:: Article

A Certain Sagan

By Sophie Jean-Louis Constantine.

* June 2020 will mark the 85th anniversary of Françoise Sagan’s birth.

I came across a copy of Françoise Sagan’s Those Without Shadows in a deserted corner of a local second-hand bookshop, sandwiched between Jackie Collins and P.G. Wodehouse, its title just legible on the cracked spine. Flicking through the yellowed pages, heavy with the must of neglect, I felt a twinge of shame. Much like the book’s previous owner, critics have largely forgotten about Those Without Shadows, abandoned for the immorality and hedonism of her celebrated debut, Bonjour Tristesse. Whether spurned for their triviality or popularity, there remains very little critical analysis of her later writing. These specious dismissals however miss the nuances of La Sagan. Beneath its facile surface, her third novel Those Without Shadows is an exacting study in psychological dissection, stylistically restrained and delusive in its simplicity.

Françoise Sagan, née Quoirez, was raised in a bourgeois family, yet managed by the age of eighteen to write an international bestseller that scandalised the public, and completed her metamorphosis into the enfant terrible of French literature. The year was 1953. Quoirez, having failed her exams to study at the Sorbonne, spent the summer writing in cafés. “Instead of leaving for Chile with a band of gangsters, one stays in Paris and writes a novel”, she told The Paris Review. She presented her manuscript to a publisher and, in an attempt to placate her parents and protect the family name, used the nom de plume Sagan, borrowed from the Proustian character the Princesse de Sagan. Bonjour Tristesse tells a tale of louche decadence and moral corruption, an elegant Riviera saturated in Gallic ennui. Seventeen-year-old Cécile, the novel’s promiscuous protagonist, spends her summer mornings sunbathing and afternoons making love to a university student named Cyril. When she finds her sun-drenched idyll threatened by her father’s intention to remarry, her decision to sabotage his union ends in catastrophe.

Post-war France was principally a Catholic nation, wedded to conservative values and rigid categorical imperatives. Sagan’s liberality, and the unpunished sexuality of her teenage heroine, was highly controversial. She wrote of this cause célèbre in her 1985 autobiography With Fondest Regards:

people couldn’t accept that this same young girl should know about her father’s love affairs, discuss them with him, and thereby reach a kind of complicity with him on subjects that had until then been taboo between parents and children.

This moral hostility led to Pope Paul VI’s denouncement of Bonjour Tristesse as “an example of irreligosity”, and the omission of its explicit sexual scenes from the English publication. The corrupt, confident tone of the work shocked some quarters of French society but galvanized others. Sagan became a poster child for disenchanted teenagers which helped usher in the sexual liberation of the 1960s, and catapulted her into literary stardom.

Her debut was an unbridled success; within a year 500,000 copies sold in France alone and Sagan was awarded the prestigious Prix des Critiques. With this success came all the trappings of celebrity. She described her life in Paris as one of “nightclubs, whisky, love affairs, and painting the town red”. Her name became synonymous with the pursuit of pleasure and excess, extravagant gambling in casinos and a flotilla of sports cars. She lounged on the beaches of St Tropez with Brigitte Bardot and partied in the smoke-filled basements of New York with Truman Capote. Hollywood came calling in 1958 with an adaptation of the book for the big screen, starring the gamine Jean Seberg as Cécile and aptly directed by Otto Preminger, an auteur who resisted convention and censorship. Hollywood’s endorsement of Bonjour Tristesse imbued Sagan with yet with more glamour, solidifying her status as an early international celebrity. But her dissolute lifestyle and newfound fame led to intense media scrutiny and overshadowed her work. Reviews bristled with derogatives; critics described her writing as mawkish, inconsequential and immoral. The line between Sagan’s novels and her own frivolous lifestyle began to blur. Her vices gripped the conversation and the veil of literary mystique slipped. As a result, she failed to be taken seriously as a writer; rather she was forever associated with gossip columns and divorce courts.

However, Sagan had a particular talent for translating the members of her social circle, and by extension herself, onto the page, with seemingly little distance between the novelist and the novel. Whilst never overtly autobiographical, the characters in her writing are her spiritual doppelgängers, namely hedonistic, fashionable Parisians of a certain milieu, the haute bohèmes of Saint-Germain-des-Près. She once said, “It would be bad form for me to describe people I don’t know and don’t understand”. But there was one incident that seemed to immutably define Sagan’s life as imitating her art. In 1957 she was in a terrible car accident, which curiously mirrored the ending of Bonjour Tristesse. While on the road south from Paris, she lost control of her convertible and crashed into a field, sustaining severe head injuries which left her in a coma. A priest administered the last rites, but she managed to elude the icy grip of death. “For six months”, she wrote that, wherever she went, she was “dressed in bandages”. The pain was so great she became reliant on, and later addicted to, prescription drugs, an affliction she struggled with in her later years. Sagan’s misadventure came as no surprise to the French public. Her taste for fast cars was a matter of record, having acquired a collection of Jaguars and Aston Martins with her generous advances. She even defiantly declared her passion for speed: “it is a clearly defined, exultant and almost serene pleasure to drive too fast…it is a surge of happiness”. As Oscar Wilde remarked in his essay The Decay of Lying, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”, and it seems that both Sagan’s fans and detractors could not let her escape this maxim, imbuing her with almost mythic proportions.

As a French writer in the 1950s, though, it would be remiss not to examine Sagan’s relationship with Existentialism, as popularised by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in works including his renowned Being and Nothingness. He propounded the idea that “man is condemned to be free” and, as such, individuals bear complete responsibility for their choices. Bonjour Tristesse certainly alludes to this Sartrean way of thinking. “You get lured into it”, Cécile says. “Later on you can say to yourself “I’ve done my duty” but only because you’ve done nothing at all”. And it is true that Sagan had a great respect for Sartre. In a 1965 interview she declared, “If I admire Sartre it is precisely because he does not want to have a destiny”. She even wrote a ‘love letter’ to him in which her esteem was explicit: “You have worked ceaselessly, giving everything to others…recognising no taboos, and celebrating only—and with great exuberance—the act of writing”. They developed a close friendship in the last year of his life, one that consisted of dinners at La Closerie des Lilas, drives around Paris and long conversations into the night. A critic in 1959 described her as a “luxury hotel existentialist”, a damning indictment of the perceived inauthenticity of her philosophical leanings. But Sagan never claimed to be the captainette of Existentialism. Her body of work undoubtedly has existential undertones, but it is not her centre of interest. She herself best articulated that which drove her artistically: “All my life, I will continue obstinately to write about love, solitude and passion among the kind of people I know. The rest don’t interest me”. And these are the subjects that dominate her third novel, Those Without Shadows.

Originally published in French in 1957 as Dans un Mois, Dans un An, Those Without Shadows centres on a coterie of artistic and elite Parisians, an ostensibly superficial world afflicted by a “spiritual unease”. With the characters aimlessly drifting through life and into each other’s beds, Sagan explores themes of attraction and detachment. Those Without Shadows can be viewed as the denouement of a thematic trilogy that includes her first two novels, Bonjour Tristesse (1954) and A Certain Smile (1955). If Bonjour Tristesse was concerned with morality and the family unit, and A Certain Smile centred on the heroine’s first real love, Those Without Shadows progresses from adolescent concerns to a more jaded and cynical view of love and relationships. Sagan wrote of her novel’s maturation: “When I regained consciousness, so to speak, after writing the words ‘The End’ to Those Without Shadows, I saw all around me nothing but nervous breakdowns, love sickness, spiritual unease, and other vexations that people of all ages suffer”. She drew on those around her, damaged characters unsure of their reason for existing.

Sagan explores her preoccupation with solitude using the myriad of relationships in this novel: affairs of the heart, stale marriages, unrequited love, exploitative liaisons. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Bernard, a paralysed writer stuck with an insipid wife. His heart belongs to another, the sophisticated socialite Josée, who in turn does not share his passion. He escapes to the French countryside, a respite from his tortuous love life. On the drive towards Poitiers Bernard reflects on his relationship with Josée: “Perhaps all was lost, but what did it matter? He had always known that there was something else, something in himself, something exhilarating which he only felt when he was quite alone”. The solitude of Saganland is one of curious euphoria, an intimation that one can flourish independent of another, “a solitude imagined as other than a prison or an emptiness”, Judith Graves Miller argues in Françoise Sagan. Bernard finds a “quiet image of himself lulled by the foliage of the trees”, an intimacy with the self that can only be realised alone. Here, nature is a sanctuary for self-realisation, a foil to the suffocating atmosphere of Paris with all its emotional entanglements and malaise.

Sagan considers another facet of solitude with the character of Béatrice, an aspiring actress driven by ruthless ambition. In her unsentimental view of love, she represents the psychological maturation of Cécile and Dominique, her predecessors in Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile respectively. She “has a Balzacian survival energy about her”, Miller suggests, which life has not yet taught Sagan’s earlier protagonists. Béatrice finds herself caught up in a love triangle involving Édouard, the naïve beau, and Joylet, the roué theatre director. She prizes her career above all else and refuses to let her affairs interfere with success:

‘Why must one love anybody? Do you think I have nothing better to do?’ She thought of the stage at the theatre, sometimes blindingly lit by the footlights, sometimes impenetrably dark, and a wave of happiness swept over her.

In this seemingly trivial soliloquy, Sagan delivers a telling moment of interiority. Béatrice derives meaning and contentment from artistic expression, a solitary act, and not from her relationships. For Sagan, aloneness is something to be celebrated, a liberation from the constraints of attachment. Whilst Béatrice has found some semblance of meaning through work, she finds this to be a transient feeling. “Success was like a victory, something had been won, and she was surprised that the effects should so soon have vanished”. Josée also recognises that happiness in love is ephemeral, remarking to Bernard, “‘Love does not last: in a month or two you’ll have forgotten all about me…Others, following some inherent instinct, believed that love was eternal and would put an end to loneliness’”. Throughout the novel Sagan retreats from moments of joy—moments that are short-lived and fleeting, like the blissful high of a drug—giving way to the tedium of normality.

If the intricacies of love is Sagan’s idée fixe, then the novel’s exploration of sexual politics is of particular interest. She places marked importance on sadomasochism to advance her ideas on the erotic life. Sagan does not rhapsodise about love in Those Without Shadows, hers is one of suffering. The language of domination permeates the work; she relies on “torment”, “defeats”, conquests and violence to articulate the nature of these relationships. This is no more apparent than in the liason of Jacques and Josée. The novel opens with a scene of the couple after their first sexual encounter, when a former lover, Bernard, calls Josée’s apartment. Jacques answers the phone but is met with silence, aware that only a romantic rival could be calling at such an hour. To assert his ownership of Josée, he returns to the bed and:

ordered her to put down the sheet. She did so while he stared at her with deliberation. She felt ashamed and could neither move, nor find the flippant phrase that, as she turned over, she would have used to Bernard, or anyone else.

Despite feeling “ashamed”, Josée submits to Jacques’ command and exposes her naked body. Instead of being repelled by this humiliation, Josée is attracted to his “menacing” nature, and finds herself filled with a strange feeling of “triumph”. In Josée’s vapid life the only love she responds to is the threatening kind, keeping ennui at bay for those few painful moments.

The devastating power of love is yet another theme in Those Without Shadows, apparent in the fate of two characters, Édouard and Alain, who succumb to the attractions of the beguiling Béatrice. Both men are infatuated, at first earnest in their pursuit but, by the novel’s conclusion, are reduced to wretched creatures. Édouard is transformed; his face is now “emaciated”, with “its haunted look”, his boyish looks ruined by the burden of affection. Alain irrevocably wrecks his twenty-year marriage to Fanny, a formerly successful union, as his encounters with Béatrice “made him feel like his life was empty”. He ends up spending his evenings in the company of a prostitute who, unbeknownst to him, is paid for out of pity by Joylet, Béatrice’s current lover. Édouard and Alain each suffer humiliation after humiliation. Sagan even callously declares, “Both Alain and Édouard were distraught, and little suspecting that it was for the same reason”. She is unsympathetic towards these characters, presenting them as weak and contemptible; they are punished for sentimentalising love, an offence that invites destruction.

But it is the title itself that shoots to the very heart of this novel. The characters are ‘without shadows’, incomplete, deficient, hollow. We see this most clearly when Bernard finally breaks with his lover Josée towards the end of the story. Melancholy lingers in the Tuileries Gardens, where the pair meet on an inclement day: “The damp cigarette that Bernard tried unsuccessfully to light was symbolic of their lives, for they would never know real happiness and were aware of it”. Each character is searching for meaning, whether in happiness or love, but knows this to be a chimera. And it is this paradox, of yearning within a purposeless existence that is the very lifeblood of the novel. Those Without Shadows ends with this ambivalent sangfroid, a tenor that beautifully pervades Sagan’s work.

Sagan reverses the traditional interpretations of love and solitude, her self-confessed obsessions, to potent effect. Her vision of erotic life is one of menace, humiliation and cruelty, far removed from the sentimental charges that have been laid at her door. Aloneness is desirable in her world, as only in that state can the self be realised. However, for Sagan, happiness is an impermanent state, “it doesn’t last” as she once said. The characters in Those Without Shadows are all haunted by an aimlessness, a faceless spectre hovering over their lives. Her cast find themselves wandering without a destination; ultimately happiness is unattainable.

Sophie Jean-Louis Constantine 
is a freelance writer and fervent North Londoner.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 1st, 2020.