Françoise Sagan

Author of 'Bonjour Tristesse'
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The Independent Online

Françoise Quoirez (Françoise Sagan), writer: born Cajarc, France 21 June 1935; married 1958 Guy Schoeller (marriage dissolved 1960), 1962 Robert Westhoff (one son; marriage dissolved); died Honfleur, France 24 September 2004.

In 1954, still only 18, Françoise Sagan had her first phenomenal success with her début novel, Bonjour Tristesse. Written in a candid, simple, but very effective style, curiously haunting and irresistibly readable, it became the dominating image of the blasé post-war generation in France, who for a while would greet each other with her traumatic title. She gave birth to an era, just as Scott Fitzgerald had invented the amused malaise of the Lost Generation's gilded American youth.

The style of Sagan's many books on the whole followed the plain classicism of Bonjour Tristesse, which in the end became something of a trap for her. Later, in Derrière l'épaule ("Over My Shoulder", 1998), one of her most personal books, a delightfully digressive stroll through the bars and bookshops of her agitated existence, Sagan wrote:

I never wanted to write the story of my life . . . because my memory keeps failing me - five years here and five years there - and it might suggest that I was trying to hold certain things back, things that have also ceased to exist . . . The only real guide in my chronology are the dates of my books, the only clearly identifiable landmarks, almost physically present, throughout my life.

She was born Françoise Quoirez into a prosperous bourgeois family in the small town of Cajarc on the river Lot in the Aveyron region of central France, an isolated, rocky, rather broodingly gaunt land of austere loneliness and dramatic skies. Like many young girls at the time, Françoise was educated in religious institutions.

Even when she got to convent school in Paris, the girls still had to walk demurely through the prim streets of Passy in "crocodile" formation, but with an eye for delivery boys on their mopeds. But her soul was in simmering rebellion, and when she obediently went to Communion in the smart Parisian convent where she was preparing her entrance exam to the Sorbonne, she would secretly swear to conquer the capital and know the ecstasy of precocious fame.

It was mid-August, in a half-empty Paris, and instead of being on holiday in the country, Françoise Quoirez had to stay in and study, for she had failed her first attempt to pass her final exam, and would have to sit it again in October. This is also the situation of the brooding young heroine Cécile in Bonjour Tristesse; she is 17, and living with her still-attractive widowed father and his numerous brief conquests.

Quoirez passed her exam easily the second time. With hundreds of other new students, she entered the hallowed lecture halls of the Sorbonne; but study was the last thing on the minds of most of them. "Surprise parties" were the latest thing in daring, especially when strict parents disapproved of them. But Quoirez could now show her true defiant spirit, and entered into the fun with the wild zest that was to mark all her eager youth.

She skipped lectures to sit in pavement cafés and watched the passing show on the boulevards - especially the young men, and indeed some of the older roués who were still presentable. At every opportunity she attended the popular concerts of American jazz at the Vieux Colombier, and danced to Sidney Bechet. Then there would be a mad dash across Paris to be home in time for dinner.

Among her fellow students was Florence Malraux, who became a close friend. They had long discussions about literature, art, films and the theatre. It was these conversations that prompted her to write, under the pen-name Françoise Sagan, in a legible hand in a blue notebook, her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, a light, amusing story with lots of smart talk and sudden gusts of melancholy. It was snapped up at once by the rising publisher Julliard and became a runaway literary sensation, a great best-seller (and still selling).

It was for a while the "authorised version" of French café society, and soon conquered most of the rest of the world: in Japan, it appeared as Kanashimi yo Konnichiwa, translated by Asanaga Tomiko, who, when she arrived one afternoon at five to interview the author, found Sagan was wearing only a man's dressing-gown - she had just crawled out of bed after a night on the tiles. The young author had by then become known as a "charmant petit monstre" - a "charming little monster".

The huge success of this first novel allowed her to purchase her first Jaguar XK 140 - second-hand but a real treasure for Sagan, whose love of speed was to involve her in a series of near-fatal accidents requiring painful surgery, which led her to depend more and more on pain-killing drugs to which she added shots of whisky, another demon that was to haunt her life.

Bonjour Tristesse was the first of an almost continuous stream of novels; plays also began to appear, just to give her a change of pace from fiction. She also wrote short stories that commanded high fees on the American market. She wrote a very efficient screenplay for Claude Chabrol's film Landru (1963); but her one attempt to make a movie, in 1977, filming her novel Les Fougères Bleues ("Blue Ferns"), with its name redolent of expensive scent, was a complete disaster. Otto Preminger filmed Bonjour Tristesse in 1957, with the delicious but ill-fated Jean Seberg as the teenage heroine, Cécile, supported by Deborah Kerr, David Niven and the juvenile Milène Mongeot as Elsa, the seductive flirt manipulated by Cécile.

Sagan's successes inevitably aroused jealousy and a certain spiteful French critical scorn began to be felt in reviews. But she just went on producing masterpieces that were such a guilty pleasure to read, with their limpid brilliance hinting at dark depths in love and life. With her second and third novels, Un Certain Sourire (A Certain Smile, 1956), and Dans un mois, dans un an (Those Without Shadows, 1957), she had created a new way of looking at the narrow fashionable set, at the world of boredom and human beastliness. It was like eating big boxes of exotic chocolates spiked with illicit substances.

Her great friend the writer Bernard Frank, in his Portraits et Aphorismes (2001), wrote of Sagan at this period as

this skinny little person, lovable, shrewd, talented . . . she seemed to burn money without touching it and that enraged certain "serious" people. Hence the fascination she exerts, and the sort of horror she provokes. As she cannot write a word without people insulting her or fawning upon her, she has taken a liking to their absence of judgement that flatters her indolence.

Though not as popular as her novels, Sagan's plays, with their light comic touch and sinister undercurrents of emotion, charmed both the pillars of the literary scene and the perfumed moths of café society. They also pleased their actors, who had seldom encountered such good parts. Her first play was Château en Suède ("Castle in Sweden", 1960), a critical success, followed by La Robe Mauve de Valentina ("Valentina's Mauve Dress", 1963): a play every two or three years among all the prose works seemed sometimes to comment on the latter, with an ever-deeper sense of sadness, until the final work, Il Fait Beau Jour et Nuit ("Fine By Day and Fine By Night", 1978), after which she appeared to weary of the stage, though she wrote an unusual biography of her idol Sarah Bernhardt in 1987.

Her novels were now interspersed by books about people she liked: Et Toute Ma Sympathie (1993) brings together an unlikely bunch of celebrities: Ava Gardner, Catherine Deneuve, Mikhail Gorbachev, Federico Fellini. It contains a touching return to her childhood home in Cajarc. This brings out in Sagan some of the poetic sensibility that is an undercurrent, and whose voice informs the unusual quality of her style, and of her vision of the world:

. . . torrid heat, a desert, kilometres and kilometres of hills, out of which rise only the ruined villages emptied by drought . . . A shepherd who spends long, solitary days with his flock, and whose face has grown grey, the colour of the stone itself, because of the endless solitude.

The sensibility of a vision like that can only derive from an inmost, almost child-like candour. Jean-Jacques Servan Schreiber, an intimate friend of Sagan, and editor of the great weekly L'Express, sent her early in her career to Cuba to report on what she found there. It was a shrewd choice. Good journalism is a certain individual way of looking at the world, and Sagan had the right kind of eye for that.

She had always been against what she called the "facile notions" of international politics, and the candid opinions she expressed about Fidel Castro and his brain-washed followers enraged a certain Parisian intelligentsia with what was for those times a basic political incorrectness. Sagan shrugged off her Marxist critics: "The good thing about being a celebrity is that one can allow oneself to say whatever one likes." Those wonderful articles were reprinted many years later in L'Express of 15 May 2003, a tribute to her essential seriousness.

In a fine recent work, Françoise Sagan, ou l'élégance de Survivre (2000), the Belgian author Pol Vandromme writes:

Sagan's music, with its almost excessive discretion but with a limpid delicacy, rises out of that intimate territory . . . the sentimental music of a proud nihilism, of a pain that economises her strength and her cry. She had the talent to survive.

James Kirkup

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