Along with a couple of lengthy tomes on Wagner which I’ve written about here and here, I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick with my July reading. This was kicked off, by my reading Annie Ernaux’s memoir, The Years.
I don’t know whether I was enthusiastic enough about this book, which I’ve written about here. Leafing through it again I am struck by how familiar her life, and her thoughts about her life, is for me. She had the same sort of relationship with her family, the same experiences at school and university, the same hopes and dreams, read the same books, watched the same films, had the same interest in politics and was affected by the same world events.
She describes how when she was at school and starting to take an interest in boys, she and her friends surreptitiously read Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. Later, I think when at university, she read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and To The Lighthouse.
These references took me to my bookcase where I found three novels by Françoise Sagan. I was appalled to discover I couldn’t remember a thing about any of them. The only one I was sure I had read was Bonjour Tristesse.
All of these books have been purchased second hand. Two of them were published, in very stylish editions, by John Murray. Bonjour Tristesse, was published in 1955. It was Sagan’s first book written when she was just 18; she took her nom de plume from Marcel Proust’s Princess de Sagan. I love the cover illustrations on the Murray editions. They reference the story in some way. This one could be either domestic harmony struck through; or the balcony of a sea-side holiday home near some woods that play a critical role in the plot.
I see from inside it that I’ve had this book since 1974. It has a sticker in it from Speagle’s Bookshop in Collins Street but I’ve never been there. As you can see from the stamp, it spent time in the General Motors Holden’s Sports & Social Club. Who knew that existed? And fancy having a Sagan novel for the workers edification; which makes me think the club was for managers and executives; still they would all have been men. Interesting.
All the time I was re-reading it I couldn’t quite remember having done so before; but at the denouement it all came back to me. It’s very good; well worth its classic status. Amazing that she was only eighteen when she wrote it; apparently after failing her exams at the Sorbonne. Which resonates with the experience of the narrator. It packs a psychological punch notwithstanding its brevity at just 150 short pages.
It’s that psychological astuteness that makes it timeless. A young woman, used to her carefree life with a feckless, but well-heeled, father, plots to prevent his marriage to a cultured, sensitive, and wholly suitable woman. I think tristesse must have a more encompassing meaning than sadness. To fully reflect the aptness of it in the title, it needs to include an element of guilt and longing as well as sadness. Only this properly describe our narrator’s feelings at the conclusion of the tale.
In any event I enjoyed it and am pleased to have re-read it and now be able to say I know what its about.
Having done so I moved on to Sagan’s other novels, about which I had no recall at all.
Those Without Shadows was published in its Penguin edition in 1961 and is her third book after being published in France in 1957. I have it in the paperback. Not as elegantly presented as the John Murray publications, but the picture tells the story all the same.
Even after I had re-read this I was appalled to discover I couldn’t remember a thing about it without looking at it again. That never happens to me! The cover blurb describes it as a vivid picture of a group of artistic and intellectual Parisians. About whom we are made painfully aware of the weakness of their individual identities and of the lack of purpose in their lives.
It reminded me, although much slighter, of Simone de Beauvoir’s novels. But if I could completely forget what it was about in a matter of days, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. The people were all awful as were their relationships and there was certainly no happy ending. Not that you care too much.
My third dip into Sagan was The Heart Keeper. This was published by John Murray in Britain in 1968. I see from the stamp inside that I bought it at Bill’s Book Bar in Ballarat where my whole family were frequent customers. It was a terrific shop, I remember it well, inside the Block Arcade, crammed with books. This is another beautiful edition with the same sort of illustration on the cover. This time it’s more elliptical. Is that a bar or is it a stage surrounded by a proscenium arch?
Either would be suitable. I had no recollection of reading this story previously. It was a strange one about a successful Hollywood screen writer, a Dorothy Parker type figure, who encounters a strange boy; the Heart Keeper of the title. He’s a James Dean type figure. The Hollywood setting is fun. There are a series of murders and you twig very early on as to the identity of the murderer. If I can work it out anyone can – I’m usually hopeless at doing so. I wondered where the story was going to go from there. But this is not a thriller; it’s a morality tale. Very interesting. It stayed with me for a long time after.
Then I turned to The Waves by Virginia Woolf. For the same reason that I re-read Bonjour Tristesse. This book has been on my shelf for years and I can’t remember a thing about it. In addition to the reference in the Ernaux memoir I read something on social media that referred to how poetically this was written.
It was first published in 1931 and published in Penguin in 1951 and 1964 with reprints in 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972 and 1973. Pretty impressive record. The cover is very beautiful; a detail of the portrait of Virginia by Vanessa Bell. I discovered that this copy was given by my friend Jane to my friend Fran on her birthday in 1975. I was surprised when I told woman friends I was reading it, that either people hadn’t wanted to read it or if they had, they hadn’t liked it. Moreover, most said they didn’t like Virginia Woolf except for A Room of One’s Own and/or Mrs Dalloway.
I didn’t like it much although I agree the writing is poetic. She starts with a description of the sun rising over the sea. Beautiful imagery. Then we are through into a muddle of voices belonging to six children, three boys and three girls. It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the writing but it was quite effective. You could visualise the children playing and then having their lessons.
You never discover their relation to each other, they are just friends. From then on, with a description of the sea indicating a jump in time, we follow these six as they go to university, take their first jobs, get married, have children and so on.
It’s interesting that one of the boys is an Australian with a father who is a banker in Brisbane. He is not very likeably drawn; and is forced into the world of commerce instead of poetry. Another is an academic, whose great love, a male friend, is killed off early on. Another sought to be a writer but is deflected into marriage and fatherhood and the city. Of the three girls, only one marries and has children, apparently living happily in the countryside. Another goes from man to man; not described in a judgemental way, but she’s seen as unfulfilled. The third one is timid; seeking to hide herself from society. We finally end up with the boy who had wanted to write, now an old man, as he stands outside his home, and I imagine, perhaps, although it’s not clear, and at that stage I was not concentrating, dying. Leading to the final line reflection from the natural world: The wave broke on the shore.
You can see how modern this writing would have been in 1931 and throughout I was wondering when James Joyce published Ulysses (which Virginia described as boring) and I now see that was in 1922. So modern but not radical. I think a Joycean influence can be detected.
I didn’t like it at the start, then I quite liked it in the middle, then I got sick of it. This is hardly very literary criticism. The writing is indeed poetic. I particularly liked the descriptions of the house and garden that are described alongside descriptions of the sea that are interspersed between episodes with the six friends. She describes how the sun is reflected on various items of furniture and bowls and things inside the rooms in the house. I thought these must come from direct experience in her own home. Overall you do get a picture of English society at the time.
The blurb on the cover says she packed into this book everything she had experienced of the grandeur and futility of life; and that it could be read as the development of six personalities, or for its overpowering suggestion of human isolation and personal solitude, or for English which seems to ring from the soul with the force and rhythm of the psalms. I’m not sure that those descriptions have stood the test of time.