Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan tr. Irene Ash #WITMonth

Bonjour TristesseRachel Cooke in this Guardian article The subtle art of translation reflects on the importance of the right translation and relates her memory of reading Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse.

Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart.

She decides to splash out and buy a new copy to read and chooses the Penguin Modern Classics version translated by Heather Lloyd.

Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it.

Françoise Sagan

Author, Françoise Sagan

For a while she continued to read it, telling herself it was stupid to cling to one version, as if it were a sacred thing, however she gave up, it may have been an accurate translation but it lacked the magic of that fist reading experience. She ends by saying that if you tried this story and hated it, to please have another go and entrust yourself to Irene Ash’s gorgeous 1955 translation.

Having read the article, I had no hesitation in going straight for the Irene Ash translation and was transfixed from the very first pages, totally put under the spell of this charming little novella.

Cecile is looking back and recalling the summer she was seventeen, when she and her father spent 2 months on the French Riveria near St Raphael, having a blissful holiday. He is a widower who doesn’t lack for female company and she has just finished school and lives a life of privilege and indulgence, her father imposing few if any limits on her, they are in a sense like children both of them in adult bodies.

He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, for which we had been longing since the spring.It was remote and beautiful, and stood on a promontory dominating the sea, hidden from the road by a pine wood; a mule path led down to a tiny creek where the sea lapped against rust-coloured rocks.

She is surprised to enjoy the company of a young man Cyril, preferring the company of more mature men and her father’s friends, and discovers she quite likes the attentions of this young man who is falling in love with her and she with him.

CalanquesIt should have been perfect, but things change when an old friend of her mother’s Anne arrives and she and her father announce their intention to marry. Although it is actually something Cecile feels is right for them and she adores Anne, part of her resents what signifies to her the end to the playful era she and her father have indulged, for Anne’s presence in their lives will certainly bring order and sensibility.

Yes, it was for this I reproached Anne: she prevented me from liking myself. I, who was so naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced by her into a world of self-criticism and guilty conscience, where, unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost. And what did she bring me? I took stock: She wanted my father, she had got him. She would gradually make of us the husband and step-daughter of Anne Larsen; that is to say, she would turn us into two civilised, well-behaved and happy people.

She embarks on a plan to provoke a change in this happy little situation, instantly regretting it, but unable to halt the progress of a development she has initiated.

Tears came into my eyes at the thought of the jokes we used to have together, our laughter as we drove home at dawn through the empty streets of Paris. All that was over. In my turn I would be influenced, re-oriented, remodelled by Anne. I would not even mind it, she would act with intelligence, irony and sweetness, and I would be incapable of resistance; in six months I should no longer even wish to resist.

It is a simple storyline, but what makes it incredible are the adept insights Cecile has into herself and her behaviour and to all those around her. She acts irresponsibly as if she is unable to help herself, but with a certain equanimity, it is as if she stands outside of herself and narrates events and what is driving each character to act their part in her little drama, which will escalate into tragedy.

Utterly engaging, I was riveted, loved that ability her character had to understand the personalities around her and her own flaws, despite being unable to stop the mischief she provoked, not to mention that this was written when the author was only 18 years old.

Buy Bonjour Tristesse from Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

 

29 thoughts on “Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan tr. Irene Ash #WITMonth

  1. Lovely review, Claire. Points out the importance of the translator very well. I have an ancient copy of this sitting on my shelves – luckily the Ash translation – which I read so long ago I barely remember it. I must dig it out. The new translation’s jacket is very seductive, I have to say!

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  2. Great review🙂 it’s made me want to revisit the book – I loved it. I found your thoughts on the translation really interesting. I read the Heather Lloyd translation and, if memory serves me correctly, in her note at the beginning of the book she mentioned that Irene Ash edited parts of her translation, leaving out or amending parts that she thought were too explicit. Which I found really interesting. I’d be interested to read Ash’s translation to compare. I’m glad you enjoyed the book🙂

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    • That’s interesting because I note it scandilised 1950’s France and the blurb focuses on her ‘rejection of conventional notions of love, marriage and responsibility to choose her own sexual freedom’, something that I didn’t find strongly prevalent in the novel, though her permissiveness may have been shocking for the time. She was certainly a product of her upbringing and the novel is more about that moment of regret that will forever etch sadness into her psyche. I can’t compare the translations as this is the first I’ve read, however I’m tempted to read the French version to see how that reads!

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    • I was wondering why there was another translation but then read that due to its explicit scenes the first English translation had a number of scenes cut out, which is clearly the one I’ve read and kind of explains my confusion as to why it so scandalised the French.

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  3. Translation is a very special skill. I’ll look again at Bonjour Tristesse, which I haven’t read since I was a teenager. I know that much of my trouble with Russian novels comes from the fact that I often find the versions I’ve attempted seem wooden, and – um – read like translations.

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  4. Fascinating review Claire! I read the Ash translation and loved it, but I had no idea she’d edited parts out, what a shame. From the sentence you quoted I’m not tempted by the new translation, but it would be good to access the ‘missing’ scenes. Translation is such an underestimated art.

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    • I agree totally, I wish we could Irene Ash’s version of the complete novel without the cuts. It kinds of explains the disconnect between the blurb and the book, as there wasn’t really anything all that shocking in it(despite the claim that it shocked French society at the time of publication) and especially knowing that the French have a relatively high threshold for things in the realm of moral indignation. A much underestimated art indeed.

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  5. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, this little book.
    And I am immediately reminded of the wonderful ”The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” – Carson McCullers was not eighteen but twenty three, which is still pretty young..

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  6. Great review, Claire! I loved this novella and I don’t know which translation I read but it was a German one. However I remember the setting and mood were perfectly captured!

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  7. Thank you Claire for this great review. It is time for me to pick up a copy again, I will look for Irene Ash.
    I remember my mother would not allow me to read this novel at 16🙂
    If I can find it in French it would be great.

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  8. Wonderful review, Claire! I will look for the Irene Ash translation when I plan to read Bonjour Tristesse. I loved reading your thoughts on the two different translations. I feel that sometimes it is better to leave a translation alone rather than tamper with and try to make it more accurate. I remember when Richard Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace appeared many readers and critics criticized that it didn’t read as well as Rosemary Edmonds’ translation of it. To which Pevear replied that his translation was more accurate. So I can imagine how Rachel Cooke felt. Thanks for this wonderful review.

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    • Thank you for your wonderful comment and for sharing that insight regarding the over-rating of accuracy in translations of literature. It’s certainly true that straight translations don’t work, language is as much a way of thinking and seeing the world as it is simple vocabulary and words. I haven’t made a lot of comparisons nor read too many books where there are multiple translations available, so this one was interesting in that respect and I definitely went for the more elevating text. One I do remember where it was discussed, was my readalong of Eugene Onegin, I hadn’t thought about it at all but was intrigued by the discussion with others relating to which version they were reading.

      I hope you find Bonjour Tristesse and enjoy reading it Vishy.

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      • I loved what you said about language, Claire – so beautifully put! Interesting to know about the conversation you had on translation during the Eugene Onegin readalong. I have two different translations of Jean Paul Sartre’s The Words. Interestingly the American translation reads beautifully while the British translation in clunky and unwieldy. I don’t know which is the more accurate one, but I prefer the one which reads beautifully🙂

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  9. Pingback: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Finally a chance to read your review, Claire. I’ve been out for most of the day (and had been holding off till my own post went live), so this is my first opportunity to see what you made of it.

    Children in adult bodies – yes, that’s a great description. I also like this:

    “It is a simple storyline, but what makes it incredible are the adept insights Cecile has into herself and her behaviour and to all those around her.”

    Yes, I agree – the narrative seems quite straightforward at first sight, but there is a real subtlety in the way Sagan offers a window into Cecile’s inner thoughts. A great book if only I’d read it as a teenager…

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