Thoughts on Bonjour Tristesse

Bonjour Tristesse first grabbed my attention with its title.

It had caught my eye when I was working in a bookshop a few years ago; one of a set of well-priced, slim books that came with their own cardboard shelf unit. I ummed and ahhed about it, on the basis that a fondness of French and particularly the word “tristesse” was a poor reason to spend $10.

It crossed my path again recently, though now I think about it I cannot recall…. ah, no, I remember now. A quote from the novel had popped up on tumblr from one of the quote blogs; I believe it was A Sea Of Quotes but don’t, ahem, quote me on that. The narrator was self-aware and intriguing, and the prose was beautiful, and an intriguing protagonist and beautiful prose fulfil much of what I want out of a book, so I looked it up online and purchased it.

Then I purchased another couple of books as well because I can never help myself.

Francoise Sagan, you may know, was 18 when she wrote Bonjour Tristesse. I find it difficult to say “it shows”; I don’t know anything about her. And it certainly doesn’t “show” because it is poorly written. Rather, it has a freshness and a youth to it that I’m not sure would be so easy to capture if one were older.

The protagonist, Cécile, is narrating a summer an unidentified number of years previously, when she was seventeen. The passage of time gives her the ability to acknowledge the flaws of her younger self with a sympathetic hand. Indeed, she was aware of many of these flaws at the time, and it’s this self-awareness, along with Cécile’s natural openness of feeling, that makes this rather selfish and immature character nevertheless thoroughly likeable. The characters are given room to have many sides, emotions and motivations. Anne, the potential stepmother, is a distant figure, somehow closed off to Cécile (perhaps intentionally; she is reflecting from a future point and has reason to distance herself emotionally when remembering). One moment she is despised, the next admired.

It’s this vagueness of thought, this awareness that she is a person not yet fully formed at seventeen, that I very much like about Cécile. She is free, unfettered; content, at least for the summer, to be directionless, like a boat drifting in a sunlit bay. Even the prose itself seems to carry with it a summer lethargy and a sense of innocent freedom. But it is, in its way, fatalistic; Cécile knows what is coming, and it is a heavy on her as she speaks of that summer, not with dread but with sad acceptance. Bonjour, tristesse.

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