We were slim and pleasing, like people in a picture.

A Certain Smile, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

A while back now I read and loved Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. Come the searing summer heat of 2018 and it seemed a good time to return to Sagan.

A Certain Smile is the story of Dominique, an attractive young law student, and her affair with an older man Luc. Dominique already has a boyfriend, the perfectly likeable Bertrand. Luc is married to a kind and generous woman, Françoise. The story is entirely, and intentionally, unoriginal. Here’s the opening paragraph:

We had spent the afternoon in a café in the Rue Saint-Jacques, a spring afternoon like any other. I was slightly bored, and walked up and down between the juke-box and the window, while Bertrand talked about Spire’s lecture. I was leaning on the machine, watching the record rising slowly, almost gently, like a proffered cheek, to its slanting position against the sapphire, when, for no apparent reason, I was overcome by a feeling of intense happiness, a sudden realization that some day I would die, that my hand would no longer touch that chromium rim, nor would the sun shine in my eyes.

There’s a lot packed in there. The narrator, who we’re yet to learn is named Dominique, is “slightly bored”. That will matter, because the story is in part driven by her desire to alleviate that casual boredom.

The language is deeply sensual. The record rises “like a proffered cheek”, already introducing a hint of sex, but it’s not just that. The whole description of something as mundane as playing a record on a jukebox is suffused with languorous desire.

Suddenly the narrator is overcome by “intense happiness”, but it’s irrevocably linked to mortality and to her realisation that one day she won’t be there to experience moments like this. She isn’t happy despite the prospect of death. The happiness is born of the joy of the moment and her awareness of its transience.

In a sense the whole book is there, and for that I think it’s a pretty much perfect opening paragraph. Soon we learn that the narrator is Dominique and that she’s a law student and that it’s summer, but from these opening words we already know much more profound things about her than those quotidian facts.

Dominique and Bertrand make a good couple. They laugh together, make love, care about each other. Still, he’s her first serious boyfriend and for most people those first relationships tend not to last. Even had Bertrand not introduced Dominique to his uncle, Luc, there would always eventually have been a Luc of one sort or another.

Luc and Françoise are older, already settled in life and with each other. They have no children and Françoise becomes almost a proxy-mother to Dominique, buying her clothes and feeding her dinners. Luc takes a different sort of interest.

Dominique is flattered by his attention and more by the frank way in which he tells her he wants to sleep with her but that he will never love her and this will be just a pleasant interlude in their lives. He makes her feel grown up, adult, knowing. She believes she can be like him, dispassionately passionate. She ignores the signs that she’s wrong:

Already there was something that seemed to race like a hurricane when Luc was there. Afterwards time suddenly dropped back to normal, and once more there were minutes, hours, and cigarettes.

Plotwise I don’t have much more to say. Luc takes Dominique to the French Riviera for a  few days in a nice hotel with a sea view. It’s almost like he’s done this before…

Of course, things aren’t quite as simple as Dominique expects. People get hurt, including her. As I said at the outset, in terms of story this is intentionally unoriginal.

So why read it? Partly because Sagan is so good on the experience of being Dominique: on her evolving and conflicting feelings; her discovery of love and her worse discovery of unreciprocated love; the sheer pleasure of being young and alive. Nothing Dominique experiences is new, except to her which is all that truly matters.

Sagan writes with extraordinary clarity. Just look at that first paragraph again: it’s luminous. The whole book is like that, but at the same time it’s succinct with no wasted or unnecessary detail. Reading it I could picture every scene, but when I looked back on it prior to writing this I realised that Sagan achieves that impact often with only the barest of descriptions.

Sagan can also be very funny when she feels like it and seemingly effortlessly cool. The book is full of small sly asides (the cigarettes line above is a great example). Here’s one final quote that I just couldn’t resist including:

I was back in the Champs-Élysées with the taste of a strange mouth on my lips, and I decided to go home and read a new novel.

It seems a sensible response.

Other reviews

I wrote a little about this in my June roundup here. Otherwise, two reviews that I particularly want to note. The first is this great review by Jacqui at Jacqui Wine’s Journal. Rereading it I see that Jacqui used exactly the same phrase as I did to describe Françoise – “kind and generous”. Clearly Sagan painted the character clearly.

The second, here, is a contemporaneous review by The Spectator. I don’t usually include non-blog reviews, but I think it’s pretty much spot on and it’s interesting to see one which treats this as a new novel by a young writer rather than an old novel by a famous name.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “We were slim and pleasing, like people in a picture.

  1. That opening paragraph is a delight. I have read Bonjour Tristesse twice, such a beautiful little novella, I really should have explored more by Sagan. Lovely review.

  2. Your excellent review brings back fond memories of the time when I read this little novella last year. As you say, that opening paragraph gives a sense of the whole book in capsule.
    Sagan is so good on the conflicted emotions of youth, the sheer intensity of feeling that so often characterises this time in our lives – we see it here and in Tristesse of course. And it’s interesting to note that this story also features a kind of proxy mother figure, this time in the shape of Francoise. It’s a shame that much of her other work seems to have fallen out of print over here as quite a lot of it has been translated into English.

  3. Jacqui had already put Sagan in my radar, and this review just adds fuel to my desire. Maybe I can find some of her books in Canada. She seems much more popular in the UK than in the US.

  4. I love Françoise Sagan, I’ve read several of her books, all pre-blog.
    I totally agree with what you say about her style. The plot is not much and yet, she brings something about human experience, a sheer lucidity mixed with humour. She sees a lot and chooses to shrug it off, to protect herself.

  5. I’ve got this in an edition with Bonjour Tristesse – I remember being impressed by Jacqui’s review. I also had a student write about BT this year and they made it sound very interesting.

  6. Sorry for the slow replies all – I’m presently on holiday between jobs so pretty much offline. Updates and responses generally in July may be a bit slow as I bed in at the new place.

    Ali, isn’t it? It’s the sort of start which just immediately lets you know that you’re in safe authorial hands.

    Jacqui, intensity of feeling is right. In some ways this is a less adolescent, slightly (but only slightly) more grown up version of Tristesse. That is in no way a criticism of Tristesse which I think is masterful – it’s more a reflection on the characters and the similar themes, but with perhaps a bit less drama and a bit more knowingness to it all as you’d expect a couple of years down the line.

    Dorian, I’d start with Bonjour as almost everyone seems to. It really is excellent and it’s probably the easiest to get hold of anywhere I suspect (if one can get hold of her at all).

    Emma, which others would you recommend? Lucidity and humour is spot on.

    Grant, is that the recent Penguin Classics version, translated by Heather Lloyd? If so I have that too. I’d heard that the translation was much more accurate, but perhaps less faithful in terms of mood somehow, but that could be nonsense. Both the ones I’ve read so far were translated by Irene Ash so I’m interested to see the comparison for myself.

  7. There are some interesting comments about the relative merits of the two translations of Tristesse — albeit based on the opening paragraph — under this follow-up piece to my review. (It was prompted by Rachel Cooke’s article in The Guardian where she compares the two translations – well, the first paragraph at least. Cooke clearly favours the tone and feel of the Ash.)

    https://jacquiwine.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/bonjour-tristesse-part-2-a-few-thoughts-on-the-translation/

    Looking through the comments again, I think Emma felt that Irene Ash had captured the rhythm/musicality of Sagan’s prose more effectively than Heather Lloyd. As a consequence of all this, I decided to switch to the Ash for A Certain Smile (even though I already had a copy of the Lloyd in the newish Penguin edition). Maybe it’s a question of taste, but the Ash does seem to capture a certain something in terms of mood!

  8. Thanks. I think I may have read that at the time but I will refresh myself. It’s always a fascinating topic – comparing translations.

    Ash has certainly worked for me, but of course the question is always when we read Sagan translated by Ash to what extent are we reading Sagan and to what extent Ash? Still, our reactions to the Ash seem similar to Emma’s to Sagan in the French which suggests Ash is getting something right.

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