why economic changes have no power here to dislocate cults rooted in personal relationships.
Françoise Sagan's novels express admirably the twilight of this world. Note the word ennui (boredom) so frequently used: boredom with the well-trodden routine of a comfortable existence, with the elusive substance of life. If Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile have about them an uncomfortable air of cynicism, this is not because they deal with illicit sexual relationships, but because they are unable to define happiness, to offer an image of it. Happiness is unknown: at best it is an "absence of boredom," a distraction in the Pascalian sense of the term. Love, in this light, is not to be imagined as a stormy passion; to be in love with a man means simply to be less bored with him than with another…. (pp. 262-63)
Does it mean that Françoise Sagan is the product of a "lost generation"? I think not. However disheartening, boredom in her case—in their case—is not the appalling confusion of an uprooted youth, cynically moving across the wastelands of mid-twentieth-century Western civilization; it is the taste which has remained in their mouths after they were forced to discard some old ideals and old meanings. In this sense boredom has a quality of temporariness about it, and thus it is essentially hopeful; it is like an intermediate phase between what is no longer and what is not yet. (p. 263)
Thomas Molnar, "Youth of France," in Catholic World (copyright 1957 by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York), Vol. 185, No. 1108, July, 1957, pp. 258-64.
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In Those Without Shadows [Sagan's overriding theme] is right out in the open. She writes about emotional greed and passes it off as love.
This is a grab story, of A and B and C in love with D, B in love with A, and D in love with herself. The characters are blurry round the edges and the whole book, brief as it is, lacks form. The touch of the portentous, from which Mlle. Sagan has never been entirely free, is deepening; she has an odd trick of stepping back and splashing some generality at her ruttish noodles as from a great, sighing age of experience. It makes the novel look silly, which it is: and the writer look silly, which she is very far from being. But she could do with some time off, in which to think about people harder, and to consider how she can deploy her natural gifts to far greater advantage. She can save herself from becoming the Clara Bow of literature, if she looks sharp about it.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, "New Novels: 'Those Without Shadows'," in New Statesman (© 1957 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1389, October 26, 1957, p. 541.
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["Those Without Shadows"] holds little in common with the uncommon gifts that rightfully contributed to the glowing reputation of the young author of "Bonjour Tristesse" and "A Certain Smile." Lacking the spark of life, her nine characters, awkwardly and ineffectively molded, become puppets in search of a plot and, more seriously, in search of their author….
In French, ["Those Without Shadows"] is called Dans Un Mois, Dans Un An, and refers to the month or the year when lovers cease to be in love. This is the theme that shapes the affairs of Miss Sagan's cast. Members of a tightly knit group of sophisticated Parisians …, they tangentially touch each other in a series of emotional partnerships. Almost, the events assume the choreographical outlines of a dance with partners changing as the music and the tempo of their desire change….
While she quickly flits back and forth over these successive entanglements, Miss Sagan lingers most over the affair between Bernard and Josie. What is strange about it is that, deliberately unromantic as she is in her approach to love which, in her terms, is desire, she gets very romantic and mawkishly sentimental in a "farewell to arms" scene that admittedly has no core of mutual need….
Actually, not one of Miss Sagan's men and women takes hold of the reader's interest or sympathy. What they are and what they do seems very unimportant. Artistically, as well as humanly, they are, in the words of the English title of the book, "Those Without Shadows," which is to say, figures without depth or dimension.
Rose Feld, "New Sagan: No Shadows, No Substance," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), Vol. 34. No. 12, October 27, 1957, p. 10.
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With her first novel, "Bonjour Tristesse," Françoise Sagan established herself as a phenomenon. With her second, "A Certain Smile," she indicated her staying power. With her third, it becomes possible to define, in some degree, her talent. For there is talent here, limited perhaps but more than superficial….
Within a certain range she has a sort of psychological "absolute pitch." The small immediate reactions of her characters are true and telling enough to breathe life even into the ones who have been sitting around Paris ever since they got lost there thirty years ago, when the sun also rose. Besides, her own curiosity and appetite for living belie every bit of the dismal "philosophy" with which her men and women attempt to console each other.
What Miss Sagan can't do—not yet, at any rate—is to plot. Her enormously ambitious plan [for "Those Without Shadows"] is to tell in 125 pages the story of how relationships change, over the period of a year, among nine people, most of them denizens of literary-theatrical Paris. She has, however, respected her own limitations to the extent of turning out merely a more-or-less related series of confrontations between various pairs among the nine in her cast. Often amusing or touching, these scenes are none the less too short to carry much conviction, or to allow much intensity to build up.
Miss Sagan, indeed, is wary of intensity and it seems at first blush rightly so, for where she essays it she usually produces a bumper crop of clichés….
Good novels, however, are written about intense emotion, and Miss Sagan is going to have to face up, sooner or later, to the problem of dealing convincingly with things that do "matter"—to her characters, to herself, and to her readers. So far the shock appeal of her youth has allowed her to slip obliquely around this central concern of the novelist. It has provided a distraction, just as the patter of the illusionist does, from the tricks of legerdemain which take the place of action at the heart of Miss Sagan's books.
Obviously this immunity cannot last. The question is whether Miss Sagan has profited from the protection it has given her, whether she has really grown toward maturity behind the screen of exploitation which has surrounded her. It may seem unlikely, but I think she has…. Miss Sagan has shown a progressive inclination to deal with wider vistas of the world and to move away from the area of adolescent wish-fulfillment where "Bonjour Tristesse" took place.
She has not stuck in the same book over, and she has shown that she can create new characters…. I hope that she will be brave enough soon to risk letting go the mask of precocity and to try writing a bigger book, a book where outright action will involve her characters with each other deeply enough to motivate change and development within them, and will more firmly engage the readers' emotions.
Elizabeth Janeway, "It Simply Didn't Matter," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1957, p. 5.
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If its author were not Françoise Sagan I doubt that Those Without Shadows …, a junior miss-sized work of fiction, would have been published in book form. My guess is that it was intended to be the opening section of a much longer work in which Mlle. Sagan lost interest. Whether or not this charitable supposition is correct, what is presented to us reads like a first act: it introduces a set of characters and their problems, and then breaks off. (p. 240)
The function of the artist is to find something that [matters]—to seek point amid the seeming pointlessness. Mlle. Sagan, unfortunately, identifies with the emptiness, the boredom, and the limp suffering of her characters. After her remarkable first book, which had a core of genuine feeling, she has slid into progressive apathy. Her present novelette has nothing to say except that life is a mess and a trivial one at that—all is banality. For all her literary skills and graces, which are considerable, her juvenile world-weariness has become tiresome. (p. 241)
Charles Rolo, "Life & Letters: 'Those Without Shadows'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1959, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 200, No. 5, November, 1959, pp. 240-41.
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Sex is not absent from Aimez-vous Brahms…. But although the love affairs in which its characters are involved lie at the very heart of the book, one can hardly construe their lovemaking as hedonistic frolic…. [It] is clear that Françoise Sagan, unlike a Roger Vailland, has never been interested in the erotic schemes of sexual play: what love, or lovemaking, represents in her books is the cravings and despairs of the human heart. In Brahms as in the earlier novels, but more clearly than ever before, we see that love (whether it be sentimental or sensual, and the two are not always distinguishable) is nothing but a tentative answer to human solitude, an abortive, hopeless attempt that never quite fulfills its promises and that will ultimately bring pain and distress…. [In] the case of Brahms' heroine, one can hardly fail to see that the whole book revolves around this thirty-nine-year-old woman's inability to escape from her solitude. (p. 92)
There is one important feature of this novel that represents a new element in the work of Sagan: Brahms' heroine is not a jeune fille, nor can she really be considered a jeune femme. Of course we have no more reason to identify the writer with Paule than to treat her previous heroines, Cécile, Dominique and Josée, as self-portraits. However, one may wonder whether Françoise Sagan, having now grown older and being married, does not to some extent sit today on the other side of the fence…. We have the impression that the author is much closer to Paule than to Simon (and it is doubtless a question of age rather than one of sex). Simon is portrayed with sympathy, but his pathetic profile is strongly overshadowed by the tragic figure of Paule. This is all the more interesting if we realize that Paule is not an entirely new type of character in the Sagan world. For in every one of her novels we find a woman, middle-aged or a bit younger, along-side the young heroine (in Bonjour Tristesse Anne, who was to marry Cécile's father: Françoise, the wife of Dominique's lover in A Certain Smile; Fanny, Alain's wife, in Those Without Shadows). Both Cécile and Dominique seem to be fascinated by these older women, for whom they feel an instinctive and somewhat obscure sympathy. This is especially strange if we consider their relationships to these women: to Cécile, deeply attached to her father and intent on preserving her freedom, Anne appears as an enemy who must be destroyed; to Dominique, Françoise is a source of remorse, an unpleasant reminder of her bad conscience. Yet in both cases the young girl, as she is attracted to the more mature woman, admires her as the possessor of a wisdom and stability which she, the adolescent, secretly longs for.
Yet maturity is not necessarily accompanied by emotional stability and security, as Sagan shows us through the heroine of Brahms. The tragedy of Paule's life is that at the age of thirty-nine she still desperately needs that security which, twenty years earlier, she must have yearned for like all of Sagan's adolescents…. On the last page of the book, when Roger once again breaks his appointment with her, Paule faces her bleak future with that lucidité which is typical of all of Sagan's characters: all that awaits her, all that she can hope for, are those stray bits of happiness which she has had in the past and which she once so aptly called "le bonheur triste."
It should be observed that in all four of Sagan's novels there is, even in the moments of greatest happiness, a note of sadness, if not of distress. The gravity of tone that permeates Brahms, with its soberly pathetic depiction of human misery, is an unmistakable Sagan characteristic. Even in her first novel, underneath Cécile's egotistical lighthearted manner, we could not but sense a tragic note (tristesse is always an understatement in Sagan's style). 5/8 pp. 93-4)
Life is indeed a bitter pill to swallow for those who, in sarch of an absolute, will not be satisfied with compromises of self-deceptions. That lucidité which Sagan's characters never abandon for a second tells them that the absurdity of life and one's loneliness can only be escaped through love, but that theirs is no lasting flame (the leitmotiv of time's destruction, dans un mois dans un an occurs over and over again in these novels)….
In Sagan's first two novels one could already suspect that, behind the rage to live that seemed to possess her characters, there lay a craving for an inaccessible ideal. The quest unremittingly goes on in Aimez-vous Brahms, though the author is painfully aware of its ultimate futility in view of the difficulty and shortcomings of all human relationships. This fourth novel's poignant description of la condition humaine confirms, if it were necessary, Françoise Sagan's unusual literary gifts. She is not interested in the experimental techniques of the "nouveau roman" and her novel will surely not be scrutinized with as much interest as [Alain] Robbe-Grillet's latest work. Yet granted that Sagan's talent brings no revolution to the world of French letters, the remarkably perceptive intelligence of this young author as well as her tender power of compassion, the crystal-clear quality of her prose and its restrained pathos, will earn her once again the admiration of many a reader. (p. 95)
Michel Guggenheim, "'Aimez-vous Brahms': Solitude and the Quest for Happiness," in Yale French Studies (copyright © Yale French Studies 1959), No. 24, 1959, pp. 91-5.
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I'm still uncertain about Françoise Sagan…. [It's] an uneasy, foreign respect—the sort one feels for minor, inscrutable Japanese arts such as Noh or sand-gardening—that is roused in me by her chaste arrangements of small glass people. Perhaps it is a hostile English reverence for her ruthless French ability to incarnate a consistent theoretic psychology…. Mlle Sagan is bleakly at home with the fact of our formlessness: with the knowledge that consciousness rests like scum on a sluggish liquid whose most definite motions are the dim tides of habit. Her people drift noncommittally through life like those toy boats with camphor tied behind, veering away from any solid contact. They lie abed postponing decisions, surrender to each other to avoid saying yes or no, and make love to avoid knowing whether it is love they are making….
Mlle Sagan strips her plot [in Aimez-vous Brahms …] to laboratory conditions for the display of indifference. To remove outside pressures, she makes her characters students, rich or self-employed; single or only noncommittally married; at the stage between youth and middle age where there are neither discoveries nor landmarks, beyond a sense of accumulating toothpaste tubes and the same furniture….
I'm slightly suspicious of the phrase-motif which Mlle Sagan works again, and of the rather too frequent warnings between the characters that they are not living in women's magazines. They almost do; one shade more passivity, one feels, and they'd disappear, leaving a stylish arrangement of a hat and a dead branch on velvet. But it never quite happens; some irony or cool aside revives them.
Ronald Bryden, "Small Glass Menagerie," in The Spectator (© 1960 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 204, No. 6869, February 19, 1960, p. 261.
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[Aimez-vous Brahms …] is a calamitously bad book, and is being noted here only because it is by Françoise Sagan…. What we are witnessing is a complete breakdown of sensibility, which many writers must fear. What then had feeling is now mechanical; what then was art has now become a formula. And the formula by itself is not enough. Here we have our old friends, now characterless and pardonably fatigued: the middle-aged man, the refined woman of a certain age, the young slut. The man goes with the slut, the refined woman finds herself a young lover. The rest can be briefly summarised (for Mlle Sagan's art has so deteriorated that a synopsis of her plot is as good as her novel, and even better, because shorter). Man revolted by slut, longs for refined woman—woman longs for man, dismisses young lover—man meets woman—bed. Curtain. With that outline, I say, you can make your own, if you can bear it; it will almost certainly be fresher than Mlle Sagan's. (p. 307)
V. S. Naipaul, "New Novels: 'Aimez-vous Brahms …'," in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIX, No. 1511, February 27, 1960, pp. 306-07.
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There are times when Mlle. Sagan writes so appallingly [in "Aimez-vous Brahms …"] that one would like to shoot the pen out of her hand. At other times her perception, her economy, and her utter style leave one speechless with admiration. This, I think, is Mlle. Sagan's trouble: She is all style with absolutely nothing to say…. I am afraid that she is unconsciously planting today what will be an enormous joke in another ten or fifteen years when she should, by rights, be a respected novelist at the peak of her career. (p. 19)
Patrick Dennis, "Love Is a Shrug on the Seine," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIII, No. 11, March 12, 1960, pp. 19-20.
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It is good to see talent not only grow but grow up. It is also properly humbling to those critics of Françoise Sagan who acknowledged her brilliance but nursed a secret prophecy (almost a hope) that her kind of virtuosity would ebb, in the manner of most precocious talents, with her youth. But "Aimez-vous Brahms …" is the work of a serious writer, firmly disciplined and touched with compassion. Whether it is part of a natural development of years or whether her car accident jolted her out of her preoccupation with empty lives which made some of her writing almost a parody, Miss Sagan handles a simple triangle involving complicated people with the sobriety and depth of the mature artist. (p. 4)
With remarkable insight and brilliant observation of small details that carry large meanings, Françoise Sagan has created a real world in which the reader, too, lives, for a short and illuminated span. (p. 14).
Marya Mannes, "Bonjour Sagesse," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1960, pp. 4, 14.
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["Château en Suède"] is unquestionably highly civilized, unusual entertainment that addles you, astonishes you, and makes you laugh, except during its dialogues of intense, well-phrased candor, when the author's skill in writing about the human heart silences the audience. The story itself is like a charade that pantomimes wayward or ruthless adult relations, and it would belong in the dramatic realm of [Luigi] Pirandello if it were treated with dark realism…. The humor and laughter that accompany [the] terrible goings on come in part from the Gothic amoral quality of the situations themselves, in part from Mlle. Sagan's fountain of quizzical dialogue, and in part from the shock of her unexpected truths, which achieve the sense of comedy in their broad effects of surprise. Underneath the willful fantasy of the period costumes—a wonderful theatrical device on her part, since contemporary clothes would leave her characters looking exposed, commonplace, and fairly criminal—the play is also a remarkable study of the enigma of feminine love, as discussed and resolved by Éléonore. Mlle. Sagan shows the same kind of complete, particular, personal talent in her first play that she did in her first novel…. (pp. 184-85)
Genêt, "Letter from Paris," in The New Yorker (© 1960 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXVI, No. 12, May 7, 1960, pp. 184-85.
Extreme youth is today an acceptable substitute for talent, and Mlle. Sagan is already twenty-five. Since the little fever of Bonjour Tristesse the graph has steadily dipped: with Wonderful Clouds the downward curve runs on. This glib novella [Wonderful Clouds] is about a young American, Alan, whose jealousy for his French wife Josée impels her to a number of, as it were, justificatory amours…. Alan's possessive nagging becomes as depressing for the reader as for Josée; boring too—the whole novel seems an essay in reiteration.
For relief we are tritely philosophized at…. This sort of thing is totally consistent with the cardboard characterization and the steady gush of cliché….
With her "smart" distribution of the action between Florida, New York and Paris, her glossy stock situations, her fashionable sweet-and-sour cookery, Mlle. Sagan proclaims that she is aware of the level of her appeal. And yet there was a time when she was bracketed with genuinely estimable names…. With Wonderful Clouds the disenchantment is complete.
"Fleshly Liaisons," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1961; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3119, December 8, 1961, p. 877.
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[In "Bonjour Tristesse," Françoise Sagan's] voice was cool, precise, self-confident and individual. She could not have developed it; it was a gift. The stir it created spread from the literary world to the general public, especially to the young, who thought they heard themselves in it. Mlle. Sagan became rich and famous—and she continued to write novels.
In her fifth, "The Wonderful Clouds," the prose voice is still there, cool, precise and self-confident. It is not as individual as it was, if only because it has been heard in four other novels, but it still possesses that vital quality of holding the reader's attention. "This is something interesting which only I can tell you about," it quietly asserts. "Listen."…
[The setting, Paris,] is an arid world for the development of a born writer, which is what Françoise Sagan is.
Self-indulgence runs like a theme song through "The Wonderful Clouds." Josée is always tranquilly pulling the rug out from under people who get in her way. At the same time she seems to be fundamentally an admirable girl, who looks at the world with a strikingly level and unblinking gaze. It's too bad that the world she looks at is corrupt, artificial and hollow.
John Knowles, "A 'Corrupt, Artificial, Hollow Little World'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 8, 1962, p. 18.
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[Although] the situations often appear unintentionally ludicrous, the characters wooden, and the language stilted, ["The Wonderful Clouds"] is nevertheless significant and interesting. Moreover, its flaws help make it so.
Françoise Sagan is still a very young writer, and the vision of the world she has is deep-dyed in that world-weariness that afflicts each new generation. Apparently humorless, cynical, obsessed by self, sex, and the meaning of life, she projects, in each of her works, a mood that is eternally adolescent. Only a young person could see Alan and Josée as tragic figures, this weak and moping pair who, in spite of wealth, health, and beauty, find relief from taedium vitae only in mutual cruelty and sex. Only a young person could write such a beautifully sad statement of their lot on earth: "frail collections of bone, blood and gray matter that snatched little joys and little sorrows from one another before disappearing…."
Miss Sagan has been considered a powerful spokesman for her age: Life can have no meaning lived under the threat of atom bombs. But she speaks more for her age-group than for the age in which she lives. Writers of other times—Châteaubriand, Benjamin Constant, Maurice Barrès—have recorded a precocious disabusal in brief novels of self-analysis alternating with lyrical effusions. Perhaps "The Wonderful Clouds" is not unworthy of being listed with these classics of the mal du siècle, which it resembles. Its ring is authentic, with even its naïvetés and gaucheries helping to make it a true expression of youth's view of life. (p. 27)
Laurent LeSage, "The Little Joys of a Party Girl," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1962 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLV, No. 27, July 14, 1962, pp. 26-7.
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[Françoise Sagan's] remarkable gift as a writer is that, walking a thin line between trash and serious literature, she can accomplish both at the same time….
In [The Wonderful Clouds] Mlle. Sagan pursues her usual theme of troubled love, but this time the two lovers are more than usually sick, sick. Alan, the young American husband, tortures himself and his French wife, Josée, by his jealous imagination of her past loves; and she in rebellion goes out of her way to take on depressing lovers just to give his imagination substance….
Alan, rich, boyishly handsome, with a Freudian complex about his mother, is a composite of nearly all the anti-American clichés that now circulate in Paris. But just as you are about to fling the book away as pure tripe, you realize that Mlle. Sagan has also caught something subtle and true about the impossible and self-destructive romanticism of the young American male in love. And when you are just about fed up with Josée as a mindless trollop, Mlle. Sagan suddenly puts before you in a few strokes the picture of the aggressively discontented female more truly than Simone de Beauvoir did in all the pages of her militant Second Sex.
William Barrett, "Malade, Malade," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1962, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 210, No. 2, August, 1962, p. 144.
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The elements of Françoise Sagan's plays are in a way her own private property—or at least are not instinctively used, or even borrowed, by other writers for the French theatre. For her, as a romantic, love is the fine flower of life—the most important gift you get or give—and it fades. As a modern intelligence, she perceives that between lovers the practice of ideas usually destroys emotion, that personal liberty is a dangerous necessity, that most human beings suffer from and give off ennui, and that fantasy is a final refuge from reality, especially for the French. This inventory she used in such perfect proportion in her "Château en Suède" that the play will likely be regarded for its delights as a personal period piece, and will be revived over time, like a minor theatre classic. The ingredients are similar enough in her new play, "La Robe Mauve de Valentine,"… though she has added boulevard touches by including a sense of farce, which she unexpectedly writes as if it were an old habit…. [She] deals with the basic elements of private life—though so decked out by her personal style and charm, and with such curious, improvised backgrounds, that they are rather like charades…. There is always a certain amount of destruction in Sagan's plays, and in her novels, too…. Sagan's comedy will doubtless be the smart commercial success of 1963, because she is a compelling, gifted personality who is still a Paris fashion. It has had harsh treatment from some critics, who claim that there is no play in it. Had it been written seriously, it is true, it could have been a strong melodrama—if that is what they like—but it would not have been written by Sagan. (pp. 107-09)
Genêt, "Letter from Paris," in The New Yorker (© 1963 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXVIII, No. 49, January 26, 1963, pp. 107-09.
Disintoxication from drugs is by all accounts a painful experience, and Françoise Sagan's diary [Toxique] bears this out…. [One] does not feel that the literary value is much greater than the medical….
As for diaries, these are interesting if they are written either by or about some gifted writer. But Françoise Sagan does not belong to the class of the Gides, Valérys, Cocteaus and Greens. Here there are little more than pensées for sunbathers and racing-car fanciers.
"What Françoise Did Next," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3297, May 6, 1965, p. 352.
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[Toxique] is a simple and touching odyssey through dreams, hope, and despair; it is also a prose surrealistic poem following the inhuman time of the addict during [Sagan's] withdrawal period.
In a naïve way, Françoise Sagan turns painful memories into a moving and charming picture book; her school girl prose is the soul which animates [Bernard] Buffet's long rigid black and white drawings…. Philip Rahv once said …: "Neurosis may be the occasion, but literature is the consequence"; we could well say the same of Françoise Sagan's Toxique.
Guy Mermier, "'Toxique'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1965 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 39, No. 30, Summer, 1965, p. 313.
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[It is clear from La Chamade] that Miss Sagan has not shifted her ground or broadened her interests. She is still a player of boudoir chess, employing differing gambits, combinations and endgames within a restricted field…. But what lifts her above the merely clever romancer or vendor of glossy sensation are her extraordinary skill and—within a narrow range—her concern with emotional truth….
The tristesse that the heroine welcomed at the end of Miss Sagan's first novel and that persists through her books still has about it some smack of literary attitude; but this … does not mean it is untrue. To live in a literary attitude, to filter experience through a spectrum of assumptions, is no less life than to live on a direct simple confrontation of experience; and the former doubtless reflects Miss Sagan's milieu more accurately than the latter. One definition of modern consciousness is that the sensitive person selects a character to play, out of wish or necessity or frustration or self-defense. The heroine in this new book thinks: "If the play in which she was now acting was acceptable, useful, it was her part that was badly written." Possibly this awareness of daily living as show biz is as valid an artistic exponent of contemporary life, when well executed, as the modes of Saurraute or Robbe-Grillet.
What matters, finally, is that within her little framework Miss Sagan is always interesting and sometimes moving. There is a passage of panic when the girl arrives to find her lover's apartment empty that epitomizes the crazy fantastications of the waiting lover who really has nothing to worry about. Within that framework she depicts credibly the initiation, swell, and dissolution of love between people who are bruised but still susceptible veterans of the cycle.
And, within that framework of tristesse, she can also be funny….
Apart from the dubious reality of the world outside the bedroom and salon, none of the characters is in any way original in perception or execution: the understanding older man, the wealthy older woman who quite calmly uses her money with men as she would once have used her beauty, the impetuous lover; but their conventionality, when they are handled with Miss Sagan's skill, is almost welcome—as if they were characters in the Commedia dell'Arte taking up previously prepared roles in fresh adventures. At any rate, as in other Sagan works, they exist only as supporting players for the heroine, whose emotional pilgrimage is the book's real subject. (p. 21)
Once started, Miss Sagan's books are difficult not to read, and the very fact that they consume no more than two hours heightens their resemblance to conventional forms with unconventional love and its enjoyable sadnesses. Those films, like these novels, are high-level soap-opera: the credible dramatization of sophisticated daydreams. (pp. 21, 38)
The traditional novel is dead and, according to the French, deader in France than elsewhere, until Miss Sagan writes another book and proves that Colette has a descendant. Not an equivalent, but an active descendant. (p. 38)
Stanley Kauffmann, "'Toujours Tristesse'" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1966 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 155, No. 18, October 29, 1966, pp. 21, 38.
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[In "La Chamade"] Mlle. Sagan has not only achieved a subtle fusion of style and content but has moved towards a more reflective maturity—a maturity reminiscent, in its bitter-sweet quality, of her literary progenitor, Colette.
Here, the omnipresent hedonism of her earlier fiction is less insistent and farther horizons are glimpsed: the workaday world intrudes on the little principalities of pleasure; an encounter in the gray of dawn reminds that time is inexorable and that "no one could console a man for being born and then having to die"; and the bright-eyed worldlings of yesterday are now approaching their middle years, and painfully aware of it….
[The story's] denouement is as remorseless as it is poignant. In "La Chamade," Mlle. Sagan exhibits a deepened sense of life and an artistic expansion that carry her strides ahead as a writer….
Patricia MacManus, "Invitation to a Parley," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 13, 1966, p. 68.
["The Heart-Keeper"] is reassuringly familiar; here are boredom, the quest for happiness, and the sexual passion of middle age for youth…. The Hollywood setting is new, but seems a flimsy covering. The dialogue is, as ever, absurd, and particularly so in English. As Americans, the protagonists are unconvincing…. Yet Mlle. Sagan has a certain instinctive knowledge of a few characters, who reappear in her novels in different disguises. The interest of "The Heart-Keeper" lies in the exposition of these oft-frequented psyches rather than in the unprecedented occurrence of multiple murder. It has enough of the indefinable somnambulant charm of the earlier novels to nullify charges of superficiality or inaccuracy. It is tasteless and melodramatic, but never boring. (pp. 201-02)
"Briefly Noted: 'The Heart-Keeper'," in The New Yorker (© 1968 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 37, November 2, 1968, pp. 201-02.
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[It] seems to me it need not trouble us that Françoise Sagan's books resemble one another as much as they do. We know that the obsession with material, the compulsion to rearrange a few simple elements in the hope that some final illumination will burst forth from them, is the compulsion of the artist. We recognize that the thin line is her form, as it was Giacommetti's, and that she reaches for it again and again. It is her problem to make each book new, though she chooses not to add to it anything much that wasn't in the last one. She is the classical artist who has fined her material down to its essence.
Though there is perhaps no detachment like French detachment, it's clear that Sagan is one of those novelists whose special talent it is to be nonreverberating. At their best, such writers produce work that has a surface of hard clarity, perfect lucidity, but guards at its center the mystery of things, like Hemingway at his best, or Flannery O'Connor in most of the work she produced before her early death. The difficulty with this gift is that occasionally, when such writers want to loosen up, to sound a few booms in the Malabar Caves of the soul, they get trapped in the caves themselves…. We are left with a puzzle—a book that does not work, that baffles us with its self-contradictions, that resembles the author's best work to the point of parody….
The suspicion of a spoof of some kind dawns early in "The Heart-Keeper." But the suspicion remains an edgy thing, never altogether confirmed. What is spoofed? Setting, character, plot, theme—even, perhaps the author herself? And is it—fatal question—intentional?
One difficulty lies in the resemblance of this spoof (if it is one) to her nonspoof books. All the familiar elements of Miss Sagan's own particular novel-world are recognizable here. There is the woman, younger or older (here, older), the older lover (industrious, anchored in the world), the younger lover (indolent, often a kind of Ariel, though here a drugged one), the background of rich, party-giving friends who make possible the necessary encounters. There are even muted echoes of the search for the grand passion that will shake loose the last vestiges of boredom—the horror of nonbeing—from the soul. These few elements Miss Sagan has managed to make magical in past novels like "Aimez-Vous Brahms?" and the near-perfect "La Chamade." (p. 5)
The setting is established as Hollywood America and the heroine as American…. Plenty to spoof here. But mostly what we get is stale Hollywood ambience—the swimming pool, the star, the starlet and the former star, the hated, big producer. There is also an up-to-dateness that is, somehow, equally stale….
Parts of "The Heart-Keeper" seem to be brilliant spoofery. Lewis, who stumbles around in a drugged fog most of the time, projects, in his first screen-test, something "violent, cruel, extremely attractive" and is an overnight smash. The heroine's ménage à trois is achieved by means of a sexual irony. Four murders scandalize her, but cause hardly a ripple elsewhere. Maybe that is funny. Yet the aphorisms are set down here with the same solemnity as in the "straight" books….
When a good writer gives us a book that does not come off, we long to know what the writer intended, probably to lessen our sense of loss. What was Miss Sagan trying to achieve? A pop novel? A cartooned comment on America's violence, laced with romantic and absurd touches? A warmer approach to her own material through humor and absurdity? The book draws eventfully to its close without relieving our distress. (p. 64)
Norma Rosen, "'The Heart-Keeper'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 10, 1968, pp. 5, 64.
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Readers will have to look hard for a book which is as insubstantial and as unsatisfying as Françoise Sagan's most recent novel, "The Heart-Keeper". In slightly more than one hundred pages of half-hearted prose, the story takes its readers through four murders and through the innumerable cynical bleatings of its amoral and middle-aged protagonist. This would be Dorothy Seymour—a Hollywood screen writer whose world-weary outlook is typified by an early statement, coming in the third paragraph of the novel: "Meanwhile, the sovereign of my heart, of my body at least, was to be Paul Brett that evening, and I yawned in advance."
Correction: we all yawn in advance and our expectations are fully confirmed. (p. 335)
"The Heart-Keeper" has the distinction of being the first Sagan novel with a completely American setting. It may be that Miss Sagan was unable to adapt her writing to a new environment, especially to a Hollywood setting. In any case, there is little in this recent work to raise it above the status of a pot-boiler. (pp. 335-36)
Peter Corodimas, "Fiction: 'The Heart-Keeper'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1968, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 28, No. 16, November 15, 1968, pp. 335-36.
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Her special talent as a novelist is experience. From her ability to project she is able to infer. Even though she dramatizes she is our contemporary: Depression, the female response to male frigidity; the frigidity of the male—a denaturing of experience. Without condescension Françoise Sagan, in A Few Hours of Sunlight, aspires to a perfect judiciousness about a relationship, and she comes close to achieving her aims. She has the audacity to contrive her fiction from the point of view of a male….
Sagan's style is sparse, expository. There is a habitual tic-like use of simile and epigram; her imagination is literate, empathic. Her comment on the fact that she is writing about a seemingly liberated set ("Paris in the year of grace 1967" is a repeated catch phrase in the narrative) is consciously to take the relationship of Vronsky and Anna Karenina and reduce it to aphorisms, reversing its values, too, so that the anguished heroine is depicted as a male, even though, we are told, Nathalie also thinks of herself at times as acting out a Russian novel….
Like other Sagan novels, A Few Hours of Sunlight is written with a commendable brevity and concision. The motions of mood, time, feeling are suggested in a phrase, a sentence…. Always [the characters'] self-consciousness is stressed, lovingly, ironically, mockingly….
Sagan uses abstract language fluently enough to describe states of being which are simply unavailable to these less accomplished writers who must settle for seeming immediate and concrete. In A Few Hours of Sunlight she depicts the transformation of an ambitious male into a lover and his fearful self-conscious withdrawal from that condition, an act of treason to himself and to another, who responds with another act of self-treason—suicide…. [The] true strength of her fiction is not that of wit or epigram: It is her ability to contrive relationships effortlessly through plotting which gives the illusion of spontaneous event; and the good sense she has in reminding us that romanticism is as much a masculine as a feminine response to experience. I congratulate her for having the grace and charm and tact to depict the male ego of New York, 1971—as well as Paris in the year of grace 1967—in such an entertaining novel.
Richard Elman, "Anna and Vronsky Updated" (© 1971 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of The Washington Post and the author), in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1971 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), April 11, 1971, p. 4.
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"A Few Hours of Sunlight" is in reality a couple of hours of bone-crushing boredom. It's not the subject matter, the putting on and taking off of mistresses by a French playboy, but the inability of the author to re-create successfully the kind of hero she had in mind, the kind of hero you find in the letters of Stendhal…. Miss Sagan's hero, Gilles, is not only a bore but a papier-maché bore whom she unfortunately believes to be a vicious man. (p. 73)
[Apart from the narration of the love affair between Gilles and Nathalie, the book] consists of the author's attempts to create a sow's ear out of a cheap silk purse, an attempt which is futile because the silk purse, Gilles, is too superficial to be vicious. But Miss Sagan never realizes this. Nor does she seem to realize that Nathalie is neither an honorable nor an intellectual person…. Her suicide at the end is the author's last and desperate attempt to wring a few tears from our dry eyes.
It seems incredible to me that a writer living in Paris can have such an infantile view of what Gilles is supposed to be, a rake. Instead, he impresses as some liberals used to impress H. L. Mencken, not liberal so much as unbuttoned…. Miss Sagan's agents keep insisting that she penetrates to the area of the heart, a claim that speaks little for their knowledge of anatomy. Miss Sagan's penetration is at a point some distance below the heart and even that penetration is more coy than daring. (pp. 73-4)
Frank L. Ryan, "'A Few Hours of Sunlight'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1971, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 31, No. 3, May 1, 1971, pp. 73-4.
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Whatever happened to Françoise Sagan? Were all those books we read under the desk really as hollow as Sunlight on Cold Water [British title of A Few Hours of Sunlight]? No characterisation, invalid motivation, meretricious conclusions clothed in linguistic banality (revealed in translation), the epigrams jutting like desperate crampons for the author's assault on the slopes of significance—this flabby tale of provincial freshness destroyed by metropolitan decadence is timeless, placeless and baseless.
Mary Borg, "War Games: 'Sunlight on Cold Water'," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 82, No. 2118, October 22, 1971, p. 562.
The trouble with La Sagan (one of the troubles) is not so much that her world is so phenomenally limited, as that she seems unable to imagine that any sort of viable life could take place outside it. "Wouldn't the people who travel second class or in caravans prefer a thousand times to be going to the villa I have mentioned, with its ice cubes and its mimosa?" One has heard of such people who wouldn't. "Is there anything pleasanter than driving a beautiful open car that purrs at your feet like a tame tiger?" Isn't there?
Des bleus à l'âme ("The Bruised Soul", or "Bruises on the Soul") consists of not very many pages of extremely large type which Mlle Sagan's publishers call a novel, but which she herself refers to as a "novel-essay". The novel part continues the story of the brother and sister, Sébastien and Eléonore Van Milhem, who appeared, ten years younger, in Mlle Sagan's play Château en Suède. The essay part consists of her remarks on all this and that, as well as her reflections on her characters in this book. The latter device has been used, over the past fifty years or more, for serious literary and philosophical purposes. Here, it adds nothing—except padding. What probably is new in Mlle Sagan's use of it, though, is that she herself manages to end up in bed with her own character, Sébastien.
"Swede Nothings," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3675, August 4, 1972, p. 909.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
Deft, spare, understated, subtle, disciplined, classic—these are the words critics have used to praise the novels of Françoise Sagan. She possessed to an uncommon degree, they said, the typically French flair for nuance. She could sketch in a character in a gesture, immortialize him or her in a line or two of dialogue. Her sentences were as well shaped as a Chanel suit. She dealt in essences, light and sensuous as a perfume. National pride preened itself on her, anxious to compare her to Colette, as if these two particular writers embodied something that was peculiarly and exclusively French. Now, in "Scars on the Soul," Miss Sagan has exposed the woman behind the novels and very nearly destroyed her own myth. The book is a very flimsy novella padded out by alternating chapters of "self-portrait" in which she talks about the writing of this work, about her position as an enfant terrible in French culture, about life, love, death, war, women's liberation, nature, the decline of la gloire, and whatever else she can find in her Vuitton bag.
The nonfiction part of the book paradoxically discards all those qualities for which Miss Sagan was esteemed. Her "cool," her chic, her sophistication, her cynicism worn like the Legion of Honor, are replaced by a coy pomposity and page after page of puerile philosophizing….
[She] seems to have developed a prose style appropriate to her new attitudes. In her story of Sebastian and Eleanor—a brother and sister resurrected from one of her plays—we find a disconcerting number of declamations like this one: "For, just as the impressions of childhood or adolescence are registered and engraved on the memory far more deeply than those of middle age, so there are certain influences, certain attractions, mental or physical, which, if experienced at the tender, that's to say the awkward age, continue to exert their power 30 years later."
This is a syntactical fuss about nothing, a sentence that piles qualification and strews commas all over the place, merely for the sake of a platitude….
Though [Eleanor and Sebastian] live by sponging on friends and strangers, even to the extent of prostituting themselves, we are given to understand that they transcend ordinary judgments, "since culture, elegance, and above all disinterestedness" have been "theirs from the cradle." They are so disinterested in fact, that they transcend personality too, successfully refraining from betraying any human frailties whatsoever. Perhaps "Scars on the Soul" would have been a better book if Miss Sagan had been less confiding about herself and more about her characters.
Anatole Broyard, "Ou Est la Sagan d'Antan?" in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 15, 1974, p. 29.
Like those lâche beings who stumble through Antonioni movies, the characters in [Sagan's "Lost Profile"] drift from event to event in their lives like exotic fish—drawn forward or sideways by whatever or whoever happens to be suspended nearest. The chief victim here is a waif of around thirty who is plucked away from a maniacally jealous husband by a small, diffident, but equally possessive millionaire. In describing the sad, empty life of the woman, the book sets and maintains a tone of frozen spirituality that is almost narcotic, while the various spoiled, flamboyant people who swim in and out of the picture give it moments of energy. But the credulity and blindness that we are supposed to accept in the woman are simply too much to go along with, and the purple passages … are embarrassingly frequent.
"Briefly Noted: 'Lost Profile'," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 12, May 10, 1976, p. 14.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294
If quick and easy reading were the principal criterion of a good style, then Françoise Sagan's style would be good indeed. But to those of us who insist that authors should not only say things well but should also have something worth saying to begin with, Mlle. Sagan can only prove a disappointment. In [Lost Profile], style and story alike have grown spare to the point of emaciation. (p. 110)
I found it impossible to decide which was more banal: the characters themselves or Mlle. Sagan's treatment of them. "I couldn't imagine Julius exhausted or even depressed. I tended to think of him as a bulldozer, but that was no doubt unfair of me, or unimaginative, which is often the same thing." Is this meant to be taken seriously? On just what basis are we to establish an identity between being unfair on the one hand and being unimaginative on the other? And this is the sort of pseudo-philosophical sophistication that characterizes the entire book.
Van Wyck Brooks thought that critics should distinguish between a writer's caliber, or artistry, and his tendency, or point of view. But even if I could bring myself to acknowledge Mlle. Sagan's caliber, I could never bring myself to approve her tendency, with its casual acceptance of rich, idle bores and their aimless peccadilloes. There is a cheap sentimentality underlying this tendency that leads me to suspect Mlle. Sagan of being a literary Claude Lelouch. In fact, the only thing that could have made reading this book a worse experience than it was would have been having the theme from A Man and a Woman playing in the background. (p. 111)
Frank Wilson, "Fiction: 'Lost Profile'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1976 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 36, No. 4, July, 1976, pp. 110-11.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 108
Sagan's newest collection of short stories [Silken Eyes] demonstrates her ability to convey a poignant moment, a bittersweet romance, a lifetime of despair, or an absurdly comic situation in very little space. Her writing is clean, elegant, and often quite poetic, but she never overwhelms the reader with gratuitous narrative. She is especially good at capturing the loneliness and emotional isolation of the middle aged and aging leisure class as they try to hold on to their youth.
Barbara Kemp, "Fiction: 'Silken Eyes'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, October 15, 1977; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1977 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 102, No. 18, October 15, 1977, p. 2183.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239
Françoise Sagan's seems to me a strictly literary reality. Her world is peopled by characters with little identity beyond their superficial sophistication and the emotional problems attributed to them. It is a world of women anxious to discard lovers, of men seeking to discard mistresses, of older women with gigolos, even of husbands with (or so it seems) male lovers. We find them traveling, in trains or cars; they indulge in stalking weekends in Bavaria. The short stories in Silken Eyes make up an assortment of tantalizing scenarios. In "The Lake of Loneliness" Prudence Delvaux, returning on a November evening from a pleasant weekend with friends, stops her car and goes for a walk by the lake. Her thoughts turn one moment to drowning and the next to her lover in Paris. He is "a man called Jean-François"—that is apparently all we need to know. More satisfying, because less elusive, are "The Gigolo", a study of the mutual contempt and mistrust felt by a woman and her young man that rings true; and "The Left Eyelid", about a woman who travels down to Lyon to dismiss her lover (an auctioneer), and gets locked in the lavatory on the train—an amusing reminder of the absurdities that may attend the most serious missions in life.
Ian Stewart, "Recent Fiction: 'Silken Eyes'," in The Illustrated London News (© 1977 The Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd.), Vol. 265, No. 6955, December 1977, p. 107.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427
Françoise Sagan's 12th novel ["The Unmade Bed"] is set, like the other 11, among the rich, the glamorous, the cosmopolitan, the bored. This time her subject is the love affair of tempestuous Beatrice Valmont, the movie star, and Edouard Maligrasse, a struggling playwright on the verge of triumph….
[Although Sagan] constantly claims that Beatrice and Edouard are fascinating, rare and altogether superior beings, she doesn't seem able to summon up the energy to make us see why. Edouard, supposedly a genius, shows no special qualities of mind; Beatrice, supposedly a voluptuary, has the sensitivity of a Barbie Doll to the complexities of passion: accused by a friend of rebuffing Edouard, she gurgles, "But all he had to do was rape me!" Miss Sagan's breathless and infatuated evocation of elegance and fame lacks body: She is not interested in how movies are made, what actresses actually do when they are working, where money comes from or goes to—such considerations are too banal (her favorite adjective), merely a means of providing satin sheets for that eternally unmade bed.
Even the prose seems tired, veering from inaccurate lushness ("That delirious nymphomaniac known as physical pain"; "the irrefutable logic of this rotating earth") to clichés ("back in the limelight," "the rickety merry-go-round of life"). Occasionally her copious reflections on love, writing, acting hit home—there's food for thought in her central contention that the impulse to love is the wish for an audience. But just as often her aphorisms affect worldly wisdom without being, in fact, true: "Like all homosexuals" wives, dark-haired Margot suffered from her husband's hypothetical female liaisons with a jealousy as morbid as it was absurd." A quote which—once you realize that Margot herself is never to appear, so that her hair color is totally irrelevant—exemplifies the many flaccidities of this disappointing book.
Katha Pollitt, "Bonjour Ennui," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1978, p. 36.
[The real trouble in "The Unmade Bed"] is not the story that Miss Sagan has chosen to tell. It is her way of telling it. She seems to have given up both dialogue and action in favor of a plodding, almost nineteenth-century mastication ("To be sure, she'd always maintained that her passions were strictly provisional, but this idea had been no more than a flat and abstract judgment …") that is the death of narrative and of all intended irony.
"Briefly Noted: 'The Unmade Bed," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIV, No. 45, December 25, 1978, p. 69.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 236
Though called an autobiography, [Réponses] is in fact a selection from a series of interviews given by Françoise Sagan over the past 20 years. The inner voice that would inform and enrich any autobiography is not at all the same as the calculated one that answers questions to journalists…. [What] is bound to emerge from a book of this kind are statements, observations, postures, opinions, random philosophising and anecdotes that acquaint us with the protagonist's likes and dislikes….
[Miss Sagan] emerges as a thoughtful, generous, tolerant, unsure, unbitchy lady….
Her two main themes are love and loneliness, and love gets in the way of loneliness, or, if you like, postpones it. Love, she feels, is a battle; sex, a secret lyrical ceremony; and jealousy, though exhilarating, a sure index that the love is dying….
Like all writers, she defines herself through her writing. She discovers what she can do by struggling with a blank piece of paper. When she is not writing she becomes 'someone else'…. Her book is frank and lucid but there is something crucial missing: nothing hurts, nothing illuminates, nothing astonishes….
It is nice and neat and unelectrifying, as if the author insisted on being ordinary. I don't believe anyone is that, and I certainly do not believe that Françoise Sagan is.
Edna O'Brien, "Numbed," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of Edna O'Brien), Vol. 102, No. 2638, November 22, 1979, p. 712.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 190
['Responses'] is a lazy person's autobiography—an 'imaginary interview' elegantly altered … from the various actual interviews Françoise Sagan gave between 1954 … and 1974, when nothing much happened. But has much happened in 20 years?
['Responses'] invites you to imagine her on a plateau of time, a lost world with odd messages from outside …, a world where drink, gambling, lovers, friends, novels—even the car crash that nearly killed her, even the birth of her cherished son—seem just aspects of her loneliness and her loathing of security….
Though she complains about her myth, there's a dreamy, ritual vagueness in her opinions…. She sounds sometimes like an inverted Barbara Cartland, with expensive Scotch, scars and scruffiness replacing the expensive champagne, rosy cheeks and frills.
What saves Sagan from suspended animation, however, is her shrewdness. Not the tolerance she claims to have acquired …, but the sharp rejections she has always been able to afford….
Like a lot of sentimentalists, she's tough as old boots. Unlike most, she's still angry and lashing out from her eyrie.
Lorna Sage, "Pensées from Saganland," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9830, January 20, 1980, p. 39.
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