Fiction – paperback; Penguin Books; 108 pages; 1958. Translated from the French by Irene Ash.
Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse is a deceptively simple book about one girl’s plan to prevent her father, a self-confessed libertine whom she loves very much, from marrying a beautiful but aloof woman. But when 17-year-old Cécile enlists her first real boyfriend, Cyril, and her father’s ex-lover, Elsa, to take part in her devilish scheme, she fails to imagine the horrific consequences of her actions.
Set on the French Riviera, you can almost smell the ocean air and feel the warming rays of the sun, as Cécile tries to find excuses to avoid her studies (she has recently failed her exams and must sit them again) and spend time with Cyril.
Together with her womanising 40-year-old widowed father, his lover, Elsa, and his late wife’s friend, Anne, she enjoys a two-month holiday in a secluded villa.
But when Elsa is ousted in favour of Anne, Cécile’s equilibrium is destroyed. As much as she admires the 42-year-old Anne (a much closer and more “appropriate” match to her father than the 29-year-old Elsa), she views her as a threat to her carefree existence, a mother figure who will impose rigid controls and order on her life.
And, to a certain degree, this is true, because one of the first things Anne does is forbid Cécile from seeing Cyril — later she imposes homework rules and at one point locks Cécile in her room so that she cannot escape her books and essays.
Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness) scandalised France when it was first published in 1954 because of its portrayal of “free love” (a man openly living with an unmarried woman, a teenager who drinks alcohol and sleeps with her boyfriend).
Astonishingly, it was written by an 18-year-old unknown, and promptly became a best-seller. I say astonishing because Sagan cuts to the very heart of complicated human relationships using austere, almost clinical, and restrained language. It seems, in many many ways, as if it were written by someone old before their time.
It’s a beautifully tragic story, tinged with melancholy and regret, which perfectly captures the naivety and rebelliousness of youth.
‘Bonjour Tristesse’, by Françoise Sagan, first published in 1954, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it claims the novel “shocked and titillated its first readers, paving the way for a permissive French society”.