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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sagan, Paris 1954

Anne Berest

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To purchase Sagan, Paris 1954

Title: Sagan, Paris 1954
Author: Anne Berest
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 166 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Sagan, Paris 1954 - US
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Sagan 1954 - France
  • French title: Sagan 1954
  • Translated by Heather Lloyd

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Our Assessment:

B : unusual approach; interesting slice of literary life/history

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Sagan, Paris 1954 is an unusual personal take on another author, Anne Berest very much a presence in her account of the publishing of then-still-teenage Françoise Sagan's precocious debut, Bonjour Tristesse. Indeed, among other things, this is a writing-of-the-book account -- not of Sagan's book, but rather of Sagan, Paris 1954 itself. Sagan's son, Denis Westhoff suggested that, with the sixtieth anniversary of the book's publication coming up, Berest write a book about that historic event, and Berest eagerly took up the idea: "it is obvious to me that this is something I must do. I drop the book I'm working on for her, for Françoise".
       In gathering her thoughts as she begins to write Berest explains what she (thinks she) has in mind:

     It is to be neither a biography, nor a journal, nor a novel. Let's just call it a story.
     The idea is that it's the story of a girl, a very young girl, writing her novel.
       Interestingly, however, Berest isn't concerned with Sagan's writing of the novel -- process, inspiration, anything. The novel is already a fait accompli here, as instead Berest begins more or less with Sagan submitting the manuscript to some publishers. The history she is interested in describing is not that of Sagan's becoming-a-writer, but rather of her becoming-a-published-writer. Berest wants to chronicle that interlude covering Sagan's shift from schoolgirl-obscurity to the cusp of fame and notoriety.
       In focusing on that odd interim from when an author has completed a work to when the published version impacts the public, Berest concentrates on an unusual but far too often ignored slice of literary life. Given the bombshell impact Sagan's novel had, Bonjour Tristesse is, of course, an ideal text for such an exercise. The English title of Berest's book -- adding 'Paris' to 'Sagan' and '1954' -- is also an appropriate one, because this is very much -- and specifically -- a chronicle of person, place, and time (and not so much of the novel behind it all).
       Berest offers a good amount of biographical detail, placing Sagan and her situation, including her close relationship with friend Florence -- the daughter of André Malraux --, her supportive family, her carefree attitude towards school (including managing to fool her parents into believing she was attending one school she got expelled from -- and, at age twelve ! spending the time ambling around Paris instead).
       Bonjour Tristesse's publication history -- from submission to acceptance to launch-preparations (including figuring out a pseudonym under which to publish) and finally to its winning the Prix des Critiques (Berest's cut-off point in her Sagan-story) -- makes for a fascinating thread to Berest's book, with the author using the different stages to muse about everything from French life of the time -- literary and political, both in the throes of change -- to her own experiences. It makes for a bit of a mixed bag -- the author's own marital difficulties can feel somewhat intrusive (and/or uninteresting ...) -- but she's especially good at imagining what these times and events were like for young Sagan. With all the burdens, along with the advantages, of Sagan's coming fame known to Berest (and the reader), the look at these last months before fame and adulthood hit are particularly effective.
       Berest ends with the book on the verge of it explosive success. The Prix des Critiques -- whose jury includes both an old guard and the likes of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and Jean Paulhan, and who the year before had awarded the prize to Alain Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur (and, in 1947, to Camus' The Plague) -- and then, the next day, Nobel laureate François Mauriac's front-page article in Le Figaro were the final pushes to the book's great success that Berest sums up but does not pursue in any greater detail.
       It does make for an odd book, the very personal take -- including reactions Berest gets to some of what she's written here from some of those involved, as well as musings on how she relates to this book from a different era, published a quarter of a century before she was born -- occasionally distracting, but also a helpful reminder of the near-complete subjectivity of any such chronicle. A decent introduction to the life of the author -- certainly offering a good picture of who she was at that point --, Sagan, Paris 1954 also offers good insight into the Parisian scene of 1954, and especially its literary and intellectual world. There's a lot of fascinating material here, and if the presentation can at times seem too light and glancing, it is nevertheless a clearly carefully researched account that does offer the salient facts, in more engaging and memorable ways than a straightforward factual account likely could.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 September 2015

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Sagan, Paris 1954: Reviews: Françoise Sagan: Other books by Françoise Sagan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Anne Berest was born in 1979.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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