Paris in the Sixties: a woman and a man meet, fall in love, leave the partners they originally had, and try to be together, but life gets in the way. It could be the plot of a straight-to-television film. As it happens, it is a summary of Françoise Sagan's 'La Chamade' (1969), one of a series of slim, elegant novels she wrote about passion, its birth and death.
The first of her novels I read, in English translation, was 'Bonjour Tristesse'. I was 16; its brevity and disaffection struck a chord. A year later I read 'A Certain Smile' in French. Who, at 17, could fail to smile lopsidedly at a sentence beginning "I was gently bored..."? It sounds much better in the original – "Je m'ennuyais modestement" – where the four-syllable adverb languorously enacts slow times and considered ennui.
'La Chamade', my favourite of her novels, is one I came to recently. I found the first English translation, by her second husband Robert Westhof, at my parents' house in India. I liked the novel, its laconic elaboration of the love affair between Lucile, the mistress of a rich (and kind) man older man, and Antoine, who when the novel opens is the boyfriend of a rich and cultivated older woman. Their love, in the way of the love of people in Sagan's novels, ignites, flares, burns and then inevitably dies. But the narrative is thrilling, for the scalpel-like honesty with which it follows its characters' vacillations, declarations, and later withdrawal.
In Paris a few months later I bought the novel in French and read it again – several times. Recently, I wanted my boyfriend to read it, but didn't like either of the extant English versions. I started translating it myself. That intimacy with the text made me admire Sagan's writing even more.
She's often dismissed as trivial or sentimental; yet though her subject matter is the love affairs of well-off, nonchalant people, her treatment is scrupulous, even cold. Rather than eulogising love, she anatomises it, in long, extraordinary sentences of clause after clause punctuated only with commas, that her translators often try to correct; a mistake, for the original beautifully renders the self-justifying, self-deceiving modulations of thought. The aloneness of each person, even in love, is her real subject.
Those strange, private impulses of joy not quite connected to the outer existence we lead bring on her most tender moments. Here is Lucile, going to sleep alone the day before she first spends a whole night with her lover: "she felt so utterly fulfilled by life, she experienced such a sweetness, stretched on this bed and slowly encircled by shadow, she so much approved of the idea that the earth was round and life was complex that it seemed to her that nothing at all bad could happen to her." It's for these instants of contented communion with the self, as much as for her wit or acuity when she writes about love, that I read Sagan.
Anjali Joseph's novel 'Saraswati Park' is published by Fourth EstateReuse content