On Françoise Sagan and Sally Rooney

This is a comparative study of two novels by Françoise Sagan (b. 1935, Cajarc, France) and Sally Rooney (b. 1991, County Mayo, Ireland). Just for fun.

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I read Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (2017) straight after consuming her second book Normal People (2018) which my mum had lent me. It was when my parents were down visiting my MA Show in London in July; I stayed with them in a lovely old house in Chelsea and had nice dinners and I felt like a human again after the installation madness. Afterwards, my housemates and I all read her two books one after the other, swapping them between ourselves. A few weeks later, I bought a load of books from Oxfam and among the haul was two short novels by Françoise Sagan: her debut, published when she was only 18, Bonjour tristesse (1954), and her later work that acts as a loose sequel, thematically at least, Un certain sourire (1955).

I was struck by how similar these two books are: Un certain sourire by Sagan and Conversations with Friends by Rooney, written almost 60 years later, have an almost identical plot, characters, themes, emotional landscapes, settings (the European cities of Dublin and Paris). I’m not bothered about copying or plagiarism, as the story of a young girl seduced or seducing an older married man is pretty ubiquitous across literature, film and television etc – indeed in both of the novels the young female protagonist muses about the banality of her romantic angst – but I wanted to contrast and compare the two works as examples of what they say about the respective cultures and intellectual frameworks of their time and place. I think, another thing the two novels have in common, that they are both perfect snapshots of the society they reflect.

I caught sight of myself in the mirror and I saw myself smile. I did nothing to prevent it, I couldn’t anyway. I knew I was alone again. I wanted to say that word over to myself. Alone. Alone. So what? I was a woman who had loved a man. It was a simple enough story. There was no need to make a big deal of it.

Françoise Sagan, ‘Un certain sourire’ (1955)

Here are some of the elements that the books have in common:

  • Both authors were very young at the time of publication, indeed Sally Rooney (only two years older than me) is still very young; Sagan was 19 when Un certain Sourire was published, Rooney 26.
  • Both have a similar cast of characters in a love rectangle: a current boyfriend/girlfriend who is dropped in favour of the older man (Bobbi in CWF, Bertrand in UCS); a maternal, aspirational older woman who becomes a close friend, complicating the relationships (Melissa in CWF, Françoise in UCS); her husband, the sexy older man, paternal but emotionally unavailable or damaged (Nick in CWF, Luc in UCS); and of course the main character, as we see the story through her eyes.
  • The protagonist is young, female, fairly passive, neutral, cynical; she is a student at university but not particularly committed to her studies; not much detail is given about her appearance so we can almost imagine her as the same girl in both books: slim, pale, long dark hair, etc. She goes by Frances in CWF and Dominique in UCS.
  • The protagonist’s psyche is severely disrupted at the onset of the affair; in both cases she falls deeply in love with the older man despite her best efforts to keep it casual; it is unclear for most of the book if he returns her deeper feelings or wants to end the affair. There are instances of depression, eating disorders, self-destructive behaviour, binge-drinking, casual sex as the protagonist spirals into crisis towards the end of the book. This is more dramatic in CWF as it is accompanied by latent mental health issues, and the onset of a painful gynaecological illness.
  • The protagonist also has a problematic or absent family; she struggles to connect with her parents and feels isolated from them. In UCS, Dominique’s parents are so grief-stricken by the death of another child that they can’t communicate with her or the outside world; in CWF Frances’ father is an unreliable alcoholic and she sees her mother infrequently.
  • In both novels, which are set against an urban backdrop, the cities of Dublin and Paris, there is a holiday to France during which the affair deepens into something much more intense, creating a pivotal moment in the plot where, after the trip, nothing can go back to the way it was. The escape to the beautiful beaches of Cannes or Étables-sur-Mer seems to afford the characters a freedom to plunge into emotional depths that would have been inconceivable in their normal lives.
  • There is an inevitable confrontation between Frances/Dominique and the twice-betrayed wife; a raw and emotional scene in both cases where the protagonist is faced with the consequences of her actions, the thing she was most scared of happening.

So we can establish that there is an uncanny formal similarity between the novels. Now let’s consider, outwith this narrative framework, how the stories reflect their place and time of origin, and here break apart from each other:

  • Sex. It is understandable that the sex in Rooney’s book is much more explicit than Sagan’s, with the intimate moments told in a matter-of-fact, straight-forward style that seems quite modern. In Sagan, the narrator as a young girl who is fairly sexually autonomous and enthusiastically having affairs with married men means UCS had a very trigger-happy 1950’s translator who censored large parts of the central relationship, having Luc touch Dominique’s ‘arm’ instead of her ‘hip’, for example. So, UCS was more racy than it may appear at first sight, and CWF isn’t shockingly explicit when you think about it, more concerned with the psychology of the characters and how sex forms part of their relationship.
  • Sexuality. It’s all very millennial but Frances in CWF is previously in a same-sex long-term relationship with Bobbi, with whom she still maintains an intense friendship and creative partnership. Bobbi drives a lot of the plot forwards and is a more active character than Frances, and refuses to be consigned to a side-note of abandoned lover, as it is easy to do with her counterpart, the drippy Bertrand. This fluidity reflects our current understanding of sexuality as much as Dominique’s promiscuity reflected her amoral, existential, postwar intellectual context.
  • Mental illness. In CWF there is straightforward use of the contemporary language and understanding of psychological disorders such as anorexia or depression, we now have lots of words to describe exactly what we mean by a certain behaviour or problem, and the reader will understand exactly. One of the characters has spent time in psychiatric wards and has attempted suicide, another struggles with addiction, and as we spend the whole novel inside the mind of Frances, we start to feel like we’re observing a case study on depression and anxiety. The whole thing is enunciated very clearly. In UCS, whatever issues we can now post-diagnose, the inner world of Dominique is better characterised as a general Sartrean nausea, a profound disconnect from her reality and feelings.

Unfortunately, both stories have a happy ending – or at least, not a miserable ending. What I mean by that is (spoilers) at the end of both novels, the adulterous affair continues in some way. In UCS, Dominique makes plans to go out with Luc later that day, and it is ambiguous what will happen between them, but no resolute break-up is affirmed despite her emotional roller-coasters. She seems to have gained control over her feelings in the final scene, but whether this means she has fallen out of love with Luc or not is unclear.

As for Frances, she and Nick do decide to carry on their relationship but it doesn’t seem likely to have a great outcome to anyone with any sense. There’s a suggestion that the pair and Melissa the wife are entering into a poly-amorous arrangement which might suit them longer term, who knows. I feel fundamentally that both relationships are likely to quickly run their course, and a more realistic and poignant ending for both would be the end of the affair, the pain and heartbreak but eventual maturation and development of character or independence for the protagonist. I think that’s closer to real life, and much more sympathetic. The ending, especially in CWF, feels too much like fantasy wish-fulfillment (rather like Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor of 1857, in which the author imagines a perfect affair with a teacher that she had loved without reciprocation). For UCS, it feels a little more transgressive, considering the 1950’s setting.

After the realism of the rest of the story, the fairy-tale ending of the protagonist getting to keep her man feels against all logic, and instead of frustrated eye-rolling I would have liked to empathise more deeply with Frances/Dominique. I would have liked to respect her for surviving the kind of brutal heart-break that we wouldn’t wish anyone to go through, but we all need to overcome in order to cope with the world.

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