Sagan: Paris 1954

More than a legend, Francoise Sagan was a phenomenon. Written at the request of Sagan’s son Denis Westhoff, this tender account marks the 60th anniversary of the explosion like a bomb on the French publishing scene of “Bonjour Tristesse”, plummeting its 18 year old author to instant success.

Although countless biographies have been written about the teenage wonder, Anne Berest focuses her “story” on the various early stages of a budding literary career over the few intense months in 1954 leading up to and immediately following publication of Sagan’s first novel. Berest, a successful French author in her own right, conveys the intimacy and warm loving atmosphere of Francoise’s comfortable Bourgeois family home and upbringing. We even, through her vivid imagination and Sagan-lore, get a look at the bedroom where the teenager often wrote in bed or lying on a Persian carpet on the floor. Likewise, we “accompany” Francoise as she hand-carries her manuscript in bright yellow folders to three publishers, and farther on we palpitate with an incredulous Rene Julliard, the publisher, during a frenetic night of reading.

By the early 1960s “Bonjour Tristesse” had been translated into 23 languages and sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. By 2011 it had sold over 2 million copies in France alone, making it one of the biggest best-sellers in French publishing history. The sizzling summer romance is set during the second half of the 1950s as France, in the heady decades following World War II. Thus, Berest sites her action against a background whirling around Brigitte Bardot, the New Wave Directors, the wild and wicked days and nights of St Tropez. With all of its raging success, Sagan’s first novel simultaneously caused a monumental scandal and accusations of “immorality”.

She went on to write 19 more novels, plays, short stories, etc. but never with the same success. Forever “living life to its full”, there were chain-smoked cigarettes, whiskey, drugs and gambling punctuated nonetheless with oceans of love, warm friendships and sweetness; but steady decline. Sagan died at the age of 69 in 2004. Most of us have read “Bonjour Tristesse” and/or seen Otto Preminger’s film with Jean Seberg, David Niven and Deborah Kerr, even read one or two biographies, but this concentrated view of Francoise Sagan’s youthful confidence, exuberance and excess during the most intense period of her life, provides another perspective to the girl whom French writer and Nobel Prize winning writer François Mauriac, though full of admiration, called “the Charming Little Monster”.

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