“Bonjour Tristesse” and “A Certain Smile” by Françoise Sagan (1954)

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“This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’.”

Despite it only being a short boat ride away, I’ve never been to France. It’s not somewhere that holds a great deal of appeal for me, despite the wine flowing like water through the countryside. Besides, it’s much cheaper to travel by book. I’ve just paid two visits with this collection by one of France’s finest young writers.

In the first story, Bonjour Tristesse, we meet seventeen-year-old Cécile who enjoys a life of laziness on the French Riviera with her father, the philandering Raymond, and his new mistress, the superficial Elsa. Because Raymond has no intellectual interests, instead spending his time meeting women and socialising, Cécile in turn doesn’t show any interest in her studies, instead spending her time achieving a sexual eucducation from Cyril, the student in the villa next door.

Things change, however, when Anne, an old friend of Cécile’s mother appear at the villa. She is intelligent and cultured, and the same age as Raymond, making her a far more suitable match for marriage, and within days Elsa has been turfed out and Anne and Raymond announce their engagement. Seeing this as a threat to her lazy, privileged life, Cécile schemes with Cyril and Elsa to get Anne out of the picture, with tragic consequences.

In the second story, A Certain Smile, Dominique is a young Parisian student who embarks on an affair with Luc, the uncle of her current boyfriend, despite knowing that if his doting and very sweet wife Françoise was to find out, it would ruin their blossoming friendship. Unperturbed and acting on base instinct, the affair continues but Dominique is sure that Luc will never leave his wife, meaning more than one person’s heart will get broken as events unfold.

The Guardian, and I sense they aren’t alone, called Sagan “the French F. Scott Fitzgerald”. I’m not sure I’d go that far. There is perhaps a similarity in style, but my overall sense is that she’s a 1950s Sally Rooney. Like her, the stories are led by unlikable, selfish young women who have read too many stories and think they understand what love is. Cécile and Dominique both act without realising that everyone else around them is also human with their own emotions and failings, and one gets the impression that even when you leave them to deal with the fall out of their actions, they’re never going to learn from their mistakes.

The writing, however, is beautiful (it’s French and the French don’t do ugly) and conjures up the long days of French summers and the need to do nothing in a hurry. Despite being written sixty years ago, in many ways it feels surprisingly modern, and I suppose it just reveals that people haven’t really changed all that much, not at a fundamental level anyway. We’re all just looking for ways to stem the boredom that encroaches some days, but we may not always go about it the best way.

Of the two, I think I preferred A Certain Smile, but with both I found myself sympathising with the older female characters most of all. Anne and Françoise do not deserve their fates in these books, whereas the protagonists are, as I said, not people I want to befriend and the men are all, well, men. That’s maybe the bit that tells you more that you’re in a different era. A book like this could be written now, but must be prepared to face a backlash. It is of its time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is now, too.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“A Void” by G-org-s P-r-c (1969)


a void

“Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light.”

This post is mostly about lipograms. A lipogram (for any man or woman out past this monitor with no grasp on this word’s signification or connotation) is writing with constraint, such as taking out a particular symbol of our linguistic toolkit and not allowing it into a book, play or ballad. A Void (originally La Disparition in Français) is a fiction of full duration that has a total lack of a particular grammatical prop (to quoth our book’s blurb). Which? That which is most common in our jargon. A non-consonant that shows up not at all in 278 lists of paragraphs. Now, with much difficulty, I will try to copy this action in my post. Pass luck my way!

So. Location? Paris. Plot? Conflicting, smart and wily. Author? That you must look up without my aid, as this poor chap’s autonym contains four of our taboo initial. I can say, though, that it was Mr Adair who brought this Parisian’s story to our British coast. Kudos must rain down on this translator, who has such skill to pull off an act of amazing transnational wordplay.

Our story, such as it is, follows protagonist Anton Vowl, an insomniac and curious man, who starts noticing things amiss in his days. A void, if you will. Trying to find out what is going on, our man absconds with small warning. His companions and chums, now full of confusion as to his location raid his flat, find his diary and start to fix a jigsaw that Vowl was doing. Is Vowl hiding, or has an onimous, ill-boding action had its dark way with him? Living or pushing up tulips? Olga, Arthur, Amaury and Squawk must find out.

Showmanship is also on display within, such as with proxy forms of famous historical works, most notably a popular soliloquy from a world-class bard born in Stratford-upon-Avon (“Living or not living: that is what I ask”), and a scary composition about a particular black bird that affirms a synonym for, “Not again!” (Work it out, guys.)

All must assign paudits to our author, with his magical ability to construct a functional narration without allowing author or bookworm so much as a sniff of that missing symbol. I may try and copy his skill in this post, but a short handful of words is nothing in comparasion to what witchcraft this saint of wordplay has wrought. I doubt not for a jiffy that it is a book of fantastic skill, although ocasionally wording is a bit much, sounding almost archaic as our author must do a small amount of acrobatic wordsmithing to comply with his laws and stick to his guns. Floaty, occasionally stodgy communication, and using tricks of a rascal and crook in particular paragraphs, such as using USA-isms (“ax”, “gray” and so on) or cutting off folk part way through dialog. I’m guilty of similar tricks too…

It’s hard going, but it’s totally worth it. Six stars, for I cannot apply a digit a fraction minor thanks to my limitations. For my following post, I shall go back to normal for, as you may fancy, this was hard! How an author can maintain it for a full yarn, I cannot fathom. Congratulations to him and his translator!

Want to know about a book that contains our total linguistic toolkit, but also cannibals, gods, black magic and tabloid journalists? Hop aboard an Atomic and Bloody Bus, now on Amazon, a first book by yours truly.