A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan

Francois Sagan caused quite a sensation on the publication of her first novel, “Bonjour Tristesse“, in 1954 when she was just 18. Her second book, “A Certain Smile” followed in 1956 and was equally controversial. My copies of the stories are in one lovely World Books volume and WIT month seemed like a good time to pick it up.

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“A Certain Smile” is narrated by Dominique, a young woman studying law in Paris at the Sorbonne. It is the 1950s and she spends much of her time with her lover Bertrand in what is recognisably a cafe society. The couple jog along, but there is a sense that Dominique is somewhat detached from life and love, and her relationship with Bertrand doesn’t strike the reader as having great passion. However, when she meets Bertrand’s uncle Luc and Luc’s wife Francoise, things change dramatically.

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Dominique and the older Luc are obviously instantly mutually attracted, but Dominique is unsure of herself and unwilling to take things any further because of her liking of Francoise. However, after much angst and soul-searching, the pair become lovers, eventually spending two week in Cannes, and declaring that they will not fall in love. Alas, things are not that simple – Dominique is younger and less experienced at affairs, and not as in control of her emotions as she thought…

Sometimes in exasperation I wanted to say to him: “Why can’t you love me? It would be so much more restful for me.” But I knew this was impossible. Ours was more an affinity than a passion, and neither of us could ever bear to be dominated by the other. Luc had neither the opportunity, the strength, nor the desire for a closer relationship.”

On the surface, then, this is a seemingly straightforward novel about a younger woman having an affair with an older man. However, there are undercurrents. Dominique is a complicated character, seemingly indifferent to much around her and driven by a kind of existentialist ennui. In fact, boredom seems to be the strongest motivating force – neither Dominique nor Luc can bear to be bored, and this is what attracts them to each other and eventually unites them.

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And Bertrand is, frankly, boring. Even though he’s young and good-looking, the older, uglier Luc is more attractive – perhaps because of his air of worldly weariness, perhaps just because Dominique recognises a kindred soul. Her behaviour could seem callous; after all, she’s betraying Francoise, who’s become very attached to her, as well as Bertrand. But Luc has had affairs before, and probably will continue to do so; whereas Dominique is ready to fall in love, and is tormented because she knows Luc cannot and will not love her, and there’s no question of him leaving his wife. Inevitably, Bertrand and Dominique split. The affair with Luc comes out, and then ends, and Dominique is left to pick up the threads of her life again.

Happiness is like a flat plain without landmarks. That is why I have no precise memory of my stay in Cannes except those few unhappy moments, Luc’s laughter, and the pathetic scent of fading mimosa in our room at night. Perhaps, for people like myself, happiness signifies a bolder attitude towards the tedium of everyday existence.

“A Certain Smile” is an absorbing novel, lifted above realms of just romantic fiction by Sagan’s writing, her evocation of place and time, and the dimension she allows her characters. All are well-developed and believable, all struggling with the business of living, and the story is entirely convincing. Her understanding of the problem that boredom with life can be is striking; something of a first-world problem, maybe, but a very real one. If I have any reservations it would be that there’s a distance here somewhere, a slight coldness in the book that kept me from feeling a real warmth and sympathy towards Dominique, but I haven’t quite worked out where that comes from. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed my sojourn in 1950s France and I’m sure I’ll be returning to the other Sagans I have!

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