Monthly Archives: November 2012

“Bonjour Tristesse” by Francoise Sagan


Bonjour tristesseThis weekend I took a break from pretending to read Infinite Jest (a book by which I have been awed and annoyed in turn) to basically inhale something that is more my speed. This short, short novel is a coming of age story set in the French Riviera during the 50s. Cecile is seventeen and staying the summer in a villa with her father, Raymond, a widower and a libertine. They're a superficially happy duo, indulgent of each other, needing no one, as another character puts it. Raymond is a womanizer, a creature of passion and whimsy, and Cecile, with no better example, is the same. Unlike her father she's afflicted by a growing ennui she can't quite understand. When Raymond impulsively casts aside his young mistress and becomes engaged to an older family friend–Anne–Cecile takes it upon herself to stop the marriage from occurring, with tragic consequences.

Cecile's relationship with Anne animates the book, and it's a complicated one. Cecile admires Anne, even adores her in her role as friend and adviser, but when Anne steps into the role of mother, Cecile becomes resentful even as she desperately craves Anne's understanding and love. Cecile is faced with a choice between turning into the sort of person her father and his friends are (they're painted as bitter, emotionally stunted, glitzy, fun people), or the sort of person Anne is: elegant, graceful, competent, but also someone whose life is ruled by order, by routine. Even while she flirts with the idea of becoming someone like Anne, she resents Anne's attempts to improve her, finding them insincere and invasive. She is almost as contemptuous of her father's friends and their way of being in the world, but Anne's way requires change, which is painful, and the sort of life that Anne represents requires an understanding of love which Cecile does not achieve until, perhaps, the end of the book. Not of love as an intense, temporary passion, but as fidelity, constancy; a feeling of need rather than one of desire, maybe. At the end of the novel, Cecile is haunted by an intractable sadness, which the poem that serves as the book's epigraph implies is the beginning and the end of love.

The poem (which also gives the book its name) is by Paul Eluard and is called "À Peine Défigurée" (Hardly Disfigured) and it took me a few tries to find a translation of the poem that was transparent…I think it's one of those that doesn't translate well. I reproduce the original and this useful, if imperfect, translation here, as well as a more standard translation:

Adieu tristesse
Bonjour tristesse
Tu es inscrite dans les lignes du plafond
Tu es inscrite dans les yeux que j'aime
Tu n'es pas tout à fait la misère
Car les lèvres les plus pauvres te dénoncent
Par un sourire
Bonjour tristesse
Amour des corps aimables
Puissance de l'amour
Dont l'amabilité surgit
Comme un monstre sans corps
Tête désappointée
Tristesse beau visage.

Farewell Sadness
Hello Sadness
I see you on the ceiling
I see you in the eyes that I love
I see you in the smile that betrays you.
Hello Sadness
Power of love
From which kindness rises
Like a bodiless monster
Unattached head
Sadness has a beautiful face.

And the more common translation:

Farewell Sadness
Hello Sadness
You are inscribed in the lines on the ceiling
You are inscribed in the eyes that I love
You are not poverty absolutely
Since the poorest of lips denounce you
Ah with a smile
Bonjour Tristesse
Love of kind bodies
Power of love
From which kindness rises
Like a bodiless monster
Unattached head
Sadness beautiful face.

TL;DR/You should read this book because: you love coming of age stories, short novels, movies with Jean Seberg in them (she plays Cecile in the movie), stories about French people being extra-French, or you agree that Claudine at School is the best Claudine novel (duh).