09 Sep 2019

Remembering Françoise Sagan, 1935-2004, II

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Here she is, aged 19 or 20, wearing a leopardskin coat and at the wheel of her XK-140 Jaguar, dark circles under her eyes.

Frédéric Brun, in the French magazine Les Grands Ducs, wrote a very nice tribute to Sagan’s passion for automotive speed.

Bonjour Vitesse

Just as death is immobility, movement is life. That was the implicit motto of the turbulent Françoise Sagan who demonstrated, by making her life a fashion statement in spite of herself, that a life of speed is the best life.

Hers was an amusing life, in any event, that is certain. Contrary to what the dictionaries of literature still say, Françoise Sagan was not born in Cajarc under the name of Quoirez, but rather at the age of eighteen in the office of the publisher René Julliard. She stole out of Proust her pseudonym and purloined from a verse of Eluard the title of her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse.

Sagan wrote in an individual way, reminding the reader of La Fontaine, but she conjugated existence in the plural. Pleasures rather than pleasure, problems to drive away boredom, men and women instead of one man, ultimately living a life with which she took liberties with personal liberty as her pretext, incapable of counting the consequences of her actions. She lived as a wonderful and carefree butterfly,infatuated with intensity and speed. She proclaimed: “Anyone has never loved speed, has never loved life, has never loved anyone.”

Sports cars were a devouring passion for the literary youth of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in search of something new, greedy for sensation, thirsty for discovery. The automobile is freedom, Sagan remarked. She commented: “In fact the automobile, one’s automobile, will give its tamer and its slave the paradoxical sensation of being finally free.”

More than a pleasure, the automobile was after the war an intercession between man and divinity. As we can only access God through the Saints, we can only know speed by propelling ourselves from the interior of a sports car. In the landscape of a France slowly starting its march of progress, Sagan’s Jaguar XK140 was capable of more than 150 km / h (140 miles per hour, hence its name) was a sports car delivering unheard-of power and unprecedented sensations. To drive it was to belong to the aristocracy. At the wheel of a competition Gordini 24S, rougher than any luxury grand touring toy, she earned even the respect of gentlemen drivers and motorsport enthusiasts, and her signature driving stripes. Barefoot driving stories do not really fit the Sagan legend, and were just publicity. No one drives a heavy Jaguar XK barefoot on the hot aluminum pedals and sticky rubber. It was the journalist Paul Giannoli who unshod Sagan forever to spice up his article on the frail young bourgeois girl becoming a part of her virile machine.

As the oil lamp symbolizes the victory of knowledge over obscurantism, the speeding automobile embodies the triumph of technology over time. Milan Kundera observed: “Speed ​​is the form of ecstasy that the technical revolution has given to man.” A form of ecstasy manifest in the words of Fillipo Tomaso Marinetti (Le Figaro, February 20, 1909), author of the Manifesto of Futurism, who affirmed that “the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.”

Fascination with it begins when the person or the object embodies his time, as Roland Barthes demonstrated in his Mythologies (1957). Françoise Sagan and her taste for speed illustrate the point. She sets the tone, as Marie Dominique Lelièvre aptly remarked: “Sagan’s tastes are in tune with the collective imagination of her time. She both anticipates and accompanies its changes. She is its dynamic in person. With her royalties, Françoise bought a car: a sports car, symbolic of her energetic metabolism. Françoise spoke quickly, ate quickly, became successful quickly, and thought even faster. Her fast cars, her risk taking fanfared her fame. Inseparable from her legend, her car is the attribute of her glory, the materialization of her triumphs.”

Sagan lined up a series of fast cars in her garage throughout her life, from the first the Jaguar XK140, bought with the royalties from Bonjour Tristesse, to the long, marron glacé-colored Mercedes SL of her last few years. “Just touched-by-age enough to be elegant” was how Sagan herself described her famous Gordini 24S eight-cylinder, a racing car prototype that was victorious in the hands of Jean Behra at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1953. It also had belonged to a certain André Guelfi, also known in his own “milieu” as “Dédé la Sardine.” … Sagan purchased the car from the wizard Amedeo Gordini to help pay his bills. There was also the Aston Martin DB2/4 made famous in her accident, and the Ferrari 250 GT California of 1966, with its V12 capable of 280 km/h (173.9 mph) she bought herself to celebrate the success of her novel La Chamade. Her father, Pierre Quoirez, gave her the taste of beautiful mechanics. He was a friend of the engineer and automotive designer Jean-Albert Grégoire, an industrialist, and a knowledgeable amateur who competed himself in the 1926 Paris-Nice in a 2-litre Sizaire. Jacques Quoirez, Françoise’s brother, was not to be outdone either and possessed notably a rare Lamborghini Flying Star in the sixties.

To understand her craze for speed, it must be understood as a way to propel oneself out of oneself, to relieve a metaphysical need to surpass oneself, or to escape from one’s self using speed as a pain reliever. Sagan remarks on this in her fond memoir: “It also removes sorrow. One may be mad for love and in vain, but one is less so at 200 miles per hour. One consoles oneself for one’s earthly situation by physically overcoming the attraction of the earth. “The frenzy of speed is a manifestation of the spirit of revolt, a phase of conflict between inertia and movement. The inertia of habits, the human condition, and social conventions work in vain against speed. Hence our reaction and our tumult of excitement and impatience. …

[Some obscure and typically pretentious French references deliberately omitted.]

But it is necessary to control this energy offered by the mechanical power. Six months after the brutal death of James Dean, Françoise Sagan navigated between life and death at Corbeil hospital. It was an auto accident, again. Sagan thus became a product of her own legend. The newspapers saved their headlines, France held its breath. She was given Extreme Unction and kept anesthetized. In the end, she did survive, but remained handicapped.

Enzo Ferrari recounts in his memoir, “My Terrible Joys,” that he had arranged with the novelist to come to Maranello to take delivery of her Italian racing car. The accident occurred on April 13, 1957 at 2:15 pm in Milly-la-Forêt. Françoise Sagan was planning to have to lunch Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri at the mill Coudray, which she had rented from Christian Dior to enjoy the quiet of the countryside and to write. Her guests were late and she went to meet them in her powerful and luxurious convertible Aston Martin DB2/4. Travelling with her, in a different car, were her friends: Voldemar Lestienne, Veronique Campion, Bernard Frank, and his brother, Jacques. Both cars raced with bravado. Sagan did not take the road into account and accelerated to high speed. At more than 175 km/h, on the small country road, skidding was inevitable. She braked, the wheels locked, her cabriolet skidded and turned over twice, trapping under under two tons of metal the frail young woman.

“We are trained by these little accidents,” Françoise Sagan wrote later in “With Fondest Regards” (1984). “One remembers the distraction, the absence, one remembers everything except the main thing which is the precise opposite, the sudden, unsuspected and irresistible encounter of body and spirit, the contact of a living being with the brief lightning flash of ​​its own existence.

“It’s a precise, exhilarating and almost serene pleasure to go too fast, past the safe limits of the car and of the road itself, past its handling capabilities, beyond one’s own reflexes perhaps. And let’s also say that it is not precisely a kind of wager with oneself that we are talking about, nor an imbecile challenge to one’s own talent, it’s not a competition with oneself, it’s is not a victory over a personal handicap, it is rather a sort of jaunty bet between chance and oneself.” Sagan concluded: “As soon as danger joins the game, speed adds to the happiness of living, just as the vague threat of death is attendant to the happiness of living. That’s all I think is true, finally: speed is neither a sign, nor a proof, nor a provocation, nor a challenge, but an impulse of happiness.”


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