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"Bonjour Tristesse" is the story of one summer in the life of Cécile, a seventeen year old girl, and her father, Raymond, a wealthy widowed womaniser, aged forty. Cécile has failed her recent university exams, but doesn't much care - she doesn't have to with her father around to support her - and all she wants to do is swim, lay around on the beach, and fall in love temporarily with Cyril, a young man she meets in the sea. She is comfortable and innocent in her hedonistic life, with no mother and a careless father who she barely knew before her return from boarding school to start university in Paris.
Raymond has brought along Elsa, his current, twenty-nine year old, mistress, so Cécile is greatly surprised when it turns out he has also invited Anne, who is forty-two and has a much more serious personality than theirs, to stay with them. Gradually Cécile notices that Anne is really much more beautiful and clever than Elsa, and she realises that her father will soon make Anne his new mistress.
She has the shock of her life when Raymond announces that he intends to marry Anne, and when Anne makes it very clear that she will change their lives forever. Cécile is torn - she admires Anne and imagines she will be moulded into a better person by her stepmother, but she loves her easy, carefree life and mindlessly following her impulses and passions. Anne wants Cécile to study for her exam retakes and to stop seeing Cyril, and Cécile rebels, pretending to study whilst really plotting and sneaking out to meet Cyril and Elsa. She plans to use them to break her father and Anne up, even though she knows it is wrong. She imagines that if she changes her mind, she can stop the plan at any moment, manipulate everything as she chooses, but she is tragically wrong.
This is an very short novel, translated from the original French, the edition I have read and am reviewing was translated by Irene Ash for Penguin books. It is told in first person from Cécile's point of view, and the detail of characterisation reflects her interests - Anne is the character that is depicted in the most detail, whereas Raymond, Cyril and Elsa are drawn quickly and are not really explored. Cécile has no interest in anyone but herself normally, but Anne is a threat to Cécile's way of life, and a woman completely different from her but equally skilled at manipulating people. This story is completely free from obvious moral or ethical criticism, Cécile and Raymond do not judge their own actions, they simply do not care about anyone or anything enough to do so, and it is left for the reader to judge the characters and their behaviour, which I feel gives the book more of an impact.
I found this book to be a quick, absorbing read, and I would recommend it to anyone with a spare couple of hours! I just got the 1958 film adaptation out of my university library and am looking forward to comparing the two.
Reading Bonjour Tristesse, I quite helplessly found myself drawing comparisons between it and J.B. Priestley's: An Inspector Calls. I quite fancied the idea that if one of the younger Birlings had written about the tragedy they were complicit in, this is how it would have been. Such a mature and pensive style would've been the most appropriate; this narration angle, the most suitable. It's easy to see why the novel caused such a scandal in France at the time of it's original publication. Unlike the aforementioned English play, this French novel doesn't have a nuclear family at it's core, but a vivacious libertine, living a hedonistic existence with his daughter, Cecile. Far from being disturbed or damaged by it (as many a puritan would surely desire), Cecile adores this lifestyle - not to mention her Father - and the very threat to the whole fabric is what forms the foundation of the whole novel. What sets this classic apart from others is that it doesn't moralise. It is a book about feelings, emotions and characters; indeed it is the emotional response to the eventual tragedy that probably turned the moral majority blue in the face. Scandal however, is not what made this book. The writing style is concise, flawless, captivating and so addictive that I read it in a single session. Such maturity is shown - with respect to issues affecting young and old - that it seems Cecile is providing this account as a much older woman. Yet paradoxically, Francoise Sagan wrote this novel at just eighteen years old. Given the superb translation by Irene Ash, one wonders what sort of command Francoise Sagan has over her native language; even after conversion - it is easy to mark out Bonjour Tristesse as one of the great novels of the twentieth century.
Bonjour Tristesse is the story of Cecile, a precocious 17 year old girl coming to terms with, and later trying to sabotage, the newly formed relationship between her widowed father and the woman who had previously epitomised what she wanted to become. Told from Cecile's point of view, the story is set in the French Riviera. On holiday with her promiscuous, hedonistic father and his latest conquest, the youthful red-head eye candy, Elsa. Cecile, meanwhile, catches the eye of the local amorous fisherman, Cyril. All is calm until the arrival of her father's long time friend, Anne. Things become unsettled to say the least when it is announced that her father and Anne intend to marry. What follows, as suggested in the title, are tragic consequences. With a fine balance of what has become known as 'teenage angst' and counteracting, often patronising but usually realistic, adult rationality, this story is easy to relate to for any teenager who has a kindred relationship with melancholy. Although the ending is somewhat disappointing due to its almost ingongruous and sudden nature, there is something to be gained from the tragic circumstances all are left to come to terms with. For many, this is the novel that paved the way for a more permissive society due to its portrayal of Cecile as a teenage heroine who rejects most conventional notions of love, marraige and responsibilities in favour of her own sexual freedom and liberation. Pretty scandalous stuff for 1954. This book is easily worthy of your time, and, at just over 100 pages, the amount of time will not be significant in comparison to the things to be gained within.
Published by Penguin Books