South of France (Bonjour Tristesse)

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.

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One response to “South of France (Bonjour Tristesse)

  1. sdz

    I also read this book when I was 17. I was on holidays in Sydney for the first time, in January, and I bought it to read on the beach.I agree with everything you wrote, as that’s how I felt as I read it. It kind of matched my holiday feeling – enjoying Sydneys subtropical warm evenings, and the fact that it was so different to the Adelaide of 1966! I saw the film earlier in the year, and its worth a look as it captures the feeling of the book quite well. Jean Seberg is perfect as the young girl, and David Niven [I think] has the sophisticated hedonistic likeable father down pat.
    I chose it because I liked the cover! .In fact I still have it. It has survived many a house moving book cull which is a recommendation in itself!
    Francoise Sagan was very young when she wrote it, and it was hugely popular – not that I knew that at the time. It captures that headstrong emotional force of young people that dont really understand the adult world that they are in, and just charge on not thinking of any consequences. Thanks for reminding me- mmm the ‘Riviera’ of the 50’s & 60’s that probably just exists in my head! In yours too by the sound of it …