BOOK – SAGAN, PARIS 1954
In Sagan, Paris 1954 Anne Berest delicately weaves multiple narrative threads. The events of early 1954 that led up to the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, and the reflections of a woman who is going through “one of the most painful periods of her life” since being separated from the father of her daughter – Berest herself.
What emerges is an exposition that criss- crosses genres: the novel, biography, fictionalised autobiography. Events are imagined – Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is placed on the night table of the young Sagan, only to be tossed in the air later after a conversation with Sagan’s best friend, Florence Malraux. “Do you think that in 1954 Françoise might have had A Room of One’s Own on her bedside table?” Berest asks Florence. “I don’t think people read Virginia Woolf until quite a bit later. In 1954 we were reading Proust, Dostoyevsky… but Woolf, I don’t think so.”
Anne Berest had been immersed in the writing of her third novel when Denis Westhoff, the only son of Françoise Sagan, approached her. In his “soft, staccato tone,” he asked her to write a book about his mother. “We will soon be marking the tenth anniversary of her death… and I would like people to remember just what the publication of Bonjour Tristesse represented for society back in 1954.”
Chapitre Premier – Bonjour Tristesse
“Sur ce sentiment inconnu don’t l’ennui, la douceur m’obsèdent, j’hésite à apposer le nom, le beau nom grave de tristesse. C’est un sentiment si complet, si égoiste que j’en ai presque honte alors que la tristesse m’a toujours paru honourable. Je ne la connaissais pas, elle, mais l’ennui, le regret, plus rarement le remords. Aujourd’hui, quelque chose se replie sur moi comme une soie, énervante et douce, et me sépare des autres.
Cet été-là, j’avais dix-sept ans…”
Bonjour Tristesse written in six weeks and published almost immediately was a literary triumph. It is a refined story told by a young sophisticate about boredom and love. What is arresting is the tone, the voice. The cool, clear eyed, sure footedness of the young woman narrator. Her steady nonchalance.
It is probably Sagan’s abiding fearlessness, intimately wound up with her recklessness and voraciousness that pulses through her text and her life, catching her public’s attention. Hers is the glamour of both a Paris Match style combined with a real love of books. “My mother was never afraid,” Denis Westhof tells Berest. “No, she wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone… It was one of the things she taught me. Not to be afraid.”
In the end, this is not a book primarily about a debut novel. It is an encounter between two women, both French writers. Berest creates a kind of mystical space for this when she makes an appointment to see a clairvoyant, overlaying Sagan’s own visit to a fortune teller.
“Yes, I can see that you’re writing a book on someone’s life,” the clairvoyant says. “It’s the life of a woman who lived as a man would…. She was a woman who had experienced everything. She did whatever she wanted to do.”
Then with certainty she says, “I am seeing Françoise Sagan – that’s correct, isn’t it?”
The clairvoyant alerts Berest: “You are sometimes going to want to do certain things that you are not used to doing….. go ahead…. You have nothing to fear, she is watching over you.”
Berest encounters Sagan. Sagan moves through Berest, altering her.