I have unexpectedly come upon a large chunk of free time, so I thought I would use it to improve my French. The book is called Bonjour Tristesse by François Sagan. I’m going to remix the novel a bit for my own enjoyment. I’m thinking a version set in our era, but with a retro feel, lots of neon, lots of sun and beaches, lots of driving along the coast. French Riviera, go!
I’m obsessed by this feeling. Boredom… Calm… I don’t know if I’d call it sadness. That would be too beautiful, too serious. This feeling is so selfish that I’m almost ashamed to feel it… and sadness always seemed to me to be more honorable than that. I’ve never had this before… and I’ve felt boredom, regret, even remorse. Today it folds over me like silk, soft and irritating, separating me from them.
This summer I was seventeen and I was really happy. ‘Them’ refers to my dad, and Elsa, his mistress. I should explain straight away how we lived, because it wasn’t normal. My dad was forty, a widower for fifteen years. He was still young and full of life, of possibility. When I left the school to join him two years before that, I didn’t know he was living with a woman. And it took me longer to accept that the woman changed every six months. But it soon seduced me, this new and easy life, it suited me. He was an easy guy, skilled at business, always curious and quickly bored, and the ladies adored him. I had no trouble loving him, really caring, because he was good, generous, fun, and he was full of affection for me. I can’t imagine a better or more entertaining friend. At the beginning of summer he was even kind enough to ask if Elsa, his current mistress, could come with us on holiday, whether it would annoy me. I actually encouraged him, I had to, because I knew he needed women, and besides Elsa wouldn’t tire us out at all. She was a tall, red-haired girl, very sexy but down to earth, who worked all along the Champs-Elysées in bars and studios. She was kind, quite simple and not very pretentious. Anyway, me and my dad were too happy to be heading out to complain about anything. He’d rented a big white villa on the coast of the mediterranean, isolated and beautiful. We’d been dreaming about it since the first hot days of June. It was built on a promontory overlooking the sea, hidden from the road by a small wood of pine trees – a path down the cliff lead to a small golden cove, lined with red stone where the waves crashed and fell. Dad said we should leave our phones behind, and I loved the idea. I wanted the holiday to soak into us and leave us changed.
Cut to Opening Credit Music QUEUE TITLE CARD – HELLO SADNESS over scenes of a dusty sunlit drive to the villa. Is this Los Angeles or France?
The first days there were stunning. We spent hours on the beach, flattened by the heat, hour by hour taking on a healthy and golden colour, except Elsa who reddened and painfully peeled. My dad did complicated leg exercises to try and ward off the beginning of a belly which didn’t really go with his Don Juan lifestyle. From dawn I was in the sea, buried in the cold and clear water, cleaning myself of all the shadows and dust of Paris swimming random lengths around the bay. Stretching out on the sand, I grabbed fistfuls of it and let it escape between my fingers in a soft yellow stream… thinking it was like the passing of time, an easy thought. It was nice to have easy thoughts. It was summer.
On the sixth day I saw Salil for the first time. He was passing along the coast on a small sailboat when he capsized just outside our inlet. I helped him to round up his things and while we were laughing I learned his name, that he was a law student and that he was staying with his mother in a neighboring villa. He sounded Moroccan, his face very dark, very open, and there was something balanced about him, protective, which I liked. I was trying to avoid university students. They were rude, obsessed with themselves, and most of all obsessed with their youth, making it into a drama, or an excuse for their boredom. Youth was not attractive. I preferred my dad’s friends, forty year old men who talked politely to me, paid me attention, showed the softness of a father or of a lover. But I liked Salil. He was tall and sometimes handsome, and had a beauty that gave me confidence. I didn’t tell dad that our dislike of ugliness meant we often visited stupid people. I also didn’t mention that when we visited people with no physical attractiveness whatsoever I felt kind of awkward, felt something missing – their resignation to being ugly seemed to me to be a kind of rudeness or weakness. Because what did we look for in life, other than being liked? I still don’t know today if this love of seduction hid an overflowing of life, a taste for domination, or a deep need to be sure of myself, to be confirmed.
Before Salil left, he offered to teach me to sail. I went back in for dinner absorbed in thoughts about him, and didn’t join in the conversation – I barely noticed how tense my dad was. After dinner, we lay out on the sofas on the terrace like we did every evening. The sky was scattered with stars. I watched them, vaguely hoping that some would begin to fall and sail across the sky. But it was only the beginning of July, too early for that. They didn’t budge. In the gravel round the terrace crickets were singing. There must have been thousands, drunk on the heat and the moon, to let out such a strange cry through the night. Someone had explained to me that it was only them scraping one front leg against the other, but I preferred to believe that it was a deep, throaty singing, instinctive like a cat in heat. Everything was great – only a few grains of sand between my skin and my dress defended me from the tender assaults of sleep. Finally, my father cleared his throat and sat up on his sun lounger.
– I should let you know that we will soon have a visitor, he said.
I closed my eyes in despair. We were too peaceful, it could never have lasted.
– Come on, tell us who it is, said Elsa, always ready for gossip.
– Anne Larsen, said my father, turning towards me.
I looked at him, too stunned to react.
– I told her to come if she got too bored with her collections and she sent an email… she’s coming.
It came out of the blue. Anne Larsen was an old friend of my poor mum, and only had a few connections with my father. Anyway, when I’d left the school two years earlier, my father found me a nuisance and sent me to her. In one week she had me dressed well and taught me to live. I began to passionately admire her, and she easily guided my feelings towards a young man among her friends. So I owed my style and my first love to her, and she knew it. At forty-two, she was a very seductive woman, very refined, with a proud and beautiful face, weary and indifferent. That indifference was the only thing I could complain about. She was lovable, and distant. Everything about her was strong willed, and her calmness was intimidating. Although she was divorced and free, she never seemed to us to have a partner. But we didn’t really share the same friends. She hung out with sharp, intelligent, understated, people, and ours were loud and thirsty – my father wanted them to be either beautiful or funny. I think she distrusted us a bit, my father and me, for our bias towards useless pleasures, which she hated. All we had in common were business dinners (she worked in fashion and my father in advertising) memories of my mum, and my efforts to live, because although she intimidated me, I admired her a lot. But in the end this sudden arrival was annoying, since Elsa was already there and I knew Anne’s ideas about how my education should go…
Elsa went upstairs to bed after a crowd of questions about Anne and her situation in the world. I stayed alone with my dad, and went to sit on the steps at his feet. He leant down and rested his hands on my shoulders.
– Why are you so skinny, sweetheart? You’re like a little wild cat. I want a beautiful blonde girl, a bit stronger, with bright white eyes and…
– That’s not the question, I said. Why did you invite Anne? And why did she even agree to come?
– To see your old dad, maybe. I never know.
– You’re not the kind of person that interests Anne, I said. She’s too intelligent, she’s got too much self respect. And what about Elsa? Did you think about her? Can you imagine conversations between Anne and Elsa? Me neither!
– Yeah, I didn’t really think about that, he admitted. It is really a bit disconcerting. Cecil, my darling, what if we just go back to Paris?
He laughed softly while rubbing my neck. I turned to look at him. His dark eyes sparkling, small odd wrinkles marking their corners, his mouth raised up a bit. He looked a bit like a faun. I laughed with him, like I did each time he found himself in a complicated situation.
– My old partner in crime, he said. What would I do without you?
And the tone of his voice was so truthful, so caring, that I knew he would be unhappy without me. We spoke of love and its complications late into the night. In my father’s eyes, they were imaginary. He denied the ideals of faith, seriousness, and engagement. He explained to me that they were pointless and dead. From anyone but him, this would have shocked me. But I knew that for him, this didn’t exclude caring, or devotion, feelings that he found a lot easier to come by than he would have liked, since he knew they were temporary. And this idea seduced me – short, fast, violent relationships. I was not old enough to be attracted by the idea of faithfulness. I knew little of love – of sly meetings, of kisses – and tiredness.