No 465 A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan (translated by Irene Ash) #1956Club

The 1956 Club is running this week! The twice-yearly Reading Clubs were devised by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings Every six months a particular year is chosen to encourage fellow bloggers (and anyone online!) to read, discover, explore and share the love of books written in the particular year. 

I first read Françoise Sagan when I was 17 and Bonjour Tristesse was on the French ‘A’ Level syllabus. I adored that story of a bored and manipulative teenager who toys with the lives of the adults around her.

A Certain Smile was Sagan’s follow-up, published when she was just 21, and while it doesn’t have quite the same dramatic narrative drive as Bonjour Tristesse it is still a charming and affecting read.

Dominique is a law student at the Sorbonne. She is bored with her studies and bored with her immature boyfriend Bertrand. She spends her days studying, reading novels, listening to records and idly wondering what to do with her life.

Everything changes for Dominique when Bertrand takes her to lunch with his uncle Luc and Luc’s wife Francoise. Dominique is attracted to this worldly, older man but is also drawn to Francoise, who takes Dominique under her wing and acts as a sort of surrogate mother to her, buying her clothes and offering her advice on life. Dominique is not immune to this attention, as her own mother is distant and cold, never having recovered from the death of a son.

Despite the warmth shown to her by Francoise, Luc and Dominique start an affair – the drama of which punctures Dominque’s boredom and makes her feel seen and alive for the first time.

I was young, I liked one man and another was in love with me. I had one of those silly girlish problems to solve. I was feeling rather important. There was even a married man involved and another woman: a little play with four characters was taking place in the springtime in Paris.

But what begins as a ‘silly girlish problem’ soon becomes all too real for Dominique as her youth and her callow inexperience mean that she is not equipped to deal with the emotional fall out that her romantic affair will bring.

Luc invites her to go on holiday to the Riviera with him for a week on the proviso that she not fall in love with him and that he will be returning to Francoise when the holiday is over. Dominique agrees, but as one week turns into two, she begins to fall in love and realises that what has started as a charming game has become a painful experience which will have emotional consequences not only for herself, but for Francoise as well.

I had not thought this story could have another dimension, unknown to me, ordinary, sad, perhaps pitiable. I had believed it was my story; but I knew nothing of their life.

A Certain Smile shares many of the themes Sagan introduced in Bonjour Tristesse; an absence of morality, a love-triangle, the replacement of a lost mother and the duality of lover and father-figure. It also share the same immediacy of thought and at times reads like a diary, perfectly capturing the dichotomy between youthful romanticism and the reality of complicated adult relationships. It is also suffused with a certain French sensibility, a celebration of boredom as a viable state of being.

Francoise Sagan

What Sagan captures astutely is the nature of love and loss as a formative experience, as something that will define Dominique’s life as she moves on from her affair with Luc. She makes no moral judgements on her characters, openly depicting their intelligence, desire and self-absorption in a way that feels very modern. In some ways, her female protagonists feel like the prototypes for those now found in the work of Sally Rooney or Otessa Moshfegh.

Sagan wrote with a sophistication and insight well beyond her years and A Certain Smile is an evocative and beautifully structured novella that is both searing and detached in its psychological exploration of young love.

It’s been a pleasure to revisit Sagan’s work and am delighted that the 1956 Club gave me the nudge to take this slim but affecting book off my shelves.

Jacqui at JaquiWine’s Journal has written an excellent review of A Certain Smile which you can read here.

read on: book
Number read: 281
number remaining: 465

novels in translation The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

31 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I opted for German A level rather than French, much to the irritation of my French teacher, which might explain why I’ve not read any Sagan. She sounds like an interesting writer though, and I am tempted to give her a go.

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  2. After I read the book I remember going out and buying a black rollneck sweater (not easy to come by in the fifties in my Irish town), a black skirt, and loads of black eye make-up. For months afterwards I drifted around ‘being’ Sagan and boring the pants of everyone. It led to awful rows with my parents who were convinced i was on the slippery downward slope to drug addiction – and even worse. When I eventually got to Paris I found I was only one of hundreds of young girls dressed like left-bank beatniks, smoking Gaulloises and feeling ‘existential’ although I honestly didn’t know what it meant then. Ah! Happy days.

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  3. I haven’t read Sagan yet and must put that right, I love your description ‘a celebration of boredom as a viable state of being’, that is so perfectly teenage!

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  4. I love that photograph of her with her cat at the typewriter! Sagan is an author I’d not even heard of until an English friend introduced me to her work several years ago. It seems strange to think of anyone reading Bonjour Tristesse on a syllabus…wasn’t it a little risque? I mean, for teenagers’ in-class studies? Maybe I’m confusing it with another of Sagan’s (confusion arising from having read too many of her books in a blur once I did discover her)!

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  5. Many years ago, when I was very young, I remember playing a beautiful romantic song “A Cerain Smile” on the piano. Your article recalled the memory, but until now I hadn’t associated with a work of literature.

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