Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Catching up with Yann Martel, Part 1

Bonjour Tristesse / Françoise Sagan
New York : Ecco, 2001, c1955.

I am quite far behind in my quest to read all the books that Yann Martel is suggesting to our Prime Minister. I have decided to skip two of the recent choices: first, the Bhagavad Gita, because I am simply not enthused enough to tackle it right now(although some of the features on the online site are tempting). The second is a book of short poetry from the UK that I can not get my hands on.

So that leaves me with 4 books to read and review. I've just finished Bonjour, Tristesse, a French classic. This book was shocking when it was first published (1955) because of the world-weary, sexually frank teenage narrator, Cécile. (The author was only 18.) It tells the story of a young woman who has finished up her convent schooling and now lives with her roué of a father, participating in his frivolous lifestyle. He always has a young woman on the go, and they live for parties, gambling and flirtations.

During the summer in which the book takes place, an old friend of her mother's, Anne, comes to stay with them on holiday. To Cécile's astonishment, the relationship between Anne and her father turns into a romantic one, even though, gasp, Anne is in her forties! (just like the father). Cécile is horrified at the idea of her father settling down, and at having a mother figure to run her life in a more disciplined manner. She puts into motion a plan to ruin their relationship by tempting her father into cheating with his most recent mistress, hoping to have Anne catch him at it and thus leave him.

By the time this plan has come to fruition, Cécile has changed her mind, and rather wants Anne to stay and organize their lives. But it is too late; as Cécile had planned, Anne catches her father in his moment of weakness and flees. Their lives are irrevocably altered, and as Cécile looks back on her part in that summer and accepts her culpability, she says hello to a sense of sadness/regret/unhappiness; bonjour to the perfect French term, tristesse.

This is a very French book, with that unmistakable "French-ness" to it, in theme and in execution. I found it interesting for its evocation of a sulky rich teenager spending a summer on the Riviera, and the interactions between she and her possible stepmother, who is quite a lovely, serious person. The love affair that Cécile is secretly embarked upon fills her head with summer, heat, and the life of the body, which is in direct contrast to Anne's focus on making her study while on holidays so that she will be sure to pass her exams. She is a precocious and self absorbed girl, who learns that trying to make everything go your own way can have results far beyond your imaginings. It is nostalgic and elegiac, and I appreciated it, but can't say this one will be ever be a reread.


  1. I do like Martel's project here -- and yours! It will be interesting to see if you think there's a theme running through all his choices.

  2. I love this project too! I had thought to read some of the selections as well but haven't gotten around to it. I've linked to the page from my blog because I think it is so fabulously cheeky!


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