The infamously audacious French authoress Françoise Sagan has been described in multiple obituaries as a “luxury hotel existentialist.” Throughout her entire lifetime, Sagan remained indifferent to her acclaim, facing press and publication with a cheeky and terse disdain. She often appeared stylishly insouciant, the only indicator of her great wit a smirk or a quiet laugh. Understandably, this attitude was poorly understood by literary society in 1950s Paris, and Sagan found herself called an eternal spoilt child who waxed existential themes from a comfortable loft, surrounded by sports cars and expensive alcohol.
This image seems to have stuck over time, but Sagan rejected the beliefs of a privileged, rich schoolgirl and the image’s superficiality. However, it was still difficult to distance herself from her origins because of the backwards nature of the press, literary society, and conservative judgment at the time. When Sagan is dismissed as a whinging schoolgirl writing about spoilt-child problems, it is imperative to keep in mind that she was expelled from a convent lycée (the French equivalent of high school) for refusing to adhere to the suffocating and conservative aristocratic sphere it presented. She never enjoyed the image that was thrust upon her, only the opportunity for the disquieting rejection of it that was presented.
Sagan has repeatedly refuted interviewers in their belief that her work’s portrayal of French aristocracy remains superficial. She continued to ruthlessly adopt existential themes and principles in her work to create a greater substance, a more tangible ennui than any other French author had presented before.
In Bonjour Tristesse, protagonist Cécile aims to ruin her father Raymond’s relationship with responsible housewife type Anne. This all occurs during a summer holiday on a beach in France. After learning that Cécile has failed her exams, Anne plans to ensure that Cécile finishes her baccalaureate and becomes a well-adjusted and properly behaved young woman.
In the following excerpt, Cécile backhandedly asks Anne if she thinks that she is smarter than her:
“Anne,” I asked abruptly, “do you think I am intelligent?”
She began to laugh, surprised at the directness of my question.
“Of course you are! Why do you ask?”
“If I were an idiot, you’d say just the same thing,” I sighed. “I so often find your superiority overpowering.”
“It’s just a question of age,” she answered. “It would be a sad thing if I didn’t have a little more self-assurance than you, or you would dominate me!”
She laughed, but I was annoyed. “That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.”
Anne’s words—“It’s just a question of age”—irritate Cécile the most. She does not receive Anne’s condescension well—who is this old hag, forcing her to study and simultaneously fixing her father’s tie? Cécile abhors this intrusion into her vapid holiday, and begins planning against Anne in order to remove her influence from her life in an odd, Electra-complexed fit. Cécile plots with her on-and-off lover, Cyril, and Raymond’s ex-girlfriend, Elsa, to have them illustrate the illusion of relations to both the household’s lovers.
In one particular scene, Cécile orchestrates a situation in which Raymond catches sight of Elsa and Cyril embracing and sailing on the sea. It gnaws at his typical, superficial maleness, and his jealousy begins to infect his relationship with the much more well-adjusted Anne. Raymond grows difficult, and it puts strain on his relationship, to Cécile’s demented glee. Cécile continues this, carefully plotting small and stressful situations that assiduously undermine her father’s relationship.
Eventually, both Anne and Raymond are defeated, to say the least, by a disturbed child. This speaks volumes on Sagan’s opinions on proper, adult French society, and the true nature of Cécile’s indifference to their expectations. It is hostile, it is defensive, and it unabashedly hurt everyone in its way. Cécile casually ruins lives, all while enjoying a drink on the oceanside.
Cécile succeeds in dismantling her father’s relationship, but only through driving Anne to suicide. Anne swiftly drives her car off of a nearby cliff and is presumed dead for the rest of the novel. “Speed is no sign, no proof, no provocation, no challenge, but rather a surge of happiness,” Sagan said later in Avec mon meilleur souvenir. In retrospect, Anne’s death is a happy relief to Cécile, but a morbid one.
At the end of the novel, Cécile reflects on her actions, and fails to find any comfort in the fact that Anne’s absence thrusts her and her father back into the empty, aristocratic routine of driving nice cars to fancy restaurants, drinking alcohol, having sex, and repeating it all the following week. Cécile has obtained what she wanted to preserve—an empty, cyclic, and comforting sphere, where she continues her leisure idly by the sea.
“We managed to produce two works of art, full of excuses, love and repentance,” Cécile muses about her and Raymond’s life after Anne’s death. The title of the work originates from this. The last few lines are a dark acknowledgment of the grief Cécile wrought on her fragmented family: bonjour tristesse, hello sadness.
In his biography of Albert Camus, Oliver Todd describes Camus’s acknowledgment of Sagan’s misinterpretation by popular thought:
Then he [Camus] was asked what he thought of the French writer Françoise Sagan, whose novel Bonjour Tristesse had recently made her a worldwide success. Camus said that Sagan was “one of the most charming and pleasant young Frenchwomen” he had ever met, but that “apart from failure, there is nothing more dangerous than success, and if one is very young, success is a difficult trial.” Sagan was in that position and had to put up with it.
Sagan was put in a unique and difficult position upon the publication of Bonjour Tristesse. It was difficult to be taken seriously as a woman (Sagan herself was only 18 upon the novel’s publication) writing about French society while incorporating existential themes. Many dismiss Bonjour Tristesse as flimsy “chick lit”—but the ideas and principles behind the work suggest that Bonjour Tristesse is an existentialist piece of fiction.
Camus spearheaded much of the existential ideas and beliefs expressed in Sagan’s story. He established the Absurd, a singularly true and serious philosophical problem, and the continuous grasping for meaning. Of course, Sagan does not directly address these in her work, but the themes and ideas are so obviously present that it is extremely difficult to deny that they are there.
Bonjour Tristesse is set in a beach house by the sea. Cécile, Raymond, Anne, and Cyril all frequently find themselves near or in the sea throughout the work. Camus frequently referenced the sea in his philosophical work, creating a magnetic attraction between it and himself in his texts. He established the sea as a greater source of comfort than wealth or status. “I grew up with the sea, and poverty for me was sumptuous; then I lost the sea and found all luxuries gray and poverty unbearable,” he said, essentially stating that by principle the sea is of more worth than any riches because of its constant presence and relief.
In regards to Cécile, Camus’s illustration of the sea means that her indifference originates from herself and the abundance of luxury and wealth around her. “Poverty was sumptuous,” Camus speaks of his time spent growing up by the sea—if only Cécile treated her status and money flippantly instead of allowing it to spoil her, she probably would have found herself a much happier person. At the end of the work, Cécile feels no better after what she did.
Camus frequently concerned himself with restoring a “majestic” feeling to living his life. He believed that the only proper way to restore it was to revolt against the Absurd, and acting for meaning in the face of meaninglessness. Sound familiar? Cécile’s disdain for Anne, while childish, is directed more at the order and rigid family structure that Anne wants to impose on her and Raymond.
When Cécile imposes her own meaning—outside of school, being ladylike, or having a proper family—she is living authentically, and according to herself and Camus, it remains the only true way to live. “I impose meaning on what I do,” says Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. “No one else can impose meaning for me.”
What does the inclusion of Camus’s philosophical principles in Sagan’s work mean? Essentially, Bonjour Tristesse is a plea to remain authentic. It seems that the impersonal nature of the rest of the world clashes with Cécile’s inclination towards personal, authentic living (loving Cyril, abhorring school, etc.) that Anne wishes to steer her away from. Both Cécile and Camus felt plagued with their deaths regardless of how long they had until they faced them. Cécile perceives Anne’s pushiness as a reminder of the inane, everyday scholastic drudgery that fails to make her happy. Her struggle against Anne’s insistence on a proper stepdaughter characterizes the dismissive attitude towards youth in the book, establishing that Cécile will only be happy when she is free of her family’s expectations.
When Anne finally stops, she dies. Cécile and Raymond are free to live “authentically,” to embrace the Absurd without her—whatever that means.
Emily Sipiora is a freelance journalist, creative writer, and poet in Chicago, Illinois. Emily previously lived in Rockford, Illinois, where she wrote for the local newspaper, The Rock River Times. Her creative work has been on Medium, HTMLGIANT, Thought Catalog, Electric Cereal, and various other websites.