I have an image of the South of France in my head: warm, ochre-coloured sand; palm trees; blue sea sparkling like champagne. It’s a picture that’s partly real – we have had holidays at Antibes and Menton – but also imaginary. When I was seventeen, I read Françoise Sagan’s novella Bonjour Tristesse, and I’ve had a romanticised view of the south of France locked in my mind since then.
Sagan’s novel is set on the Mediterranean coast, at Juan les Pins, and she was only eighteen herself when she wrote the story of Cécile, a spoilt teenager just out of school. Cécile revels in the lazy, sunlit days of her seaside holiday, where she is free to do as she pleases: lie on the beach in the sun, swim, make love with her new boyfriend on the sand. She is perfectly happy until her lazy, idyllic days are disrupted by the arrival of Anne. The older woman is calm, intelligent and strict – quite different to the girl’s hedonistic father, Raymond. When it seems that Anne may become her step-mother, Cécile is determined to protect the way of life embodied by her summer idyll.
Sagan wrote her coming-of-age story in 1954, at a time when the hedonism of life on the French Riviera was a world away from post-war England and Australia. For me it seemed an utterly exotic world: sophisticated, elegant, free. I associated all of these qualities with the South of France, and Sagan’s novel embedded them in my consciousness: sun, sand, sea; cocktails, fast cars, glamour, Nice. My idea of southern France is irrevocably linked to my teenage reading of Bonjour Tristesse.