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prose > 2015

Extrait de Bonjour tristesse

Françoise Sagan

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.

Cet été-là j’avais dix-sept ans et j’étais parfaitement heureuse. Les « autres » étaient mon père et Elsa, sa maîtresse. Il me faut tout de suite expliquer cette situation qui peut paraître fausse. Mon père avait quarante ans, il était veuf depuis quinze ; c’était un homme jeune, plein de vitalité, de possibilités, et, à ma sortie de pension, deux ans plus tôt, je n’avais pas pu ne pas comprendre qu’il vécût avec une femme. J’avais moins vite admis qu’il en changeât tous les six mois ! Mais bientôt sa séduction, cette vie nouvelle et facile, mes dispositions m’y amenèrent. C’était une homme léger, habile en affaires, toujours curieux et vite lassé, et qui plaisait aux femmes. Je n’eus aucun mal à l’aimer, et tendrement, car il était bon, généreux, gai, et plein d’affection pour moi. Je n’imagine pas de meilleur ami ni de plus distrayant. A ce début d’été, il poussa même la gentillesse jusqu’à me demander si la compagnie d’Elsa, sa maîtresse actuelle, ne m’ennuierait pas pendant les vacances. Je ne pus que l’encourager car je savais son besoin des femmes et que, d’autre part, Elsa ne nous fatiguerait pas. C’était une grande fille rousse, mi-créature, mi-mondaine, qui faisait de la figuration dans les studios et les bars des Champs-Elysées. Elle était gentille, assez simple et sans prétentions sérieuses. Nous étions d’ailleurs trop heureux de partir, mon père et moi, pour faire objection à quoi que ce soit. Il avait loué, sur la Méditerranée, une grande villa blanche, isolée, ravissante, dont nous rêvions depuis les premières chaleurs de juin. Elle était bâtie sur un promontoire, dominant la mer, cachée de la route par un bois de pins ; un chemin de chèvres descendait à une petite crique dorée, bordée de rochers roux où se balançait la mer.

Les premiers jours furent éblouissants. Nous passions des heures sur la plage, écrasés de chaleur, prenant peu à peu une couleur saine et dorée, à l'exception d'Elsa qui rougissait et pelait dans d'affreuses souffrances. 

Mon père exécutait des mouvements de jambes compliqués pour faire disparaître un début d'estomac incompatible avec ses dispositions de Don Juan. Dès l'aube, j'étais dans l'eau, une eau fraîche et transparente où je m'enfouissais, où je m'épuisais en des mouvements désordonnés pour me laver de toutes les ombres, de toutes les poussières de Paris. Je m'allongeais dans le sable, en prenais une poignée dans ma main, le laissais s'enfuir de mes doigts en un jet jaunâtre et doux ; je me disais qu'il s'enfuyait comme le temps, que c'était une idée facile et qu'il était agréable d'avoir des idées faciles. C'était l’été.

Hello, Sadness

translated from French by Alexandra Bousquet-Chavanne

On this unknown sentiment whose distress and gentleness obsess me, I hesitate to place the name, the beautiful, grave name of sadness. It’s a sentiment so complex, so selfish that I am almost ashamed of it, though sadness has always seemed to me honorable. I did not know sadness, but distress, regret, and more rarely remorse. Today, something folds onto me like silk, irritating and soft, and separates me from others.

That summer I was 17 and perfectly happy. The “others” were my father and Elsa, his mistress. I must immediately explain this situation which could appear false. My father was 40 years of age, he had been a widower for 15; he was young, full of vitality, of possibilities, and, upon my exit from boarding school two years earlier, I could not have been unable to understand his living with a woman. I less quickly accepted that he changed them every six months! But soon his seduction, this new and effortless life, my dispositions brought me around to it. He was improvident, clever in business, always curious and quickly weary, and he appealed to women. I had no trouble loving him, and tenderly, because he was good, generous, cheerful, and full of affection for me. I cannot imagine a better friend nor a more distracting one. At the onset of summer, he even pushed his kindness as far as to ask me if the company of Elsa, his current mistress, would bother me during the holidays. I could only encourage him because I knew of his need for women, and on the other hand, Elsa would not bore us. She was a tall redhead, half-creaturesque, half-worldly, who made appearances in the studios and bars of the Champs-Elysées. She was agreeable, simple, and without serious demands. Anyway, my father and I were too delighted to leave to object to anything. He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, isolated, ravishing, of which we had dreamed since the first heat of June. It was built on a promontory, dominating the sea, concealed from the road by a forest of pine; a goats’ path made its way down to a small golden cove, bordered by red rocks against which the sea swung.

 

The first days were dazzling. We spent hours on the beach, crushed by the heat, gradually adopting a healthy golden color, with the exception of Elsa who reddened and peeled in horrid suffering.

 

My father conducted complicated motions to make his expanding stomach, incompatible with his Don Juan dispositions, disappear. From dawn, I was in the water; a fresh and translucent water where I submerged myself, where I exhausted myself with disorderly movements, to wash myself of all the shadows, of all the dust of Paris. I lay in the sand, took a handful in my hand, let it escape from my fingers in a soft yellow stream; I told myself that it fled like time, that this was a simple idea and that it was pleasant to have simple ideas. It was summer.

Translator's Note

I have translated an excerpt from the first chapter of the French novel, Bonjour tristesse (Hello, Sadness), popular and scandalous in its time. Françoise Sagan (1935-2004) was only 17 years old when she wrote the novel, published in 1954. The plot is based on her own experience vacationing in the South of France with her father, and the character of Cécile is in many ways representative of her own self.

Though I was educated in the French system, I never had the opportunity to study Bonjour tristesse until the fall semester of my senior year at Penn. I enrolled in a French literature and cinema course titled “La France depuis 1944: Femmes, Films et Société” (“France since 1944: Women, Films, and Society”), for which students had to read the novel in the context of the scandal its female authorship provoked. Sagan writes bold opinions on love, fidelity, and marriage, and details intimate sexual experiences—all of which were unacceptable for an upper-class woman in the 1950s.

I chose to translate this passage because it is very demonstrative of the themes Sagan focuses on throughout the rest of the novel, as it hints to the provocative, non-conforming, and alluring lifestyle that Cécile and her father lead. This work has become a favorite of mine and although it has been difficult to translate the beauty and elegance of Sagan’s diction and sentence structure into the English language, I believe it is important to share it with an English readership.

ALEXANDRA BOUSQUET-CHAVANNE is a member of the University of Pennsylvania class of 2015, majoring in English with a Creative Writing concentration and minoring in Hispanic Studies. Raised by French parents, she attended a French school in New York before moving to Philadelphia, where she developed a passion for French literature. Alexandra is an aspiring writer and editor who hopes to go into book publishing and possibly translation.