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By Francoise Sagan
Translated from the French by Irene Ash
New York: Ecco from HarperCollins Publishers, 2001
ISBN: 0-06-621169-7
130 pages

Bob Corbett
November 2014

Bonjour Tristess (Hello Sadness) created a great sensation when published in Paris in 1954 and released in English in 1955. It was seen as a brilliant first novel by a very young Francoise Sagan, a bit scandalous because of the bohemian nature of the lives of the two main characters and also thought by many to be “typically French.”

It may well have been all those things. However, the novel wears well and is just as powerful and exciting as it was 60 years ago. This is, indeed, the tale of two bohemian people. The tale is narrated by Cecile who is the same age as the author, just 17. She has lived with her father for the past three years and before that she was in a convent school for the bulk of each year, spending the summers with him in Paris. Her mother had died when she was just a tiny child.

They live the life of carefree bohemians and both love it. Her father is rich and secure in his work, loves women and partying, wild nightlife and rather shallow pleasures, eating, drinking, making merry and making love as often as possible with as many lovely women as he can.

One irony is that on his nearly nightly “outings” he very frequently takes his young daughter with him and she has internalized much of his bohemian ways.

Currently as the novel opens he is keeping company with Elsa who is beautiful, a serious party girl, and clings to this 40 year old man. He rents a luxurious place on the French Riviera for two months in the summer. Just the three of them go there, Dad, daughter, and Elsa. They get along well and things are a bit more domestic, but light, fun and playful.

To add to the spice of the opening, Cecile meets a 25 year old college student, handsome, alone and “looking” and owning a lovely sail boat. He and Cecile quickly become romantically involved, and dad and Elsa seem happy and much in love or at least lust.

Into this scene bursts Anne Larsen, two years older than Cecile’s father, and a close friend of her mother in past years. In fact, after the death of her mother, and before Cecile was entrusted to the care of the convent school, Anne cared to Cecile for a number of years. Unlike her father, Anne is quiet, intellectual and much more serious about life than the two bohemians. Cecile, the narrator, is quite surprised that her father had invited Anne, and she is not happy about it.

The summer’s seeming bliss is broken up. Her father seems to be returning to an earlier attraction to Anne, and Elsa is sort of shoved out of the picture.

This all creates a devastating and upsetting worry for young Cecile. Her father is being tamed completely to Anne’s bourgeois manner. Cecile is worried that Anne will completely change their lives, tame her father and herself, and she neither wants that, but does fear it very much. Yet she is a bit afraid of Anne who is very sure of herself.

Thus the plot revolves around Cecile concocting a plan that involves her lover, Cyril, and her father’s former paramour, Elsa, to destroy the domesticating plans of Anne. It all gets a bit out of hand, and neither Anne’s determination and domination, nor Cecile’s plotting are able to derail the coming changes in their lives.

There is a spectacular horrific ending, and one comes away from the novel thinking, now life for the father and his daughter is likely to go back to what it was before the summer on the Riviera came about.

The writing is simply stunning. It’s hard to image it could have been written by a 17 year old. The novel is sophisticated, psychologically astute, and suspenseful to the very last page. A beautiful first novel; in fact a magnificent piece of literature for any period of an author’s life and work.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett