BookHeads: Bonjour Tristesse

July 1, 2015
Photo 26-6-15 1 31 14 am

Tan Mei Zi

I have always been on the fence when it comes to romance novels. For as long as anyone can remember, the subject of love has been painstakingly milked dry by pop culture; love songs dominate the airwaves, indie romance flicks easily generate a cult following, and now and then a passive-aggressive tweet on your timeline about a spurned ex-lover pops up. But what about books? The written word wields a power unlike any other to explore the concept of romance (though that power is constantly put to wrong use. E.L. James, I’m looking at you….). One refreshing take on love is the novel ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ by the French author, Françoise Sagan.

The title of the book ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ translates to ‘Hello Sadness’ in English, setting the a melancholic tone for the story ahead. The novel follows the narrator, 17-year old Cécile, and her experiences in the French Riviera with her father, Raymond, and his lover, Elsa. It is the height of summer and Cécile is enjoying the good life, unwinding on the beach and relishing the sun on her skin. Sagan’s writing is beautiful, her words transporting you to the hazy, dolorous atmosphere of the villa in which Cécile is enjoying her summer getaway.

The first days were dazzling. We spent hours on the beach overwhelmed by the heat and gradually assuming a healthy golden tan; except Elsa, whose skin reddened and peeled, causing her atrocious suffering. My father performed all sorts of complicated leg exercises to reduce a rounding stomach unsuitable for a Don Juan. From dawn onwards I was in the water. It was cool and transparent and I plunged wildly about in my efforts to wash away the shadows and dust of the city. I lay full length in the sand, took up a handful and let it run through my fingers in soft yellow streams. I told myself that it ran out like time. It was an idle thought, and it was pleasant to have idle thoughts, for it was summer.

Raymond is a true Casanova and Elsa is one of his many girlfriends that have entered and exited Cécile’s life. The absence of marital commitment on her father’s part leads Cécile to develop a very cynical idea towards love. She enters into a romance with Cyril, a young man living in a neighboring villa, but the relationship is only skin-deep and Cécile knows it will not last.

The carefree framework of Cécile’s holiday is interrupted by the arrival of Anne Larsen, a friend and admirer of her father. Anne is intelligent, cold, and serious, and Cécile becomes fearful that she will introduce a principled routine into their indulgent lifestyle. The relationship between Raymond and Anne grows more intimate, and soon Elsa is out of the picture, coming and going just as all of Raymond’s past lovers have. Anne is very different from all of Raymond’s ex-girlfriends; she is cultured, smart, and close to his age. Not long after, Raymond and Anne are engaged to be married, and Cécile feels Anne’s grip on their lives beginning to tighten, especially after she forces Cécile to stay indoors to study for college exams and forbids her from seeing Cyril. Cécile’s immaturity leads her to devise a plan to break Anne and her father apart, with her actions having tragic and devastating consequences.

One of the reasons why this is probably my favourite romance novel is Cécile’s outlook on love. Her view on intimacy is warped and bleak, and I appreciate that Sagan didn’t choose to characterize her as a lovestruck teenage girl. She doesn’t fawn over Cyril nor does she deliberately seek out his attention. In fact, her devotion to him is only fleeting and momentary, and even then she is still very much immersed in herself.

“‘Youre very sweet, Cyril, I murmured. You shall be a brother to me.

He folded his arm round me with an angry little exclamation, and gently pulled me out of the boat. He held me close against him, my head on his shoulders. At that moment I loved him. In the morning light he was as golden, as soft, as gentle as myself. He was protecting me.

In retrospect, the story itself does have an air of pretentiousness about it. Each time I reread it, I find that the characters apart from Anne are rather unlikable given their self-concerned approach towards life. Parts of the novel also border between youthful naivety and immature revelry. Then again, perhaps these are merely the shortcomings of a young author, and I think the ending of the novel does leave behind an ache that acts as a bittersweet lesson on the nonchalance of youth.

Sagan’s book adds several layers of complexity to the subject of love despite it being just under 120 pages long. Her writing is uncomplicated, blunt, yet beautiful, and it leaves behind an impression of loss and sorrow. What’s more, Françoise Sagan was only eighteen years old when this novel was published (it blows my mind everytime I think about this!). ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ brings to mind lost loves, sandy beaches, and the spellbinding haze of summer, all of which come together to relay the story of young Cécile.

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