IN 1954, still only 18, Francoise Sagan had her first phenomenal success with her debut novel, Bonjour Tristesse. Written in a candid, simple, but very effective style, curiously haunting and irresistibly readable, it became the dominating image of the blase post-war generation in France, who for a while would greet each other with her traumatic title. She gave birth to an era, just as Scott Fitzgerald had invented the amused malaise of the Lost Generation's gilded American youth.
The style of Sagan's many books on the whole followed the plain classicism of Bonjour Tristesse, which in the end became something of a trap for her. Later, in Derriere l'epaule ("Over My Shoulder", 1998), one of her most personal books, a delightfully digressive stroll through the bars and bookshops of her agitated existence, Sagan wrote:
I never wanted to write the story of my life . . . because my memory keeps failing me - five years here and five years there - and it might suggest that I was trying to hold certain things back, things that have also ceased to exist . . . The only real guide in my chronology are the dates of my books, the only clearly identifiable landmarks, almost physically present, throughout my life.
She was born Francoise Quoirez into a prosperous bourgeois family in the small town of Cajarc on the river Lot in the Aveyron region of central France, an isolated, rocky, rather broodingly gaunt land of austere loneliness and dramatic skies. Like many young girls at the time, Francoise was educated in religious institutions.
Even when she got to convent school in Paris, the girls still had to walk demurely through the prim streets of Passy in "crocodile" formation, but with an eye for delivery boys on their mopeds. But her soul was in simmering rebellion, and when she obediently went to Communion in the smart Parisian convent where she was preparing her entrance exam to the Sorbonne, she would secretly swear to conquer the capital and know the ecstasy of precocious fame.
It was mid-August, in a half-empty Paris, and instead of being on holiday in the country, Francoise Quoirez had to stay in and study, for she had failed her first attempt to pass her final exam, and would have to sit it again in October. This is also the situation of the brooding young heroine Cecile in Bonjour Tristesse; she is 17, and living with her still- attractive widowed father and his numerous brief conquests.
Quoirez passed her exam easily the second time. With hundreds of other new students, she entered the hallowed lecture halls of the Sorbonne; but study was the last thing on the minds of most of them. "Surprise parties" were the latest thing in daring, especially when strict parents disapproved of them. But Quoirez could now show her true defiant spirit, and entered into the fun with the wild zest that was to mark all her eager youth.
She skipped lectures to sit in pavement cafes and watched the passing show on the boulevards - especially the young men, and indeed some of the older roues who were still presentable. At every opportunity she attended the popular concerts of American jazz at the Vieux Colombier, and danced to Sidney Bechet. Then there would be a mad dash across Paris to be home in time for dinner.
Among her fellow students was Florence Malraux, who became a close friend. They had long discussions about literature, art, films and the theatre. It was these conversations that prompted her to write, under the pen-name Francoise Sagan, in a legible hand in a blue notebook, her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, a light, amusing story with lots of smart talk and sudden gusts of melancholy. It was snapped up at once by the rising publisher Julliard and became a runaway literary sensation, a great best-seller (and still selling).
It was for a while the "authorised version" of French cafe society, and soon conquered most of the rest of the world: in Japan, it appeared as Kanashimi yo Konnichiwa, translated by Asanaga Tomiko, who, when she arrived one afternoon at five to interview the author, found Sagan was wearing only a man's dressing-gown - she had just crawled out of bed after a night on the tiles. …