Category Archive 'Françoise Sagan'

13 Oct 2019

Sagan: On the Necessity of Writing

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As a teenage girl, Françoise Sagan read Rimbaud, lying on the beach one morning, and experienced a life-changing moment.

Someone had written this, someone had had the genius to write it, the joy of writing it; it was beauty incarnate, definitive proof, all the evidence I ever needed of what I had suspected since I’d read my first unillustrated book – that literature was everything. It was sufficient unto itself; and if others have blindly strayed into business, or into one of the other arts, and didn’t know it yet, well at least I now knew. Literature was everything: the best and the worst, fatality; and once you knew this there was no alternative but to grapple with it, with words, literature slaves, our masters. You had to run with it, strain to leap up to it no matter how high it was. I felt this even after having read what I’d just finished reading, which I would never be able to write myself, but which impelled me by its very beauty to run in the same direction.

In any event, what place was there for hierarchies? If a house is in flames, it’s not just the most agile and the fastest who are needed to put out the blaze. When there’s a fire, all hands carry water. As if it mattered that the poet Rimbaud had galloped past right at the start… Since reading Illuminations I have always thought of literature in terms of there being a fire somewhere, everywhere, which I had to put out. And no doubt that’s why I’ve never been able to muster total contempt for even most calculating, mediocre, cynical, vulgar, stupid and glib writers, living or dead. I know that they too heard the alarm sound one day, and that from time to time they cannot help but run in desperate haste toward the fire; and as they stagger around it that they burn themselves just as badly as those who hurl themselves into it. In short, that morning I discovered what it was I loved, and would continue to love above all else, for the rest of my life.

— From “Reading”, in With Fondest Regards, 1985.

09 Sep 2019

Remembering Françoise Sagan, 1935-2004, III


Sagan received an appropriately admiring obituary in the Telegraph.

Françoise Sagan, who died yesterday aged 69, exploded on to the French literary scene in 1954 with her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, written when she was just 18.

The novel tells the story of a rebellious 17-year-old whose manipulations destroy the relationships between her libertine father and his various women. Published just as teenagers were emerging as a distinct social group, it was an immediate succes de scandale, delighting and shocking with its worldly cynicism and suave amorality. It won the Prix de Critiques and earned Françoise Sagan £500,000 and a papal denunciation. François Mauriac, France’s most respected novelist, hailed the talent of “ce charmant petit monstre” on the front page of Le Figaro.

Yet though she continued to produce novels and plays at a rate of roughly one a year, Françoise Sagan’s writing lost its astringency and she began to be dismissed as a lightweight author of women’s romantic fiction – more Mills and Boon than enfant terrible.

Instead, propelled by her celebrity and wealth, she became better known for her rackety lifestyle – sports cars and crashes, serial lovers, addictions to gambling, whisky and drugs and run-ins with the tax authorities. An opinion survey conducted a few years after Bonjour Tristesse showed that most people in France thought her a film star, rather than a writer.

Fame – or rather, the Paris Match version of celebrity – clung tenaciously to Françoise Sagan. Moody, gamine and matchstick thin, elfin face peeping out from under a mop of cropped hair, in the 1950s and 1960s she seemed the epitome of Parisian radical chic. A frequenter of cafes, nightclubs and student barricades, she dined with Sartre, Hemingway, Henry Miller and the young François Mitterand. Vanessa Redgrave admitted that she began smoking after reading that Françoise Sagan always smoked Gauloises and had a cup of coffee for breakfast: “Immediately, I decided this was sophistication itself.”

Her literary oeuvre offered a version of France in which personal responsibility counts as nothing against stylish living – a principle she was determined to live by. One of her tricks was to arrive at a nightclub with one escort and leave with another; and she always parked her sports cars outside the door of her destination whatever the traffic regulations. As if to illustrate the point, a cover of one of her novels showed her aged 19 or 20, draped in a long leopardskin coat over the door of an open-topped Jaguar, dark circles under her eyes. Yet despite the hype that inevitably accompanied everything that she did, she managed to remain remarkably honest about her own limitations as a writer and as a person.

When offered membership of the Academie Franaise, she turned it down: she had read enough good books, she said, to recognise the difference between the literary merit of Bonjour Tristesse (which she claimed never to have re-read) and the fuss made about it. She never uttered a word of regret for her “unbridled life” but confessed that she had never really grown up: “as a result I don’t really understand adult values and I never will”. …

Françoise Sagan’s life was more colourful copy than her books. Flushed with the success of Bonjour Tristesse, she sped down in her new Ferrari to St Tropez where she turned her publishers’ cheque into gambling chips, whisky and lines of cocaine – and indulged a prodigious appetite for sex. “She tried every experience,” a former lover recalled, “with two persons, with a woman, with three, four. She was in the avant garde, La bande Sagan – a group, with Juliette Greco. They were drunk almost every night and they were a most crazy group. La bande Sagan was the top of sophistication.”

In 1957, she survived a serious accident when her Aston Martin overturned on a sharp bend and left her in a coma for three days. Soon afterwards she married Guy Schoeller, a publisher 20 years her senior. When that broke down, she married an American sculptor, Robert Westhoff. They had a son, but that relationship too ended after only a year. Marriage, she reflected, is “like the matter of asparagus eaten with vinaigrette or hollandaise – a matter of taste but of no importance”. …

Françoise Sagan maintained her reputation as the voice of hedonistim with a fund of bons mots: “You should celebrate the end of a love affair as they celebrate death in New Orleans, with songs, laughter, dancing and a lot of wine”; “a dress makes no sense unless it inspires men to want to take it off you”; “Every little girl knows about love. It is only her capacity to suffer because of it that increases.”

But by the 1970s, with her brown hair turned miraculously blonde, fast living was taking its toll. Her passion for gambling became so intense that she asked the Ministry of the Interior to ban her from casinos. She had several brushes with death and in 1978 gave up drinking after a misdiagnosis of cancer of the pancreas. Her drug abuse landed her in court on several occasions and led to a demand from the Right-wing politician Jean Marie Le Pen that she be guillotined.

In 1990 a satirical puppet show on French television presented her as a disshevelled old bat butting in on every conversation, wild-eyed and gesticulating. “I believe I have the right to destroy myself as long as it doesn’t harm anyone,” she said. …

[S[he never quite managed to exorcise her demons. In 2001 she was convicted of tax fraud and given a one-year suspended jail sentence for failing to declare $726,000. But she said: “I always believe things are going to work out. Every time I see a film about Joan of Arc I’m convinced she’ll get away with it. It’s the only way to get through life.”

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.”

09 Sep 2019

Remembering Françoise Sagan, 1935-2004, I

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Today is Françoise Sagan Day at Never Yet Melted.

In the New Yorker recently, on the basis of no particular occasion, Rachel Cusk remembered Françoise Sagan, the French teenage gamin who produced a short novel that meteorically became an international best-seller in the late 1950s.

The obituaries that followed Françoise Sagan’s death, in 2004, were full of the sense of… failure. She had become, we were told, a tragic figure: destitute, isolated, tainted by scandal and alcoholism. She had, of course, produced many books, but none as successful and hence as troubling to history as her first, which was published when she was just nineteen. In that book, “Bonjour Tristesse,” she described the hedonism and amorality of youth, the hedonism and amorality of well-heeled French intellectuals, the hedonism and amorality of postwar Europe on the cusp of the sixties. Not surprisingly, it was the hedonism and amorality of her life that interested the obituary writers. For there it was, her fetter, her fate: from this slender, misunderstood novel, and from its young heroine, Cécile, Françoise Sagan never escaped. “Bonjour Tristesse” concludes with a fatal car accident, and three years after its publication Sagan, whose love of dangerous driving forms part of the legend of her life, sustained severe head injuries when her Aston Martin crashed at high speed. The disappointment among the obituary writers that the author did not submit then and there to her fictional destiny was palpable.

The hedonism and amorality of “Bonjour Tristesse” is of a most artistically proper kind. Morality, and its absence, is the novel’s defining theme: in this sense, Sagan is far more of a classicist than others of her existentialist brethren, such as Sartre and Camus. Certainly, she concerns herself with the twentieth-century problem of personal reality, of the self and its interaction with behavioral norms, but in “Bonjour Tristesse” those norms are as much psychic as they are societal. Cécile, a motherless seventeen-year-old whose permissive, feckless father has provided the only yardstick for her personal conduct, offers Sagan a particularly naked example of the human sensibility taking shape. Cécile’s encounters with questions of right and wrong, and with the way those questions cut across her physical and emotional desires, constitute an interrogation of morality that is difficult to credit as the work of an eighteen-year-old author. What is the moral sense? Where does it come from? Is it intrinsic? If not, does that discredit morality itself? These are the questions that lie at the heart of Sagan’s brief and disturbing novel.


I read “Bonjour Tristesse” when I was young and remember it with affection for delivering a glimpse, startling and alarming to straight-laced, petite bourgeois, provincial Americans like myself, into a far more glamorous and sophisticated upper class French world of hyper-refined sensibilities and sin.

The New Yorker’s unexpected blast from the past brought back such memories that I had to blog it, and when I went looking for a suitable image, I found both a long article (in French) on Sagan’s passion for automotive speed and her delightfully colorful Telegraph obituary, both of which demanded quotation. So the irresistible Françoise Sagan is getting three blog postings, not one.

What can I say? She was indubitably the sort of girl that Conrad’s Marlow would describe as “one of us.”

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