Bonjour Tristesse, by Francoise Sagan was enormously popular upon its release in France in 1954 and later in 1955 when it was translates and brought to the United States. This essay will focus on both the novel's release in France and then in the US. The sales figures are not available for the book in France, but the majority of the critical reviews come from this period. Its popularity in the United States can be closely linked to that in Europe for transcontinental of reasons. Three of the reasons for the book's popularity will be examined in this essay. First, the author's age and status when the book was written and at the time of publication were a source of interest and surprise to many readers and critics. This was surely a draw for many readers and should be considered as one of the reasons for the book's wildfire success. Secondly the subject matters of first love, jealousy and suicide and the manner in which they are approached are all topics that attract attention and the author's first person narration makes these subjects even more approachable. Finally, the book's popularity in the United States can be attributed to the acclaim it received in Europe and the American's desire to 'find out' what made this book so exciting. One must remember that the media in the 50s was very different from that of today and while both television and cinema were present, they were not used nearly with the frequency that they are today. Therefore people spent more time reading and books that followed a literary trend had a wider reception than they do today.
Francoise Sagan was 19 years old when this book was published by Rene Julliard in Paris in 1954 and when it won the Prix des Critiques, two weeks later. In her autobiography she tells of writing stories to amuse her classmates and of how they eventually convinced her to send one of her manuscripts to a publisher. Bonjour Tristesse is written in the first person, by a young girl of 17 about to pass her baccalaureate exams. Her observations of the world around her are written with the vocabulary and structure of an adult and yet retain the innocence and uncertainty of a child. One example of this style is found on page 53; "Yes, it was this I held against Anne; she kept me from liking myself. I, who was by nature meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced by her into self-criticism and a guilty conscience. Unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost." This passage illustrates the dichotomy of Sagan's style, her childlike wonder and the ability to analyze herself that makes her book so unique, especially coming from a 19-year-old author. This combination created a large portion of her success among critics in various literary circles. "Sagan is a relentless writer, but not a relentless expositor of human relationships. Towards those she is merely ruthless with the cursoriness with which she treats them."(Brophy) However this duality also frustrated a lot of critics who felt the book was poorly written and overrated. "Bonjour Tristesse was a precocious book?-for Cécile controlled and manipulated the adults about her at will. Her story was pure wish-fulfillment carried off by the intensity and immediacy with which it was told, but inclined, whenever the author's concentration faltered to turn sheerly absurd."(Janesway)The writing style is strong but not extraordinary and many felt it did not deserve the kudos it was being given. Sagan continued to write after this initial success, publishing a book a year for about seven years. While she retained some of her early fans she was never again as well received and the novelty of her youth was no longer taken into account by those reviewing her works. "Bonjour Tristesse is written by a girl of 19 in a little more than a month. As such it is a considerable achievement. Mlle Sagan unquestionably possesses insight into emotional entanglements and she writes clearly and straight-forward?"(Somewhere East of Suez)
The books two principal characters, Cécile and her father Raymond are of great interest because of their unconventionality. Cécile's mother is not present or mentioned throughout the novel and the reader is left to conclude that she died at a young age. As a single parent Raymond has given Cécile an unusual childhood by drawing her directly into his world. She attends cabarets with him and philosophical dinners with his friends. She is aware of Raymond's succession of young girlfriends that he parades through her life. This approach to childrearing and the bohemian lifestyle that they lead is a point of curiosity to an American reader. That is not to say such a set-up is the norm in France, but without the sense of puritanical values established in the United States, certainly in the 50's, such a relationship is quite as scandalous to a readership in Europe. "I pick up one of her books and think, how trite, why do they like her so much? Then, against my puritanical will, I get involved?"(Engel) This image may have been a selling point to an American audience coupled with the book's acclaim upon publication in Europe.
Cécile's analytical view of the events around her is also a point to consider. She is involved in her father's relationship with Anne, an old friend of her mother's who has been her 'social' guardian, taking pains to be sure she is ' brought up correctly.' Cécile feels her father is growing away from her, and the life she has always known, and being pulled in by Anne, but this attitude is reflected by subvert actions and internal dialogue; "I was delighted with her remark. Certain phrases fascinate me with their subtle implications, even though I may not altogether understand their meaning. I told Anne that I wanted to write her comment down in my journal. My father burst out laughing?" (p. 19) Cécile later plots to use her boyfriend and her father's much younger ex-girlfriend to regain her father by playing on his most sensitive weakness, his age. She hopes that by making him feel older and less attractive as he watches his ex find happiness with a younger man (Cécile's boyfriend) that he will fear for his own vitality and leave Anne, who is his own age. This manipulation of both emotions and events by a character who is so close to the center of the plot was one of the strengths of the novel lauded by critics. It s also one of its strongest selling points; the idea of a young girl surrounded by such heady emotions as jealousy and her first love able to distance herself, analyze the situation and manipulate those around her innocently. This concept attributes to the book's success both in France and in the United States.
The direct approach with which the book deals with many rites of passage from an author who was experiencing these emotions as she wrote is also an interesting aspect that drew in many readers. Cécile talks about falling in love for the first time with a young man she meets in the South of France during her vacation as the plot unravels. This aspect of the story is secondary to her jealousy of her father's lover, but it is still an important element of the plot. Her relationship with Cyril is described with a certain detachment that makes it interesting and yet unromantic at the same time. "But I noticed that his [her father's] every look betrayed a secret desire for her, a woman who he had not possessed and whom he longed to enjoy. I had observed a similar gleam in Cyril's eye, and I hesitated between egging him on and running away."(p 29)
Cécile's reading of Anne and her new role in Cécile's life is also a very interesting aspect. She is aware from Anne's arrival that this woman is intruding in her life and yet she is incapable of standing up to her; first because of her respect for Anne, and later because of her father's involvement. This is seen in their first confrontation. " 'There are things one cannot be made to do.' I said grimly. Her only response was a superior smile and I returned to my place on the beach full of foreboding?All the elements of a drama were to hand, a libertine, a demi-mondaine and a strong minded woman." (p 28)
Sagan's analytical view of this interaction and her use of foreshadowing mare impressive techniques that made this novel so popular and therefore of interest to so many readers.
Finally, Cécile's plot at the end of the book to strategically place her boyfriend and her father's ex in locations where he will see them and therefore feel he is loosing his youth, shows a mature and cool outlook of this situation. Cécile plans to undermine her father's relationship with Anne so that she can reclaim his undivided attention. This idea works exactly as she had hoped, further illustrating the insight this character shows into the psyches of those around her. What she did not take into account were Anne's feelings at the loss of her father's affections and her subsequent rapid departure. The tragedy that ensues brings an element of drama and sadness to a work that could have been easily happily resolved. This decision by Sagan to darken the end of the story shows a maturity that is not always found in such young writers and that was not expected based on the tone of the novel earlier. Once again her techniques and twists of the plot made the novel more enticing to readers, especially after hearing of the acclaim it received in Europe, particularly in France.
This brings us to our final point' the popularity of a book written in translation and released in the United States a year after its publication in France. While the sales figures were not available in France, it received the Prix des Critiques shortly after its release and also earned positive acclaim by some critics. Overall, however, the reviews were mixed. In the United States the positive reviews were translated more frequently than the negative ones and its reception was more orchestrated. This combined with the elements previously discussed in this essay earned the book its place on the bestseller list. The translation itself written by Irene Ash may also have affected the book's success in America. One critic suggests "Sagan's novels continue a tradition which passes through La Princesse de Clèves and is usually said to be peculiar and untranslatable?"(Engel) This author has read both the original French and the translated versions of the novel, and while they are very similar, there are as always some nuances that cannot be captured in translation. This may be due to a variety of factors. For instance, since the novel is set both in Paris and on the French Riviera, there are cultural images that are associated with these places and their tones that are not felt as clearly in the English version. While this is not the translator's fault, it may be responsible for a different reception in the US, where these nuances are not expected or necessarily understood by an American readership. The negative French reviews that were published are not all directly linked to this example but it is important to note that these differences do exist, and that it is possible that they are responsible for Bonjour Tristesse's appearance on the bestseller list in the United States in 1955.
Bonjour Tristesse is a very interesting study in a bestseller for a variety of reasons. It does not fit any of the standard categories that are more prevalent later in the century, such as romance novels, murder-mysteries or self help books. It is the story of a young girl by a young author, which adds to its uniqueness. The setting and characters also vary greatly from any type of standard American novel. And finally the fact that this book was initially written in another language and subsequently translated into English makes it an unusual find on the bestseller's list.
Françoise Sagan's novel met with varied reception on both sides of the Atlantic. However, her status as a young female author, her approach to the material and the book's audience in the United States all contributed to its position on the bestseller list.