Françoise Sagan lived an ostentatious and radical lifestyle when she was not working on a collection of dozens of plays, novels, and short stories, CHARLIE CONNELLY reports.
On the afternoon of September 14, 1957, Françoise Sagan was at the wheel of her Aston Martin barrelling along the D448 just outside Paris. Egged on by the three friends with her, the 22-year-old pressed her foot deeper on the accelerator. This is living, she thought as the engine roared, this is being alive.
Sagan was celebrating the completion of her third novel and still riding the wave of success prompted by her extraordinary 1954 debut, Bonjour Tristesse, success that had made her not only immensely wealthy but determined to plunge headlong into that wealth and live as fast as possible. Parties, casinos, drink, drugs, fast cars, a Left Bank apartment: if there was a dream to be lived this was it.
She was heading south out of Paris along a road that followed the course of the Seine. Near the village of Corbeil-Essonnes was a bend sharper than she anticipated and the Aston Martin shot off the road, mounted an embankment, rolled down the other side and came to rest upside down in a field. Her passengers emerged from the wreckage with cuts and bruises but Sagan was trapped unconscious in the driver’s seat with a fractured skull and internal injuries. It would take 40 minutes to free her and she wouldn’t regain consciousness until late the following day. One of the first things she did when she opened her eyes was quote the 18th century writer Nicolas Chamfort: “God deliver me from physical sufferings,” she croaked. “I’ll take care of the moral ones.”
If Françoise Sagan had been born a decade later she would have suited the 1960s perfectly. As it was she was a trailblazer for the kind of fiercely independent woman who lit up the following decade by eschewing tradition and battering through taboos. Sagan was always a precocious literary talent, but that precocity extended even to the kind of life she lived.
Bonjour Tristesse, in which a 17-year-old girl holidays on the Cote d’Azur with her widowed playboy father and his new girlfriend and embarks on her own emotional and sexual awakening, was as condemned for its scandalous mores as it was praised for its brilliance. “Literary merit explodes from the very first page and is beyond dispute,” gushed Nobel prize-winner Francois Mauriac in Le Figaro, while in Le Monde novelist Émile Henriot’s sneery review dismissed the book as “immoral”.
Published less than a decade after the end of the war, the book was a banner at the head of the march of a new French generation. Forward-looking, comfortable in its own skin and determined to set its own agendas and boundaries, this was French youth at its most vibrant and alive and in Sagan they had the perfect spokeswoman.
“It was inconceivable that a young girl of 17 or 18 should make love without being in love with a boy of her own age and not be punished for it,” she wrote of the strict Catholic mentality that dominated France in the 1950s.
“People couldn’t tolerate the idea that the girl should not fall madly in love with the boy and not be pregnant by the end of the summer. It was unacceptable too that a young girl should have the right to use her body as she liked and derive pleasure from it without incurring some kind of penalty.”
It’s an argument still pertinent and necessary today, and in the France of the 1950s it was practically revolutionary, making Bonjour Tristesse a key landmark in French social and cultural history.
“It wasn’t bad, it was an honest job,” Sagan said of her debut, which sold nearly half a million copies in its first two years. “I’ve read Proust and Stendhal, which keeps you in your place.”
Sagan had been a voracious reader from her earliest childhood and in her teens had consumed everything she could by Proust, Stendhal, Gide and Camus. Fearsomely intelligent, school had consistently failed to challenge and engage her (she was expelled twice, the second time for hanging a bust of Molière from a staircase in a mock execution) to the point where in the summer of 1952 she was forced to miss the family summer holiday to re-sit her baccalauréat. Having scraped through – after making the most of an unsupervised summer in Paris – she was accepted into the Sorbonne where for two years her life became a whirl of cafes and clubs, smoking and drinking to a soundtrack of Sidney Bechet.
Realising at the end of her second year that she was on the point of expulsion she opened a blue exercise book and started to write and, after two months of writing and another month “typing with two fingers” she had the finished manuscript of Bonjour Tristesse.
“Instead of leaving for Chile with a band of gangsters one stays in Paris and writes a novel,” she later told the Paris Review. “That seems to me a great adventure.”
In January 1954 the 19-year-old dropped the manuscript off at the Paris office of the publisher René Julliard and within days received a telegram asking her to contact them urgently. An advance of 50,000 francs was negotiated – “that’s a lot of money for a young woman,” said her father, “I suggest that you blow it” – and at her parents’ request she adopted a nom-de-plume. She thought about her love for Proust, remembered the princess from À la recherche du temps perdu and turned Françoise Quoirez, daughter of an industrialist from Lyon, into Françoise Sagan, author.
Sagan would go on to produce 20 novels, three volumes of short stories, nine plays, two biographies and several non-fiction collections but Bonjour Tristesse was destined to remain her masterpiece and best-known work. She took the instant celebrity, infamy and wealth in her stride, becoming a regular at gaming tables and in nightclubs, leaving her sports car outside venues not so much parked as abandoned. Yet despite her ostentatious lifestyle she retained the cachet of the underground and the radical: during the Paris student uprising of 1968 she dropped off some protestors at a rally where the speaker asked: “Have you come in your Ferrari, Comrade Sagan?” “No,” she waved back, “it’s a Maserati.”
So scrutinised was she, particularly in the early days of her fame, that even her 1957 car accident was treated by the media as an event of national significance that was even debated by philosophers. No matter, as soon as she was well enough she was back behind the wheel of a succession of souped-up sports cars. “Whoever has not thrilled to speed has not thrilled to life,” she wrote during the 1980s. “However madly and hopelessly in love you may be, at 120 miles an hour you are less so. Your blood no longer congeals around your heart; your blood throbs to the extremities of your body, to your fingertips, your toes and your eyelids, now the fateful and tireless guardians of your own life.”
Not long after the accident she married her first husband, a literary editor 20 years her senior, and when that ended after two years she had an 11-month marriage to a Paris-based American sculptor that produced her son, Denis. There was also a string of lovers purportedly including Jean-Paul Sartre, Tennessee Williams and François Mitterrand, the latter a lifelong friend. Arguably the most significant relationship of her life, however, was with the fashion stylist Peggy Roche with whom she shared a grand Paris residence for many years, but when Roche died of pancreatic cancer in 1991 it triggered a downward spiral in sharp contrast to the carefree years of Sagan’s youth.
In 1990 she had received a hefty fine and suspended prison sentence when a police raid unearthed a huge stash of cocaine in her home and by the turn of the millennium she was heavily in debt, facing a ruinous bill for unpaid taxes and caught up in a fraud investigation centred on Mitterrand. Her final years were spent, for the first time in her adult life, out of the public eye at her house near Honfleur on the Normandy coast. When the extent of her financial problems and her failing health emerged two years before her death, such was her standing as a French cultural figure there were calls to cancel her tax bill and even award her some kind of stipend to ensure her last years were comfortable.
“Françoise Sagan may owe some money to the state but France owes her much more in return for the prestige that her talent has earned the country from all over the world,” said the actress Isabelle Adjani. The calls were unsuccessful and Sagan eventually died at home, practically penniless and isolated, with just a protective housekeeper for company. In the eyes of France, however, she remains the fast-living, fast-driving woman of letters who helped the sun come out on post-war French youth. For them at least, she always stayed young.
“For me she never grew up, she was always about 12 years old,” said her friend Juliette Gréco after her death. “She just did what she wanted.”