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Anne Berest, Sagan, Paris 1954 – TLS

19/10/2015

“What on earth inspired you to write that?”, the parents of the eighteen-year-old Françoise Quoirez asked when she finally showed them the novel she had written the summer before. It was the Spring of 1954, and within weeks Bonjour Tristesse would be published by Julliard, becoming one of France’s greatest literary sensations. Quoirez changed her name, choosing the nom de plume Sagan (stealing it from Proust), and the novel in turn changed her life. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about her story is that despite the way in which others tried to fix her as a perpetual enfant terrible, Sagan remained true to herself. After she won the highly prestigious Prix des Critiques, François Mauriac declared, with the condescension shown to the young woman by many of France’s aged literary patriarchs, that she was a “charming little monster”. None of the above, Sagan replied, just an ordinary girl; and besides, she rebuked the critics trying to put her in her place, she wanted a life of “nightclubs, whisky and Ferraris…not cooking, knitting or making do”.

To mark the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, Sagan’s son asked the novelist and journalist Anne Berest to write something in commemoration. The work that resulted, Sagan, Paris 1954, is, as Berest confides, “neither a biography, nor a journal, nor a novel.” At times she calls it a “diary” of the few short months it took for Sagan’s book to be published and to take off so spectacularly. The confiding tone is present throughout, though whose confidences are on offer is ambiguous as Berest inserts her own life – a recent separation from her husband, her desire to break from “boxed in” thinking – into the life of the teenage Sagan, then on the verge of success and contemplating the contours of a writing life. This staged intimacy between the author and her subject conveys, in a very French way, the thrill, and the presumption, of biographical writing: “I slip into the mindset of Françoise Sagan as if I were slipping on a pair of silk stockings”. It also dramatizes the biographer as a figure of uncanny power, a Frankenstein animating her creation: “I can wake Françoise up, I can get her to rub her eyes like a child, as she does in a photograph taken in Saint-Tropez in which she is wearing a check nightgown.”

Berest conveys the postwar atmosphere in which Sagan grew up with many sharp aperçus and an eye for sartorial detail. There is the strange interim feel of the 1950s when war ghosts inhabited every building, and, against this, the desire of the young to break free, to live wrecklessly, happily, knowing, as children of war, that “the real God is Chance”. Sagan’s closest friend, Florence, was the daughter of the writer and resistance fighter André Malraux and the two girls were voracious readers, swopping books “as others swopped taffeta frocks”. Berest also describes the masculinity of French literary culture. The fifteen judges of the Prix des Critiques who did so much to advance Sagan’s career were, except for one woman, male, elderly and august. Berest suggests they may have given the prize to such a “budding author” because its protagonist – the gamine, precocious seventeen year old Cécile – not only expresses admiration for older men, but raises the spectre of sexual relations with them.

Françoise Sagan

Françoise Sagan

To help place her subject, Berest conjures other cultural figures of the time. So Sagan is watched from afar by Jean Cocteau, she passes Claude Lévi-Strauss on the street, spies Marguerite Duras asleep in a car, and runs into Pasolini in a restaurant. Some of this is imaginary and it leaves Berest worrying about the “strange form” her book is taking. But an interview with Florence Malraux lets her off the hook: literal truth is not important, what matters is she “write things that ring true”. There is a fine line here between deconstructing creative practice and constantly spotlighting oneself. Literary relationships and studies of influence are, of course, perfectly valid subjects, but the reciprocity Berest imagines between her and Sagan can seem both ersatz and self-justifying. By the end of her book she assures us “I have had the good fortune to become the object of a special affection on [Sagan’s] part…we spoke to each other almost every day.”

Perhaps this kind of fanciful communing (and Berest knows it is fanciful, constantly calling the legitimacy of her enterprise into question) can only be carried off when underpinned by strong insight. The problem is that for the most part she avoids giving a reading of Bonjour Tristesse, concentrating instead on the way in which Sagan has affected her life – a kind of enacted critical response which she translates into the self-reflecting prose of the book. But her actions cast doubt on the depth of her understanding. She visits a clairvoyant who declares that Sagan’s message to her is “Let yourself go”. So she makes a bid for freedom, taking a much younger man to a casino and having a one-night-stand with him. But when he refuses to visit Saint-Tropez with her, she feels the need to lecture him with life lessons (“At your age…”), just as in Bonjour Tristesse, the new lover of Cécile’s father uses her experience and moral certainty to belittle Cécile. Berest’s last book, How To Be a Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style and Bad Habits (2014), displays a similar confusion: advertising itself as free-thinking, it is full of rules on “how to be a woman”.

In Sagan, Paris 1954, Berest provides a creditable introduction to the young writer and the milieu from which she emerged, but her attempts to use Sagan as a model for her own liberation are less successful. She tells the young man that Sagan’s ultimate “message” is: “seek what is important, don’t seek to be important”. Her own advice – “the most charming thing of all is to be attractive without trying” – belongs to the impossible rules of French etiquette for women which encourage self-absorption and limit freedom – the very thing Sagan is at pains to decipher in Bonjour Tristesse. Ultimately it is Berest’s inability to let go of herself, to move beyond her own narcissism, that prevents her from really inhabiting Sagan’s bohemian “mindset”.

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