Silken Eyes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1886

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.

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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 Charles, little suspecting that Lady Garrett—beautiful, regal, rich, and already four times divorced at thirty-five—is troubling to make the journey from Paris only to put an end to their affair. This preposterous incarceration—more effective, she reflects, than any psychiatrist’s couch—unexpectedly and conclusively demonstrates to Lady Garrett her need for the tender and protective suitor: if only he were there, he would beat down the doors of all the lavatories in all the Mistrals in France until he had liberated her. Her enforced leisure thus occasions a revolution in her sentiments, and after her release occurs near the trip’s end, she descends and inquires simply: “And when would you like us to get married?”

Volatility and infidelity play essential roles in this collection: these characters, like Josée of The Wonderful Clouds, are almost compulsively unfaithful—to their husbands, their wives, their lovers, their mistresses—although there are several exhilarating twists in the manner in which the infidelity is committed. The Unknown Visitor, for example, delineates the discovery by a proper English socialite wife of her husband’s extramarital affair. Millicent returns early from a weekend of golf to find their country house in disarray, two dressing gowns (her husband’s and her own) on the living room floor, two empty coffee cups on the kitchen table. With British control, she reasons away her astonishment and speculates calmly: Could it be Pamela? Or Esther? Certainly not Linda, her golfing companion that weekend. At last, on her bedside table, she notices a man’s watch, and the nature of her husband’s betrayal all at once becomes clear.

In the tale which gives its name to the collection, the infidelity is aborted. After thirteen years of marriage, Monika and Jerome have little to say to each other. Her favors are solicited during a hunting weekend by their companion Stanislas, but when Jerome oddly spares the life of a splendid chamois (to whom the silken eyes of the title belong) after pursuing it for eight hours, Monika inexplicably falls back in love with him.

Death, be it animal or human, hovers over the entire collection. It is the obscure temptation (The Lake of Loneliness), the comic and menacing spectre (Death in Espadrilles), the absurd and not altogether unwelcome conclusion to dissipated and meaningless lives (A Stylish Death). Two accounts of suicide (The Corner Café and The Five Diversions) suggest that a contrived and violent end (by car crash, by gunshot) is better than a life without style. Note that the two characters in question kill themselves not after the discovery of a loved one’s infidelity (like Anne in Bonjour Tristesse), but after viewing their own cancerous insides on a physician’s x-rays. The counterparts of these two suicides are the brushes with death of the animals in two other stories—the chamois of Silken Eyes and the magnificent Spanish bull of The Sun Also Sets. The latter tale, whose title is, of course, an obvious take-off on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, is a delightfully unconventional bullfight story. In both these Sagan pieces, the proud untamed beast is spared—to the satisfaction of the sportsmen’s women, who seem to divine in the reprieve a justification of their own impeccable, but useless and savage, splendor.

The most sustained treatment of death is In Extremis, a piece which evokes the reactions of a nameless character in his sickbed one Spring afternoon, as he tries to come to terms with his own imminent demise. By its concision, its neutrality of tone, its admixture of dialogue and interior recollection, its attempt to give form to the formless, its want of anything that might be called plot, In Extremis recalls the “tropisms” of another contemporary French writer, Nathalie Sarraute.

The author to whom Sagan is most often compared is, of course, not Sarraute, but Colette, and there is much in the present work to justify such comparison on the thematic level. The Colette afficionado will assimilate the adolescent summer lovers of The Gentlemanly Tree to Vinca and Phil of The Ripening Seed; and the juxtaposition of the casual and tragic attitudes toward adultery of wife and husband in Silken Eyes recalls those of the couple in Duo. But it is in The Gigolo that the reminiscences of Colette are most pervasive; this is a sort of miniature version of Colette’s masterful presentation in Chéri of the aging mistress and her young lover. Both works posit a female character of about fifty (in the original version of The Gigolo, the heroine’s age is given as “plus de cinquante ans”; the English translation unaccountably makes her “over sixty”). She is forceful, beautiful, and sensual, and keeps a gorgeous but bestial and vapid young lover. While the liaison of Chéri and Léa endures for six years, that of Nicholas and his mistress (she is never named) ends after six months. In each case there is a female friend/rival (Charlotte Peloux in Chéri, Mme Essini in The Gigolo), who is the same age as the central character, but her physical and moral caricature, a grotesque exteriorization of her own potential for decline and deterioration. At the conclusion of each affair, the woman confronts her own irremediably old image in the looking-glass, retires shivering and nervous to her oversized empty bed and plans, come morning, to leave Paris and autumn for the South, the metaphor for warmth and rejuvenation. Since Chéri is a full-length novel, while The Gigolo occupies a mere dozen pages, it would be unfair to attempt a sustained comparison. Suffice it to say that Colette’s originality in Chéri resides doubtless in the creation of a gigolo of mythological proportions and an abandoned older woman who achieves grandeur and nobility (it is Chéri, not Léa, who commits suicide in the sequel; she lives on into a joyous old age), while Sagan’s thrust is elsewhere. The short story heroine, product and symbol of a meretricious society, is in the last analysis nothing more than her own terrifying image in the mirror, and ill-equipped, therefore, to survive the departure of youth and sexuality, let alone survive it with dignity.

The enormous geographical sweep of the stories (they range in settings from Paris to Munich, London, Scotland, Italy, Spain, and even to Hollywood) serves, paradoxically, to tie them together: the leisured class they evoke is evidently everywhere the same. Sagan has encountered in the short story a form peculiarly congenial to her talents and proclivities. The futility and emptiness of the society which she characteristically paints find a compelling echo in the economy of treatment which she here accords them. In these eighteen stories, the author conjures up with swiftness and nimbleness the vacuity and stylized ennui of the affluent upper class. Literary form thus parallels and reproduces both condensation of style and sociological commentary.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29

Booklist. LXXIV, October 1, 1977, p. 269.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, September 1, 1977, p. 953.

New Statesman. XCIV, October 14, 1977, p. 515.

New York Times Book Review. October 30, 1977, p. 14.

New Yorker. LIII, November 21, 1977, p. 230.

Observer. November 6, 1977, p. 30.

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