The Rise and Decline of Françoise Sagan
At the age of twenty-four, Françoise Sagan is France’s most widely read author. Her fourth novel, AIMEZ-VOUS BRAHMS . . .which was published in September in Paris and which is appearing in this country this month under the Dutton imprint, has brought her sales in France alone to over two million copies. What is the explanation for the phenomenal success of a writer whose precocious gifts, while undeniable, have notably failed to develop? CURTIS CATE, the ATLANTIC’Srepresentative in Europe, here undertakes to answer this question.
BY CURTIS CATE
THE story of Françoise Sagan has often been told. It is the familiar saga of the Cinderella variety, the spectacular success story of the browbeaten little girl whose unsuspected gifts one day startle the world. Far less is known about the premythical creature, the still unspoiled Françoise who had not yet tasted the bittersweet fruit of fame. But it is in this dimly lit region of her past that one must look for the psychological key to the clearly stunted and in many ways tragic development of the later Sagan.
Not long ago the author herself drew back the curtain on this earlier, incognito self in an article published in the French women’s magazine MarieClaire. Here we are shown the young Françoise gaily romping with her dog on a country estate in mountainous Vercors or quietly reading a book in the family apartment in Lyon. Her father is a well-to-do industrialist named Quoirez and her mother is an old-fashioned bourgeoise who insists that her daughter wear her hair in braids and go to school in knee-length stockings. She is an unusually sensitive child, and her first contacts with her own contemporaries are painful. Her schoolmates pull her braids and make fun of her stockings. To add to her discomfort, she is always head of the class, the unpopular teacher’s favorite. A whole decade has passed since then, but even today she cannot restrain the sigh, “Toujours première et ridicule!” — “Always first, and ridiculous!”
We have no trouble recognizing the likeness. It is the portrait of the deliberately misunderstood Outsider, a Miss Colin Wilson in a French Iycée smock. Her parents move to Paris at the end of the war, but this change of scene only accelerates the rebellious ferment within her. She cuts her hair and puts on bobby sox and at the age of fifteen begins to spend afternoons in the crowded, smoke-filled, jazz-throbbing cellars of St. Germain des Prés. She is sick of being first in school and begins to skip classes. She takes long walks around Paris and spends her afternoons and evenings at home reading Proust, Stendhal, and, later on, Camus. She also tries her hand at short stories and even poems, “half sentimental, half metaphysical.”
This is, of course, only part of the story, that first layer of truth which so often lies over the deeper realities of a human life. It is more pertinent to the understanding of her later development to know that in her infancy she was virtually an only child, her brother and sister being ten years older, and that her childhood was spent largely in the company of adults, a fact which helps explain her precocity. The feeling of isolation she thus experienced was further aggravated by an abnormal, almost pathological timidity which has remained with her as a psychological scar to the present day. Merely venturing out of the house to buy a loaf of bread could cost her untold anguish, and her fear of returning from school unaccompanied was so great that she used to ride home in a taxi. To pay for the fares she would earn money from her schoolmates by doing their homework for them, for she dared not tell her parents of the panic she suffered before the terrors of the outer world. Françoise Sagan’s later love affair with Jaguars and Aston-Martin sports cars may have been a desperate psychological effort to overcome in later life the morbid shyness of her childhood.
In striking contrast to this inhibited, frightened little girl was her older brother. Here was someone endowed with a supreme self-assurance and confident savoir-faire which enabled him, as he grew up, to take calm possession of the adolescent, and later of the adult, world and to play the role of a successful Don Juan. Inevitably he became for his young sister an object of envy and hero worship, a revered model of human resource and enterprise. Many of Françoise Sagan’s later actions, and not least of all the utterly improvident anarchic life she has been living for the past five years, can be explained as belated attempts to prove herself as fearless and masterful in her conquest of life as her brother.
It may well have been a feeling of jealousy toward her brother at the spectacle of his unchecked success, as compared with her own flagrant failure after her disillusionment with academic education had caused her to fail her second baccalaureate, which drove her to writing a novel. Her brother’s shadow, at any rate, clearly falls over Bonjour Tristesse in the form of the father, whose adult savoir-faire and cynicism contrast so strikingly with the bumbling naçveté and enthusiasm of the youthful Cyril. This pattern of contrasts or conflicts recurs, significantly, in every Sagan novel: in the middle-aged Luc, as opposed to the young Bertrand, in A Certain Smile; in the urbane theater director. André Jolyau, as compared to the twenty-three-year-old provincial, Edouard Maligrasse, in Those Without Shadows; in the absent-hearted Roger, as contrasted with the tenderly enamored Simon, in Aimez-vous Brahms . . . And though in the later novels the original model has been largely eclipsed by her husband, the editor Guy Schoeller, it is because this more recent figure has unobtrusively merged, in her psychological universe, with her brother’s once omnipotent image.
FEW things in life are as insidious as immediate success. “Fame,” Françoise Sagan could later write in Those Without Shadows, “is not something which bursts, but which insinuates itself.”Since the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, success has, indeed, pursued and harried her as relentlessly as the Harpies of Greek tragedy. Overnight the eighteen-year-old prodigy was overwhelmed with attentions. She was wined and dined, invited to official cocktail parties — most of which she refused to attend — and showered with flattering comparisons to Colette.
Françoise Sagan has always instinctively recoiled from such effusive publicity, for she is still fearful of crowds. But she seems to have been powerless to resist a more insidious invasion of her life by a flock of idle leeches and blasé opportunists who were drawn to her as to a magnet when the royalties started pouring in. “I attract the weak,” she recently lamented in Marie-Claire, “as much as I am attracted by the strong.” Unfortunately, she has never found a man strong enough to rescue her from the camp followers who have encumbered her literary victories.
For the last five years she has lived, with but occasional intervals of respite, in an almost continuous hurly-burly, at the center of a cluster of shiftless fils à papa (poppa’s boys), bemused aristocrats, and would-be Bohemians sporting turtleneck sweaters and corsair pants made to order by chic Right Bank tailors; social drifters who have borrowed from her shamelessly, dividing their time between Paris and St. Tropez, dice games and the cha-cha-cha, sports cars and cocktail outings; members of that well-heeled and indolent Beat Generation which Marcel Carné recently tried to immortalize in the film Les Tricheurs.
In 1956, Françoise set up house with her brother in an apartment on the sedate Rue de Grenelle, and for the next two years the whisky flowed like the Seine, day was turned into night, and the nights were spent navigating from one expensive bar to another. When these leisurely amusements palled, the carousers would climb into sports cars and chase each other wildly through the streets of Paris trying to ram each other at intersections.
It speaks well of Sagan’s talent that, despite these rowdy distractions, she still found time to grind out a second novel. Yet her extraordinary facility only contributed, in a way, to her undoing, for had she been less gifted, she might have been forced to take greater pains with her second literary effort. As it was, two years of intermittent thought and just five weeks of writing went into the making of A Certain Smile. This story of a Parisian girl’s short-lived romance with a middleaged man was in some respects an improvement over her first. The plot was more natural, less artificially constructed than the taut, Machiavellian plot of Bonjour Tristesse, which Sagan seems to have borrowed from Roger Vailland’s Les Mauvais Coups. It also lacked the quite gratuitous violence of a bloody ending — Anna’s death in an automobile crash — which the Julliard editors had forced on the first novel and which is so obviously at variance with the listless logic of the Sagan universe.
The period which immediately followed marked something of a turning point in the career of the young author. Her second novel brought her some twenty-five pounds of press clippings — it is typical of the vapid society surrounding her that someone should have had the idea of weighing this mass of paper — and in a single year her royalties soared to fifty million francs. She had won her literary spurs, silenced the critics who had thought that her precocious talent was a mere flash in the pan, and put herself beyond the reach of that financial duress which drives so many novelists to writing hastily and sloppily. She toyed for a while with the prospect of diverting some of this money into the financing of a weekly for her intellectual idol, Jean-Paul Sartre, that walleyed Svengali who has cast his philosophical spell over so many of her generation. But the idea of devoting her time to a life of strenuous journalism seems to have frightened as much as attracted her, and the project came to nothing.
In her recent confession to Marie-Claire, Sagan declared that “literature is something serious, which one mustn’t joke with.” Even if she still believes it, she has made no effort to apply this worthy maxim to her own life. Instead, she has allowed herself to become the victim of her own madcap myth, as though meekly submitting in real life to a typically Sartrian fate: “I shall be what the others want me to be.” She has continued to drift, with a retinue of fair-weather friends and social climbers, from surprise parties to fashionable night clubs, snatching an occasional hour here and there to scribble a few paragraphs for the next book.
It was in this haphazard and irresponsible way that her third novel, Dans Un Mois, Dans Un An (Those Without Shadows), was composed. Its appearance, on the heels of the sports-car smashup which almost cost her her life in April of 1957, seemed to mark the sudden eclipse of her ephemeral star. To her intimates she had confided that this time she wanted to break away from the tight narrative mold of the roman d’amour and have a fling at a full-length novel of society and ideas, something on the order of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir or of Sartre’s Les Chemins de la Liberté. To embark on such an undertaking at the age of twenty-one would have demanded considerable artistic conceit, but there is no indication that she ever seriously attempted it. The effort petered out almost as soon as it was born, and what finally emerged was nothing more than a fictional coat hanger, a bony skeleton of a book waiting to have added to it the flesh, skin, and heart of a major novel.
A total failure though it obviously was, Those Without Shadows is autobiographically perhaps the most revealing of Sagan’s books. The author takes a bitter pleasure in exposing the inanity and emptiness of her protagonists, who significantly include an editor, a would-be writer, and a theater director — that is, intellectuals of the kind Sagan admires but who have been noticeably absent from her other novels. The book is full of remarks deriding literature and intelligence and lauding stupidity, as though the author were desperately trying to trample on everything she secretly believes in. “Culture is what is left when one doesn’t know what to do.” “There is nothing like a certain kind of idiocy.” “He was an old man who was cold. And all literature was of no earthly good to him.”
From one end to the other, the book reeks with the brackish smell of frustration, as the author rages against the mediocrity of her milieu and the poverty of her own talent. Whatever Françoise Sagan’s faults may be, one must salute the pitiless honesty with which she has here laid herself bare.
IT SHOULD be said in Sagan’s defense that, if her novels are so empty, it is because they faithfully reflect the nihilism of her contemporaries, or, to be more exact, of that influential clique of leftwing intellectuals who succumbed in the early post-war years to the withering influence of Sartre. These hothouse thinkers believe in nothing unless it is in the sublime autonomy of criticism. They abhor Saint-Exupéry because he was a romantic and a dreamer. They are suspicious of Camus because he was a moralist. They have exchanged altruism for skepticism and replaced idealism with cynicism, not because this latter attitude is intellectually defensible or even intelligent, but because it seems philosophically respectable.
This post-war generation is far more at sea than the famous Lost Generation of the twenties, whose flaunted perdition was never much more than a literary pose. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound may have felt forced to emigrate to Paris, but they never ceased to believe in certain positive literary values. But Sagan’s world believes in negative values. “He was one of that generation of young people whose fear of being fooled prevents from acting” is the way she describes the young Bertrand in A Certain Smile. The fear of being taken for an uncritical dupe has hung like a sword of Damocles over these café intellectuals, and since nothing could appear more stupid than being naive idealists, they have turned their backs on all ideals. A French wit — I think it was Tristan Bernard — once remarked that if someone now wanted to write a play like Racine’s Phèdre, the plot would have to go like this: a young man sleeps with his mother; one day he discovers that she is not his mother; he commits suicide.
Stéphane Mallarmé’s celebrated line “La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres” — “The flesh is sad, alas! and I’ve read all the books” —could well have been adopted as the motto for this prematurely aged and willfully unromantic generation.
In Sagan’s novels, love is banished as a deceptive illusion, an archaic relic of the past; what remains is simply hygiene. It would never occur to a Sagan heroine to say, as does the Marquise de Merteuil in Laclos’s Liaisons Dangereuses, that men should always be careful to “flatter our two favorite passions, the glory of the defense and the pleasure of the defeat.” It sounds strange in the mid-twentieth century to discuss the strategies of love in such military terms. In our post-Freudian age, people believe that preliminary skirmishes or prolonged sieges are patently unhygienic. Yet does not the modern erotic hygiene end up by having to pay a special ransom of its own? In the works of Sagan, where the defense is so halfhearted and inglorious, even the inevitable defeat has lost much of its pleasure. The passionate surrender becomes a listless routine, executed in a mood of dispirited ennui, that negative vexation which Sartre imagined in his play No Exit as best suited to a contemporary vision of hell.
SAGAN’S latest novel, Aimez-vous Brahms . . , lacks both the glaring faults and the bitter despairs of its immediate predecessor. The tone of asperity is gone, replaced by a sigh of resignation. Since we live in a mediocre, humdrum world, it says in effect, let us not kick against the pricks, let us learn to live with our own mediocrity and our humdrum friends and lovers.
What saves this all too static story about a thirty-nine-year-old woman’s disabused romance with a youth of twenty-five are those deft flashes of psychological insight and description which reveal an undeniably latent talent. “She drove off very fast so that he should not see the tears clouding her view. Mechanically she switched on the windshield-wipers and her gesture tore from her a desperate little laugh” is the way Sagan describes the end of a midday lovers’ quarrel. And here is her description of a wintry afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne:
A solitary sportive rower, one of those strange men who can be seen straining to preserve a form which no one seems to care about, so anonymous is their physique, was making mighty efforts to recall the summer, his oar occasionally raising a shower of sparkling, silver, and almost inopportune water, so sad did the winter seem among the stiffened trees.
A sentence like this, which might have been written by Proust, gives us a fleeting glimpse of the novelist Sagan might become.
In her latest novel she has, for the time being, given up the literary ambitions she once entertained. She has decided to hew to the narrow little rut she had already traced for herself in the comfortable landscape of the bourgeois world. “I don’t see why I should describe peasants, workers, or the Haute Couture, which I don’t know,” she recently declared. “If I went to live in Gennevilliers [an industrial suburb of Paris] to try to understand, it would not only be ridiculous, it would be dishonest of me.”
This deliberate limitation of her role to depicting the life of the bourgeois society she was born and brought up in is without doubt one of the keys to Sagan’s popularity. She has described the vapid emptiness of this world without embellishment, and in doing so she has come to be recognized as one of the figures that best symbolize the bourgeois membership of France’s first post-war generation, along with the imp-nosed Juliette Greco, the seaweed-haired Annabelle, and the doleful Bernard Buffet.
Françoise Sagan’s success, as a matter of fact, stems from many of the same causes as Bernard Buffet’s. For the last decade, connoisseurs and neoconnoisseurs of modern art have been snapping up Buffet’s canvases because, even though his figures might be gray and bloodless, at least they are recognizable ghosts, as opposed to the increasingly incomprehensible distortions of abstract art. In the same way, millions of readers have found in Sagan the simple outlines of stories they can understand with a minimum of effort.
In Sagan’s hands the tortured philosophizings of Sartre have been turned into easily digestible clichés; the classic roman d’amour has been streamlined into the roman démaquillé — the novel without make-up. Its popularity goes hand in hand with the steadily expanding vogue for simplicity in everything: speech, gesture, dress. No matter what Françoise Sagan may do or say tomorrow, she will, I think, be remembered for having trimmed the plump nineteenth-century novel down to the more readable proportions of the twentieth-century novelette.