Saturday, August 27, 2011

Scars on the Soul, by Françoise Sagan

Des bleus à l'âme (1972) arrived in the US as Scars on the Soul in 1974. My copy is a hard-cover that belonged to the Moscow, Idaho Public Library in that same year, its cellophane cover barely held in place by brittle, amber Scotch tape, its borrowers' card still in place.

As the story begins, in March 1971, Ms. Sagan addresses us, her readers, directly.  Ah, a preface by the author, I thought, but no.  She's introducing us to her two protagonists, the striking and elegant Swedish siblings, Eleanor and Sebastien van Milhem, whom she resurrected from a play she'd written years before. Now, in 1971, they are living in Paris, and after each fictional episode she pipes up again to discuss them, and herself.  Ah, my lovely Swedes. How shall I feed them, I wonder? I suppose I shall have to invent a foreigner to do it... Then we return to Sebastien and Eleanor for a while, et voila! A foreigner appears -- an older and wealthy American matron who is utterly entranced with Sebastien. He and Eleanor retire with Mrs. Jedelmann to the seaside for the summer.  And so it goes.  Françoise tells us about the van Milhems, and then she tells us about herself. Is one story fictional?  Both or neither? Or just scales of grey? Since she tells both with such panache, fussing about truth vs. fiction just seems petty.

I cringe when I recall the early 1970s, but then, I was in the United States, where people were wearing bell-bottomed trousers and platform shoes. I believe polyester leisure suits were coming into... popularity.  Coming into fashion or coming into vogue they would never do.  Paris, however, seemed to suffer no such lapse in its senses of chic and dignity. I had to remind myself as I read that the story wasn't taking place decades earlier.

In thinking about this novel, the word 'insouciant' kept coming to mind.  How casually the author flips between her characters' lives and her own narrative, as if she just wants to have the occasional tete-a-tete with the reader, who may not realise the difficulties this novel is giving her.
Beware of gaiety. I distrust that insidious euphoria which, after a difficult beginning, grips a writer at the end of two or three chapters and has him muttering to himself: "Hurray, machinery's getting going again!" or "Hurray, we're off!" Innocent mechanic's phrases, true, but occasionally followed by "Hurray, I won't have to commit suicide after all."

 If Ms. Sagan's style is insouciant, though, the story is not. These characters may affect a carefree attitude, and they may be blithely indifferent to money (or the lack of it), but their lives are far from worry-free.  They've simply mastered the knack of being elegantly impoverished.
"After this lunch, according to my calculations, we'll have about three thousand francs left," Sebastien said, screwing up his eyes against the sun. "You're sure you don't want anything else? In that case, we've got enough for a taxi."

"It doesn't make sense," Eleanor said. "If I'd eaten one of those pastries, a taxi would have been a virtual necessity to get me home. Life is badly arranged." They smiled at one another.  

In one of her own sections, Sagan speaks out in favour of loving with no holds barred, of living in grand, Dionysian style. She's hardly going to tell her languorous Swedes to buck up, be sensible, and get a job.
I'm raving, I'm raving and talking nonsense, but so what! I'm feeling rather carried away, after two days in Paris in the company of sensible, practical people whose lives are so well organised that they're dying at top speed, and even, horror of horrors, aware of what's happening to them.

Françoise Sagan is intimately involved with her characters, unlike the New Novelists, who "play with blank cartridges, defused grenades, leaving their readers to create for themselves characters left undelineated between neutral words..."   She describes her vexing relationships with Eleanor and Sebastien, who, after her painstaking attention, have developed their own personalities. She then wonders, how will I ever get them into the emotional states in which I want them?

I wonder if that's not the perennial Gallic dilemma:  How shall we get through the maelstrom with style?  As Sagan notes, "There are so many different ways of dying and so few of them are elegant."
Suicides are very brave and very blameworthy... but certain decencies, such a simulated accident, in private of course, still seem to me more humane, nicer -- the word is inadequate and that's what I like about it -- than this business of flinging your corpse in people's faces...  Decorum, let's have a little decorum! Just because life is inelegant doesn't mean we have to behave likewise. 

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