The sound of a motorhorn separated us like thieves.

Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

It’s nearly a month now since I read Bonjour Tristesse, but the memory of it still cuts through the books I’ve read since. It’s no surprise this was a massive hit when first published; it’s delicious.


Now that, that is a good cover. Brilliant even.

Cécile, “seventeen and perfectly happy”, is on holiday with her father, “a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and attractive to women.” They’ve taken a villa on the French Riviera and it’s no wonder she’s so happy, for she’s her daddy’s darling and she’s young, pretty and rich. “I dare say I owed most of my pleasures of that time to money; the pleasure of driving fast, of having a new dress, buying records, books, flowers.”

Her father’s current mistress is staying with them, Elsa, “a tall red-haired girl, sensual and worldly, gentle, rather simple, and unpretentious; one might have come across her any day in the studios and bars of the Champs-Élysées.” Cécile, emulating her father, idles her time away with Cyril, a university student who is “tall and sometimes beautiful, with the sort of good looks that immediately inspire one with confidence.”

The holiday is a sojourn in paradise. Everything is perfect, for Cécile anyway. Her days are awash with confident, spot-free adolescent sensuality.

The first days were dazzling. We spent hours on the beach overwhelmed by the heat and gradually assuming a healthy golden tan; except Elsa, whose skin reddened and peeled, causing her atrocious suffering. My father performed all sorts of complicated leg exercises to reduce a rounding stomach unsuitable for a Don Juan. From dawn onwards I was in the water. It was cool and transparent and I plunged wildly about in my efforts to wash away the shadows and dust of the city. I lay full length on the sand, took up a handful and let it run through my fingers in soft yellow streams. I told myself that it ran out like time. It was an idle thought, and it was pleasant to have idle thoughts, for it was summer.

Then however comes the “amiable and distant” Anne – “At forty-two she was a most attractive woman, much sought after, with a beautiful face, proud, tired and indifferent.” Elsa has youth and enthusiasm on her side, but Anne is in a different league. Educated, sophisticated, possessed of unquestionable taste, Anne is the epitome of bon chic, bon genre. Elsa hasn’t a hope against competition like that.

Soon Elsa’s out and Anne’s firmly in, and Cécile’s at first delighted since she likes Anne and perhaps aspires one day to be like her. Then it dawns that Anne has quite clear ideas about the kind of life she wants, and about the desirability of father and daughter leading a carefree existence of sun and pleasure (and Anne has a point, given that Cécile frequently wakes up with a hangover).

Worse yet, Cécile’s father seems actually serious about Anne, she’s not just another lover, she’s genuine competition for his interest and affections. Quite quickly Cécile decides she wants Anne back out, and the easy-going Elsa back in the picture.

The Times’ quote on the cover refers to the book as “thoroughly immoral”, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Instead I’d say it’s delightfully amoral. Cécile is like a less innocent Emma, arranging the lives of those around her in accordance with her views of how things should be, but unlike Emma she’s working to her convenience rather than their perceived benefit. In a way Cécile is something like a cat, attractive and affectionate but essentially self-interested.

Sagan was 18 when she wrote this and in part that shows. The emotions here are big emotions, this is (as the old Hollywood cliché goes) a summer that Cécile will never forget and it’s all rather dramatic. We’re definitely not in Colm Tóibín-type territory here where nothing much happens, slowly.

Bonjour Tristesse is a novel of surfaces, perhaps also reflecting Sagan’s age. Everyone here is pretty much as they appear to be, the only person with any ulterior motives is Cécile and we know those as she’s the narrator (and she’s a reliable narrator). This isn’t a novel where you’ll be spending ages considering possible meanings, symbolism and themes, it is what it fairly plainly is. That’s ok though, because it’s not trying for that kind of depth and it succeeds marvellously at what it does try for, at evoking an immediacy of experience.

The next morning I was awakened by a slanting ray of hot sunshine that flooded my bed and put an end to my strange and rather confused dreams. Still half asleep I raised my hand to shield my face from the insistent heat, then gave it up. It was ten o’ clock. I went down to the terrace in my pyjamas and found Anne glancing through the newspapers. I noticed that she was lightly, but perfectly, made up; apparently she never allowed herself a real holiday. As she paid no attention to me, I sat down on the steps with a cup of coffee and an orange to enjoy the delicious morning. I bit the orange and let its sweet juice run into my mouth, then took a gulp of scalding black coffee and went back to the orange again. The sun warmed my hair and smoothed away the marks of the sheet on my skin. I thought in five minutes I would go and bathe.

I love that quote. There’s a tremendous intensity about the sun and the coffee and the orange. Even a month later it still resonates with me, and when I think of this book that’s what I think of, Cécile sitting in the fierce sun gulping scalding black coffee and biting into an orange. It’s character made manifest through breakfast.

To an extent Bonjour Tristesse reminds me of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which is high praise given that’s one of my favourite novels of all time. It has that same sense of people playing with others’ lives without troubling themselves as to the damage they might do in the process. It has that same sense too of revelling in sheer physical pleasure and a heedlessness born of privilege without responsibility.

In case it’s not obvious I distinctly enjoyed Bonjour Tristesse. I had meant to buy the Heather Lloyd translation (I don’t recall why), but the Irene Nash was the one in stock when I went to Foyles so that’s what I read. I can’t of course compare the two translations, not having enough French and more importantly not having read both, but the Nash was a fluid read that didn’t once jar me with apparent anachronisms or odd turns of phrase so I’d have no hesitation at all in recommending it (though that doesn’t mean of course it’s good, for all I know the French text is packed with anachronisms and odd turns of phrase after all).

Other reviews

I’m not aware of any other reviews of this in the blogosphere, but if I’ve missed any please let me know in the comments.


Filed under French, Sagan, Françoise

26 responses to “The sound of a motorhorn separated us like thieves.

  1. Sounds most intriguing, especially your reference to Les Liaisons Dangereuses. I realize that I don’t read much contemporary French literature at all, but that is high praise indeed. May just have to add it to that list… Thanks for the comments regarding translation too, that is helpful.

  2. I went though a whole Francoise Sagan period back in the day and was able to read in the original French which shows how far I’ve fallen.

  3. Rough, it’s very good, not sure I’d call it contemporary given it was written I think in the 1950s, but it is very good. Glad the translation comments helped.

    Guy, what did you make of this one? Were there others by her particularly stood out for you? If the translation is anything to go by I can imagine this would be a good one to read in the original, it has a very clear style.

  4. I remember liking this one a lot, and if memory is true, Sunlight on Cold Water was (I think) my favourite.

  5. Your review makes me want to read this novel! I love the quote with the orange, sun and coffee. One to add to the to-read list, I think 🙂

  6. I read Bonjour Tristesse a few years ago and loved it. It so glamorous. I can’t recall which translation. I like how you describe it as a novel of surfaces, it’s true, and as you say in the case of this novel it’s to its credit. Definitely one to read again on a hot summers day with an elaborate cocktail in my hand, thanks for the reminder.

  7. Of all the novels I’ve read, I can’t think of one that was written by an author who was only 18.
    I liked your description of Colm Toibin territory where nothing happens slowly.

  8. Wonderful review, Max…one that makes me want to pull my copy off the shelf and start reading it immediately! I love how you’ve described it as delightfully amoral and a novel of surfaces…the quotes are great too. It might be just the thing I need after my bruising experience with Miss Lonelyhearts.

    I have the Heather Lloyd translation but now I wish I’d bought the Irene Ash as that cover is brilliant. It’s such a terrific piece of design, the stripes really make it.

  9. Guy, I’ll look out for that. It seems out of print in translation, but fairly easy to get hold of.

    Gemma, thanks, it is a great quote isn’t it?

    bookem, glamorous, exactly. Have you read more by her? I can see myself rereading it, as you say with cocktail in hand.

    Anoka, my only other I think is Raymond Radiguet, I’ve a review of one of his here which I think was written when he was a teenager. Still, it’s not common.

    I love Toibin, but I do think that comment’s still fair.

    Jacqui, thanks. Caroline prompted me to read it I think in a discussion of Levy’s Swimming Home. It would make a good book to read as palate cleanser I think.

    I suspect this isn’t the most challenging one to translate, though that may be unfair, but certainly the Nash worked very well for me and I’d be cheered to see Nash as a translator now on other works.

  10. Bonjour Tristesse has entered so many conversations for so long that I feel like I’ve grown up with it – without ever having actually read it. Thanks to your enthusiastic review, I plan to make amends for that pronto.

    And before I even got to the bottom of that cocktail glass I was thinking exactly what you’d written below it: brilliant cover. Who’s the graphic artist?

  11. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I have enjoyed and reviewed it – and am definitely keen to read more of her work.

  12. Great review, Max. And I’m glad you liked it as much as I did and your compariosn with Les Liaisons dangereuses is spot on. I’ve read both books – and most of Sagan – at 16 and I’m pretty sure they had a huge influence.
    I agree, it might not be one of the most difficult to translate but it’s also because of a major strength – she’s never fluffy or overwriting anything. She’s go an impeccable sense for scences and style. I really liked your comment on “character made manifest through breakfast”. It shows her art. How often people are just described eating something and it doesn’t contribute to the character at all.
    It’s worth reading more of her. Some is even darker or more cynical.

  13. Scott, it’s funny how some books become part of us without our ever having read them isn’t it? I do know what you mean.

    I’ll check on the artist and get back to you.

    Kaggsy, do you have a link to your review?

    Caroline, I do think it was you put me on to this, so thank you. Glad the Liaisons comparison worked for you.

    What would you recommend next by her? It looks like it’s all (or almost all) OOP. Sunlight on Cold Water is now definitely on my radar (great title too).

  14. Yes, Sunlight on Cold Water is good but the ones that stayed with me the most – other than Bonjour Tristesse – is A Certain Smile and the one with “Brahms” in the title (Aimez-vous Brahms? in French). It’s been made into a movie with Anthony Perkins under the title “Goodbye Again”.

  15. Hm, if I’d got the Heather Lloyd translation that would have had A Certain Smile in the same edition. Oh well, at this point I might as well be a Nash loyalist – she has a translation of A Certain Smile which looks pretty readily available second hand.

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  17. Great review Max, it really gives back the book and the atmosphere of the French Riviera. I think the book was a huge scandal when it was published.
    I agree with you about the cover and the quote about Cécile drinking coffee and eating an orange. That’s Sagan for you: she has a way with word, a eye for scenes and although the world she describes seems frivolous, it’s not as beautiful and happy as it seems.
    She became more nuanced with age and she was able to describe emotions with light touches.

    I had a huge Sagan time in my early twenties. I loved Bonjour Tristesse, Aimez-vous Brahms, Des bleus à l’âme, Le lit défait.

  18. Thanks. I do plan to read more by her, and I’m encouraged by how many comments have recommendations for what to try next.

    Caroline picked the Brahms too. What did you make of A Certain Smile or Sunlight on Cold Water?

  19. I haven’t read a Certain Smile but I might read it just because the cover of the French paperback is a painting by Modigliani and I’d be ready to travel all over the world to see his work.

    I haven’t read Sunlight on Cold Water either (Un peu de soleil dans l’eau froide is the original title. It’s more “a bit of sun in cold water” It’s not exactly the same as the translation, is it?)

    Sorry, I’m really helpful here…

  20. The French title of Sun has a very different resonance. Less sensual, more forbidding. Interesting.

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  22. Just read this, in the Heather Lloyd version, with A Certain Smile. It’s quite a piece of work for an 18-year old. One of the things that struck me most was what an overwhelmingly feckless figure the father is. Apart from that, I agree that in terms of mood and atmosphere it’s marvellous, evocative.

    incidentally Lloyd has a translator’s note where she respectfully but firmly assesses Nash’s work – not altogether favourably. There’s a fair bit of expurgation and re-writing going on, seemingly – enough that the US publishers demurred on Nash’s version of A Certain Smile, having used her UK-commissioned translation of Bonjour Tristesse first time round.

  23. Oh now that is interesting Ian. Now I have to read the Lloyd. Expurgation is often an issue with translation, that and “tidying” of text which was intentionally untidy in the original.

    The father is a somewhat questionable sort, I agree.

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