What Françoise Sagan & Bonjour Tristesse Taught Me About Pleasure In Life, à la Française
“The only way to transcend the absurdity of life, is to treat life as art” – Nietzsche
I first discovered Bonjour Tristesse when I was in graduate school studying literature. It was not assigned in any of my classes, but I spent the majority of my graduate school years in the library, and on one occasion while scanning the fiction shelves I picked it up because I recognized the name. After a quick internet search I learned that Bonjour Tristesse is considered a pleasurable read and a cult classic. The story takes place in the French Riviera, and at a time where I did nothing but go from the library to my house to class to the library and back to my house to write papers I felt that a pleasurable read that would include a trip to the French Riviera (albeit a trip only in my mind) would be good for my intellectual development and overall mood. I began reading it that night and I finished it the next morning.
Bonjour Tristesse is hypnotic and lulling. It brought me to an understanding of the French zest for beauty and life by following the character Cécile and her indulgence in life’s pleasures against the backdrop of the Riviera’s charm. Cécile’s indignant desire to enjoy life coupled with shameless irresponsibility was exactly what I needed at the time–to remind me that there is a giant world offering endless characters and adventures for the curious mind and able body.
During this phase of my life I read copious amounts of books, spent time in class discussing books with classmates, and returned home to continue writing papers. The strict repetition made me worry I was losing my creativity and inclination for the spontaneous. All I did was read and write research papers. But because during this time I was gradually becoming immersed in Françoise Sagan’s works of living for the sake of living and life for the sake of life, I was inspired to embrace and take pleasure in the small rituals in my life. Rituals like drinking coffee with a side of pears in the morning, selecting which shoes would best match my skinny jeans that day, and when setting up my books and laptop at the library arranging my checked out fiction in the perfect patches of sunlight so that when I glanced over the screen everything looked beautiful.
After Bonjour Tristesse, I knew I needed another Sagan, and the most easily acquired is A Certain Smile, often sold in an edition that includes both short novels in one book. I was off again, and read it in about 24 hours. A Certain Smile had the same live for the sake of life tone as Bonjour Tristesse, and the same irreverence for commonality. Through the lens of Dominique, a beautiful Parisian with a penchant for risk, I was reminded that sometimes the choices other people make may bore us. And if something is too boring for us, we must make changes, even if, especially if, it means taking chances to leave the comfort zone. Like Dominique, come what may.
In graduate school, I loved reading and learning, but the truth of the matter is that even to one who loves books and words the work can become mundane when repeated systematically every day. Partially due to the inspiration to take risks and leave no experience unturned, I chose to accept a volunteer human rights position working with adult male undocumented immigrants, who for the most part did not speak English, on the side of the road in the Southern California desert. It was an invaluable experience that taught me about life and led me to other human rights work down the road. And I have the inspiration from A Certain Smile to thank for it: To mix-it up, try something new, and to take a chance.
Needless to say, I was not done with Sagan. Because her novels are mostly out of print I then ordered all of the Françoise Sagan books I could find used online, all of which were battered and worn, which of course does not affect what is inside the book. I read That Mad Ache, Sunlight on Cold Water, Those Without Shadows, and Still Storm, all of which had characters bursting with independence and vitality, who understood beauty and how to live your life for your own sake. Her characters were petty, selfish, and immoral, but independent, fearless, and alive. I wondered how all these distinct stories of different characters could be united, because they obviously were, and figured it must have something to do with the writer.
My job in graduate school was to research and analyze books and literary theory so I figured that extending this mandate to my personal life was just fine, even if it was not sanctioned by any professor. Françoise Sagan wrote her first novel at 18, was married twice, had relationships with men and women, drove fancy and expensive sports cars alone on American and European roads, wrote film scripts, and had a close friendship with noteworthy American writer Truman Capote. The uniqueness of her mind cannot be found in another, and her ability to be detached and live life has been bestowed on each character she has written. Her characters were so unique, I thought, and I wondered if when she was done with them she missed them. I soon found my answer. She once said to The Paris Review, “When a book is finished I immediately lose interest in the characters… I write the books, they come to an end, and that’s all that concerns me.” An ability to move on to the next great adventure whether it is driving sports cars, writing a new novel, or meeting an exciting stranger when you are buying your daily coffee. This is a mission she and her characters do not tire from.
“Instead of leaving for Chile with a band of gangsters, one stays in Paris and writes a novel. That seems to me the great adventure. ” -Françoise Sagan
While studying literature in graduate school, my professors taught me about feminist theory, neo-colonialism, the male gaze, and the digital humanities. Françoise Sagan taught me that in order to live one must have adventure, independence, art, and a taste for trying the unknown.
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