Bonjour Tristesse is one of those books of which I had heard, vaguely, knowing it was a book, but nothing beyond that, except perhaps that it was French. Violet’s post on this novella must have been what turned this vague knowledge into the wish to read it. Subsequent reviews of other bloggers only made me more eager.. And so, it has been on my wishlist for a little over 2 years, but somehow I always forgot to actually pick it up. However, July being renamed Paris in July BookBath and Thyme for Tea, I knew it was time I finally read it.
Let me begin by telling you a little of what this novella is about, although I am sure most of you are aware of its content already:
Bonjour Tristesse is the tale of seventeen-year-old Cécile, who spends her summer vacation at a French beach, together with her father Raymond. Having long since accepted her father’s ever changing string of mistresses, she is alright with the fact that Elsa, his current girlfriend, is staying with them in the villa, even though she is a little silly. Cécile is familiar with her father’s hedonistic, decadent and slightly promiscuous lifestyle, and likes to think of herself as similar to her father. Until the arrival of her late mother’s friend Anne, we follow Cécile as she is experiencing her own love affair with Cyril, the boy occupying the villa next to theirs.
But things change with the arrival of Anne. Soon, Anne and Raymond claim to be in love, and Anne starts to disrupt the comfortable hedonistic life Cécile and Raymond had spun together. Cécile, extrovert and rather spoiled, used to getting her way, sets a plan in motion to get rid of Anne’s elegant influence on their lifes, but she is not aware of the tragedy lurking around the corner.
There’s an interesting dynamic surrounding Cécile’s character. As Sasha so eloquently puts it: “Cécile , make no mistake, is a little brat.” And she is. And I generally do not enjoy reading about brats. On top of this, Cécile is so unlike me in many ways that I was a little surprised that she did not bother me more. She does not care about having failed her exams at the end of boarding school, she rejoices in trying to imitate her father and his liasons, and she is bothered by the possible intrusion of structure in her life. Moreover, she is extravert and self-assuredly goes after what she wants. Not that I condemn these characteristics, but they’re not things I identify with generally. And at times I struggled with this; sometimes the novella bordered on providing the reader with a little too much detail on Cécile’s character, on her teenage-ness, so to say. And yet it never really crosses the line.
So what saves this book for me? I think part of it is that the Cécile described, and the Cécile making the descriptions, are different persons. The latter has been changed and has, presumably, grown up by the experiences put forth in Bonjour Tristesse. This is a novella of introspection, of ruthless honesty about the selfishness and naivety of adolescence, but from the viewpoint of someone who has lived through it, not someone who is still in the middle of it. This makes it a lot more bearable to read about a character like Cécile’s, for yes, and I keep returning to this, she is a brat. But she’s also someone who allows insight into her reflections, thoughts, and motivations. And the observations offered are acutely insightful, often recognisable (even for someone who feels she is completely different from Cécile in many respects).
For all the confrontation with the ugliness that can be found in the scheming and the egoistical world described -but these words are too strong, really, for there is an overarching innocence and naivety covering it all up too- there is also a wonderful beauty to the prose in Bonjour Tristesse. Moreover, this novella is so accomplished as a whole. Just look at the first paragraph of the book:
A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me.
And there we have the real reason this novella worked for me, despite not falling head over heels in love with it. The prose is stunning at times. The kind that makes you want to just read it a few times over, linger on it, and contemplate it for a while. To think that Sagan wrote this aged eighteen makes it all the more admirable. I am sure I’d like to read more by Sagan in due time.
Other Opinions: Stuck in a Book, The Book Whisperer, In Spring it is the Dawn, Reading Matters, The Literary Lollipop, A Book Blog. Period, Savidge Reads, The Literary Stew, Sasha & The Silverfish, Bart’s Bookshelf, Still Life With Books.
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