Saturday, 7 July 2012

Penguin no. 1444: A Certain Smile
by Françoise Sagan

"I awoke with a painful sensation of having an urgent problem to solve. For what Luc proposed was in fact a game - an alluring game - but one which would destroy a real feeling I had for Bertrand, and also something confused within myself, something complicated and bitter: for even though I might sometimes feel that all passion and all love affairs are short-lived, I was not prepared to accept this as a necessity, especially when it was imposed on me by Luc. Like all those who look upon life as a comedy, I could not bear to perform in one I had not written myself."
Dominique is a young woman from the country who has come to Paris to study law at the Sorbonne. Although she is only twenty, and so lacking in experience that she fails to anticipate the unhappiness which will inevitably follow in the wake of a brief love affair with a married man, she already thinks she has the measure of the world. She affects an attitude of existential boredom, a world-weariness that dismisses in advance most experiences and most people, disdaining all but the occasional jazz record, and the novels of Sartre. Her restlessness seems to be assumed as some marker of intellectual seriousness, an indication that all that life offers has been assessed and found wanting. But it seems more like naiveté, or a lack of imagination, or a narrow-minded blindness that prevents her from seeing the value in things beyond her experience.

She looks back through time to tell the story of her brief affair with Luc, the husband of her friend Françoise, and the uncle of her boyfriend Bertrand. The heartbreak she experienced when the affair ended has now abated, and she has come to look on the episode as something without significance, echoing this idea that everything is unimportant. Her retrospective point of view gives her tale a tragic air, for we always know where it is heading. And the lack of any possibility of a positive outcome is continuously reinforced by Luc himself, who shows only a detached interest in Dominique, and one which seems to always lack enthusiasm. He offers her nothing more than a short holiday, the sight of the sea, and his company for a few weeks. She reflects now on how she felt through each stage of their relationship, analysing why she behaved as she did.

The explanation must lie at least partly in her passive nature. She is very much a passenger in her own life, following where others lead. Her relationship with boyfriend Bertrand begins because he find he loves her, and she doesn't seem able to find a reason not to reciprocate his feelings. And it is no different with Luc; although she finds him handsome, and comes to believe she loves him, she is guided by his desires, and he alone establishes the parameters of their relationship. She seems to avoid making decisions, perhaps believing it frees her from responsibility.

Luc's behaviour is much easier to understand: he betrays the wife he loves because he can, because no one holds him to account for his actions. He has no intention of leaving his wife, and he knows she will never leave him, irrespective of his choices, and so the only price he will ever pay is to witness the unhappiness of others, in this case of Françoise and Dominique. He suggests that pain is preferable to boredom, but then it is impossible not to notice that it is his boredom being assuaged, while someone else is going to suffer as a consequence. It seems that in Luc, Dominique has fallen for someone her equal in self-absorption.

I suspect that this is a novel which should be read when you are younger than I am. My predominate feeling was an hostility directed towards these two self-involved characters, as I could never forget that their actions had consequences, even though they could. While their boredom seemed based on a shared belief that everything is pointless and unimportant, it seemed an idea which could be conveniently twisted into a licence to indulge every whim, as though the escape from boredom was a goal which trumped all other considerations.


  1. I read Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse when I was young, and enjoyed it, but I'm not sure how I would see it these days. It could be that it also be a novel that should only be read by the young.

  2. Like Christine, I read this when I was young and though I've forgotten everything about it, I do remember liking it very much at the time. It does sound interesting, and perhaps very much of its era, but I don't think I'd be tempted to pick it up again. Nice review, though -- thanks.

  3. The film of the book was released in 1958, starring Rossano Brazzi as Luc. Johnny Mathis made the title song famous: it was nominated for Best Original Song at the 1958 Oscars.

  4. PS, put wrong link in my post for my blog. It should be



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