Françoise Sagan The Painted Lady; E.P. Dutton; New York.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem is reported to have told his catechumens that “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” In addition to such spiritual leaders, writers of many persuasions have for centuries reminded their readers of the presence of evil and the eternal dimension of the human dilemma. Whether in the realistic, romantic, or satiric mode, the man or woman of letters has constantly been concerned with the significance of life and spirit. The writer can be Cervantes following the idealistic Quixote or Shakespeare writing about the anguished Lear and the implication will be basically the same: human actions have an importance beyond the immediate, a meaning far above the trivialities of the moment.
Modern fiction, however, has increasingly been devoid of such a moral perspective. All too often, contemporary novels are populated by thinly drawn sideshow curiosities who jump through a series of social and sexual hoops, all directed by an authorial ringmaster taking his bows in front of an enraptured audience of academics and journalists who act as shills to invite the book-buying rubes into the tent of the literarily initiated, where Norman Mailer, Erica Jong, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, Raymond Carver, and others go through their routines. The readers have been bamboozled into thinking that they have encountered the dragon, but they have really only looked at a freak.
A case in point is Françoise Sagan, who, almost three decades ago, at age 19, gave a war-weary generation a delicious shudder or two and made herself a darling of the Sunday supplement with the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, her first novel, which sold a million copies in its first year. Bonjour Tristesse tells the story of a naïve twit of 17 whose father has a perverse compulsion to tell her all about his sexual adventures. When he decides to marry one of his mistresses (to whom his daughter is also strongly attached), the girl breaks up the marriage, and the lover dies in an auto accident. The book is as thin in plot, theme, and characterization as it is in size.
In this first novel, Sagan established the hallmarks which were to characterize her fiction: static and pointless plots, meager characterization, overtones of perversion and decadence, and a weary nihilism. When she appeared on the literary scene, there were those who expected a great deal from her. They were to be deeply disappointed. “I haven’t often been taken seriously, and it’s understandable,” she has complained, “but it should be realized that it was difficult in 1954 (my hour of glory) for me to choose between the two roles offered me: scandalous writer or conventional young girl.” Apparently she never decided what she wanted to be, and the indecision has stunted her growth as a writer; she has never matured into an artist.
The Painted Ladyis Sagan’s twelfth novel and her eleventh rewriting of Bonjour Tristesse. Having found a slick commercial formula so early in her career, she has pretty much exhausted its potential. In A Certain Smile, her second book, she develops an affair between a young student and a tired middle-aged man whom the girl sees as a kind of father figure; in Amiez-vous Brahms? there’s a young man who falls in love with a businessman’s aging mistress; in other novels, including La Chamade, The Wonderful Clouds, The Heart-Keeper, and Scars on the Soul, the characters, themes, and plots all seem to be drawn from the same bin of interchangeable parts. The ennui and decadence of these people give them no “basic reason for living, which, if they really think about it, is no more than an intake of breath, the flutter of a pulse, and now and then a moment’s ecstasy at the contemplation of a garden, a person, or a plan, however ridiculous.” Or, as with the main characters in La Chamade, “a day could not die when they were not obliged to admit to themselves, again and again, that nothing else was true; nothing had value except the moment they were living then.” Sagan’s characters are rootless, shallow, two-dimensional; with little of any real value in their lives, they drift from lover to lover, from thrill to thrill (mostly sexual) without pleasure, understanding, or meaning. The world is a place in which love and the other virtues are futile, and hence relief from the ache of existence can be found only in trivia. Sagan’s work is permeated with the philosophical weariness that pervades so much of late-20th -century literature.
The sins of the earlier novels are liberally visited upon The Painted Lady. In this story 10 jet-setters start out on a 10-day round-tripe cruise from Cannes to Palma on a pleasure liner aptly named Narcissus. These are the “chic, elegant people” among a “boatload of octogenarians, of snobs and would-be aesthetes.” This herd of hedonists is shepherded by a captain whose outstanding trait is “simple, in aptitude for navigation,” and his pursuer, a homosexual whose greatest moment in life occurred at Capri on another voyage when, “dressed as a gypsy maiden,” he danced “the cha-cha-cha with a muscular Capriot.”
The passengers on Narcissus represent a circle of fools who employ the collective follies of mankind, a technique Sagan has clumsily borrowed from a long tradition beginning with Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenshiff (The Ship of Fools, 1494) down to Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools (1962). There is an aging conductor for whom sex is just as agonizing memory, now confronted by his former paramour, a sexual predator and opera star on the sunset side of 50, “a woman famed not only for her extraordinary voice and the art with which she used it but also for her taste for scandal, for men, her scorn for gossip, and her excesses, her rages, her extravagance, her manias, her charm.” We also meet a sugar baron, who is really “a heap of living ash,” and his bland wife. Among the rest are the owner (through a rich father-in-law) of a chic leftist periodical and a “cashmere Communist . . . who had never been cold, hungry, or thirsty.” His wife is “the painted lady” of 32, a decadent heiress with “a face already grotesquely thick and gleaming with make-up; for this diffident upper-class lady painted herself like a whore and, according to the gossip columns she also drank like a fish, drugged herself like a Chinaman and was, in short, systematically destroying herself and her marriage.” Two other curiosities are a befuddled filmmaker and his latest find, a moral frappé who is touted as the “hope of the French cinema.” This circle of moral vacuities is completed by a young French gigolo who has “to watch his waistline, take some calcium, have that incisor straightened, and give his always-fragile blond hair a light shampoo,” and an Australian swindler posing as an art appraiser.
Having given us this cast of lotus-eaters, Sagan does almost nothing with them. We are turned back and forth from one grouping of people to another in a series of episodes rarely connected with any coherent manner. These characters do very little except drink, flirt, listen idly to the music of the conductor and the opera singer, talk about love and life and art and all that, lounge in their deck chairs, and go to bed, always with their neuroses and sometimes with each other. When they try to think, they produce only intellectual cotton candy, as when the title character says that “the meaning of life was there in that inviolable innocence of the human being, in the accepted but fleeting course of life, in the merciful inevitability of death, in something else which for her was not God, but about which at this precise moment she felt just as certain as those who apparently believed in the existence of God.” Or the filmmaker, bored with his frothy starlet and feeling that his career is stymied, talks about art in banalities: “he felt an immense hunger and a vast humility toward these towering peaks of Art, living monuments, these fabulous treasures he had neither the time nor the opportunity to discover. He felt starved for literature, for painting, for music. Finally everything seemed infinitely desirable to him, for it was only to the extent they could be realized that [he] gave way to his desires. . . . For [him], the Pantheon and its illustrious dead had finally reached a level of prestige comparable to United Artists and its cops.”
And this is about as far as things go. These caricatures do nothing more than scratch their anxieties and pick the scabs of their memories. Even the painted lady, who tires to escape the emptiness of her husband’s fashionable Marxism, finds no excitement in contemplating a divorce and a romantic flight with the swindler. The gigolo is taunted out of the singer’s bed, commits suicide, and leaves behind him only the unrequited sexual hunger of the pursuer. The singer blithely heads for concerts in New York, totally unconcerned with her abasement of others. The degeneracy of these people, Sagan seems to be saying, is emblematic of a larger world for which there is no possible redemption. None of these characters has any spiritual sources to draw upon as they un their sex- and money-obsessed world. Life is a rotten deal, and the only way to escape is through sex or perversion. The lack of values in Sagan’s fictional world is best demonstrated by a woman’s callous comment in La Chamade as she contemplates an abortion: “a child ties one down terribly, you know.”
Perhaps the problem is that Sagan, like so many modern writers, doesn’t really know what she wants to door where she stands philosophically. Her characters are ripe for satire they have vices and foibles which would make a Johnson, a Swift, or a Waugh reach quickly for his pen. But she seems to like her people too much, and she cannot subject them to ridicule. Perhaps she has fallen into the same condition she has noted in other modern novelists: “they play with blank cartridges, defused grenades, leaving to their readers to create for themselves characters left un-delineated between neutral worlds, while they, the authors, openly wash their hands of them. . . . Give me a Balzac, who weeps over his heroines, his tears falling into his coffee, or give me a Proust, who in his obsession with detail leaves no room for development.” In the same book (Scars on the Soul), she unwittingly describes her own work: “It isn’t literature it isn’t a true confession, it’s someone tapping away at her typewriter because she’s afraid of herself and the typewriter and the mornings and the evenings and everything else. And of other people.”
Sagan really has little to say to the serious reader. Having subordinated content to style, she has become nothing more than a mannerist who believes, as she says elsewhere, “I shall live badly if I do not live.” Style, of course, is hard to judge in translation, but Sagan is quite capable of most cloying preciosity: “The Mediterranean gave off an overwhelming sensuous romanticism, at once pitiless but flawlessly mild. It clasped the hips of the Narcissus, nudging and flattering, and the soft, incessant pressure of its warm waves was insistent enough to sway her the breadth of a millimeter, enough to make her twenty thousand tons whimper with pleasure.” No wonder E. P. Dutton bound the book in purple cloth and gave it a dust jacket of the same hue.
For 20 years now, it has been literarily chic to babble about the death of the novel, a cliché given some credence by the work of Sagan and some of her contemporaries. If the novel is dead, it died because it lacks the compassion and tolerance, the moral insights and humane perceptions that have given purpose to the literary tradition. Such fiction gives its readers no weapons with which to ward off the dragon but defused grenades and blank cartridges.