Critics, especially Anglo-Saxon, have been hard on Françoise Sagan. Since the appearance of her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, the 1954 publication of which catapulted her into fame, reviewers have, on the whole, judged her severely. They grant that she is a gifted storyteller, but they cite the frivolity, the facileness, the clichés of situation and characterization; “brittle” is a word which recurs in attempts to describe her manner. But critical hostility notwithstanding, Sagan has made the bestseller lists with regularity for nearly a quarter of a century now. Her books are initially printed in great number, rapidly translated into foreign languages, swiftly edited in paperback, and endlessly devoured by a French and foreign public. Yet many still refuse to take her seriously: “I have practically no literary critics,” Sagan herself noted in a 1969 interview (Les Nouvelles Littéraires, May 22, 1969, page 11). Indeed, her work is prone to be treated less as literature than as a phenomenon, a curiosity: “un accident qui dure” (an accident which endures), as a French periodical recently qualified it.
One of the things for which Sagan has been most consistently reproached is the sameness of her settings: her tales evolve against a background of vain and idle opulence. Her characters, as feckless as they are wealthy, lead existences which appear almost uniformly inconsequential. Sagan’s latest production, Silken Eyes, published in French in 1975 as Des Yeux de Soie (although one of the original nineteen French stories has been dropped, apparently because of translating difficulties) represents no deviation in this respect from her numerous novels and plays of the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is peopled by creatures as stunning and as otiose as ever: they still drive Maseratis (at 120 mph) and wear Dior clothes; they still keep multiple residences and multiple lovers. Formally, however, this volume represents a new direction in Sagan’s opus: it is her first collection of short stories. Stories so short, in fact (some of them, like The Five Diversions or The Fishing Expedition, occupy only six pages) that they may better be described as vignettes.
In the 1969 interview in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, Sagan asserted that her primordial literary theme is people’s solitude. The present collection bears this out; in salons, in nightclubs, in automobiles, in bed, her characters remain ultimately alone. In this particular volume, the principal maker of solitude is aging. The phantoms of middle and old age haunt a fair number of the characters, separating them ineluctably from their companions. Sagan’s women, who tend to be between thirty and fifty years of age, perceive themselves as incipiently and tragically old, and struggle to retain an appearance of youth and to enjoy some vestige of its corresponding prestige. A certain maturity—in chronological age if not in mentality—thus informs these tales; no major character in Silken Eyes recalls the perversely insouciant youth of seventeen-year-old Cecile of Bonjour Tristesse, or even that of Josée or Béatrice, her elders by a few years, in Those Without Shadows. Sagan’s characters are eternally strategists, but the tactics and ruses of the short stories are devised less in the interests of passion, jealousy, or ambition—those emotions so much in evidence in her earliest works—than in the service of appearances, vanity, and style. When the gigolo, for example, towards the end of the story by that name, in an unwonted moment of tenderness looks closely into the face of his middle-aged mistress, her first instinct is to disengage herself, fearful that her makeup, so necessary to her persona, may be in disorder.
The subtle irony with which this moment is reported in fact pervades the volume. At least a few of the pieces are ironic and humorous to a degree that invites comparison of Sagan with the great masters of the form. A Dog’s Night recounts a sort of Christmas miracle among the bourgeoisie: it is accomplished in the snow outside the church a little after midnight, by means of an endearing mongrel called Rover; but here the thrust of the “miracle” is entirely material, with no moral dimension whatever. In another tour de force entitled The Left Eyelid, Lady Letitia Garrett is confined by a capricious door latch, for several hours and nearly a dozen pages, in the lavatory of the Mistral, the fast train between Paris and Italy. At her destination in Lyon waits her adoring lover...
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