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|Françoise Sagan (1935-2004) - pseudonym of Françoise Quoirez|
French novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, whose dispassionate portrayals of bored, amoral middle-class people have been translated into many languages. Sagan published her first novel, Bonjour tristesse (1954), at the age of 19. It was a succes de scandale for its depiction of a young woman breaking up her father's affair. In her later life, Sagan was twice convicted of cocaine charges.
"Bertrand was my first lover, and it was on his body that I had discovered the odor of mine. It's always through someone else's body that, first warily and then with a rush of gratitude, you discover your own, its lenght, its smell. . . ." (from A Certain Smile, transl. by Irene Ashe, 1956)
Françoise Sagan was born Françoise Quoirez in the village of Cajarc, in southwestern France, into a well-to-do family. She was the third child of Pierre Quoirez, a prosperous industrialist, and Marie (Laubard) Quoirez. The family moved at the outbreak of World War II to the provinces, living mainly in Lyon; Sagan also spent some time in Switzerland. After the liberation of France in 1944, the family returned to Paris.
Sagan was educated at convent schools and attended the University of Sorbonne. She failed in 1953 the second-year examination for higher academic degrees and spent several weeks during the summer writing her first novel, Bonjour tristesse. The title of the book came from Paul Eluard. At home and by her friends Sagan was nicknamed Kiki but her pseudonym she took from a character, the Princesse de Sagan, in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. The thin story of Cécile's first love affair made Sagan famous in France and abroad and was awarded the Prix des Critiques. Sagan travelled in the United States, where she was seen in the company of the writer Truman Capote and the actor Ava Gardner. In 1957 her fondness of fast cars led to an accident in which she almost killed herself – this time Sagan was driving Aston-Martin. She also become known for her drinking and gambling. "I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live," she had been quoted as saying.
"Sur ce sentiment inconnu dont l'ennui, la douceur m'obsèdent, j'hésite à apposer le nom, le beau nom grave de tristesse. C'est un sentiment si complet, si égoïste que j'en ai presque honte alors que la tristesse m'a toujours paru honorable. Je ne la connaissais pas, elle, mais l'ennui, le regret, plus rarement le remords. Aujourd'hui, quelque chose se replie sur moi comme une soie, énervante et douce, et me sépare des autres." (from Bonjour tristesse)
Cécile, the narrator of Bonjour tristesse, is a pampered teenager. She spends her summer holidays in the south of France in a villa. Cécile has failed her exams but Cyril, a young law student, is more interesting than books. Her forty-year-old father, Raymond, is widowed. His latest mistress Elsa is ousted by Anne Larsen, his late wife's friend. Anne works in fashion, and has come to stay for a short visit at the villa. "I feared boredom and tranquillity more than anything. In order to achieve serenity, my father and I had to have excitement, and this Anne was not prepared to admit." To provoke her father's jealousy, she asks Cyril and Elsa to pretend to be in love. Cyril wants to marry Cécile, and accepts the plan. Anne is in love with Raymond. Elsa represents to Raymond his lost years, but he sees in the beautiful and sober Anne a perfect wife and mother to Cécile. The plan works, Anne drives recklessly away from the villa, and dies in a car accident. Cécile returns with her father to Paris and leaves the summer, Cyril, and her youth behind. The world of the rich and beautiful is hollow, and the care-free existence is lost for ever.
Echoes of the novel's melancholic atmosphere – 'Hello Sadness' – can be heard in Simon & Garfunkel's famous song 'The Sound of Silence' from 1964. The story was made into a film in 1957, directed by Otto Preminger, starring Deborah Kerr, David Niven, and Jean Seberg. It became a very big success in France where it was shot in monochrome for Paris and colour for the Riviera. Preminger later complained that the American critics didn't do it justice. ..." In America the critics said it wasn't French enough, which is very funny."
After the novel Sagan become a spokesperson of disillusioned youth, bored but potentially rebellious teenagers. For the cabaret singer and actress Juliette Greco she wrote the lyrics of many songs; they had a brief affair. Greco sang the theme of Bonjour tristesse. For the ballet Le rendez-vous manque (1958, The Broken Date), Sagan devised the scenario in collaboration with Michel Magne, with whom she also wrote such songs as La valse and De toute manière. A Certain Smile (1958), her second book, also was a bestseller. It told about a student's love affair with a middle-aged man. Like Cécile, she is slightly bored of life, but she suddenly realizes that "some day I would die, that my hand would no longer touch the chromium rim, nor would the sun shine in my eyes." Another variation of the formula was presented in Aimez-vous Brahms? (1959), in which a young man falls in love with a middle-aged woman.
Although Sagan's works about love, marriage and rootless existence are classified often by male critics as entertainment, her earlier novels in particular deserve according to feminist critics more attention. The confessional tone of Bonjou tristesse has been considered a precursor in such writing by women from more recent years. Sagan once said that for her "writing is a question of finding a certain rhythm... Much of the time life is a sort of rhythmic progression of three characters." Her style is classically cool, restrained, austere, continuing the tradition of the French psychological novel during the decade when noveau roman made its breakthrough. Like in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Sagan's lonely characters are disappointed in personal relationships, and try the fill the passage of time with the pursuit of pleasure. The polite everyday speech reveales the aimlessness of their lives.
Sagan married in 1958 Guy Schoeller, a publisher, 20 years her senior; they divorced two years later. Her second husband, Robert Westhoff, was an American ceramics designer. They had one son. The short marriage ended in 1963 due to her husband's homosexual activities. Sagan petitioned for divorce on the basis that Westhoff had "left the conjugal home." Westhoff translated the novels La Chamade (1965, La Chamade) and Le Garde du coeur (1968, The Heart-Keeper) into English. Sagan also had long affairs with the writer and journalist Bernard Frank, the fashion stylist Peggy Roche, and Annick Geille, the former editor of French Playboy.
In the 1960s Sagan turned from novels to plays, proving her talent for writing witty dialogue. Her first plays, Castle in Sweden (1960) and Violins Sometimes (1961), were only moderately successful. After The Purple Dress of Valentine (1963) Sagan wrote Happiness, Odd and Pass (1964), in which a young army officer wavers between love and his wish to be killed. In The Vanishing Horse (1966) Sagan took up the subject of the amorous conflict between two generations. With the director Claude Chabrol she worked with on the script for the film Landru (Bluebeard).
Sagan's later novels include Le Garde du coeur (1968), set in Hollywood. In the story a middle-aged woman, Dorothy, takes the guardianships of a beautiful boy, Lewis. She must choose between her mature lover and the young drop-out. At the same time a series of mysterious deaths shock the film circles. Scars on the Soul (1974) was a combination of an essay, autobiography, and novel. Un Orage immobile (1983) was set in 1932 in a small country village, and depicted the passionate love story of a beautiful widow, which is observed by an young notary. In Un Chagrin de passage (1994, A Fleeting Sorrow) Sagan follows the thoughts and reactions of a man in his thirties, Paul Cazavel, who learns that he has lung cancer. Paul sees his life and closest relationships, his mistress and former wife, in a new light.
In the 1990s Sagan was convicted for using cocaine; her prison sentences were suspended. "Yes, I take cocaine. Hasn't everybody?" Sagan defended herself. President François Mitterrand claimed that she was the victim of rightist leaks. Later Sagan's name was connected to the Elf scandal – she allegedly received money in exchange for persuading François Mitterrand to intervene on a contract in Uzbekistan. Sagan claimed that the money had been provided by her insurance company – her manor house in northern France was partially destroyed by a fire in 1991. Due to ill health, Sagan was not present in the Paris court. In 2002 Sagan was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence for tax fraud. Françoise Sagan died of a blood clot in a lung in Honfleur, on September 24, 2004. In his statement French President Jacques Chirac said: "With her death, France loses one of its most brilliant and sensitive writers – an eminent figure of our literary life." Sagan's life inspired Diane Kurys' film Sagan (2008), starring Sylvie Testud in the title role.
For further reading: Françoise Sagan: Une Conscience de Femme Refoulée by Nathalie Morello (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Francoise Sagan: The Superficial Classic' by A. Cismaru, in World Literature Today. Vol. 67; Number 2 (1993); Sagan by J. Lamy (1988); Bonjour Sagan by B. Poirot-Delpech (1988); Françoise Sagan by Judith Graves Miller (1988); Françoise Sagan; ou, L'élégance de survivre by P. Vandromme (1977); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); Le cas Françoise Sagan by G. Hourdin (1958); Françoise Sagan by G. Mourgue (1958)