The Penguin Hit Me In The Face

Books about writing emphasize truth. Whether it’s Milne’s stuffed toys or Orwell’s farm animals, the characters must have believable emotions and motives. To recognize the reactions in a story, can be as startling as coming across a portrait of oneself in a gallery. The shivery thrill of the familiar.

I felt this reading “Bonjour Tristesse” by Francoise Sagan. A young girl, Cecile, enjoys a pleasantly frivolous life with her father and his parade of girlfriends. This is interrupted by the arrival of Anne, who offers a more substantial existence and to whom her father is very attracted. Cecile is outraged and takes cunning steps to sabotage the relationship, making use of her own boyfriend and her father’s previous lover.

The book recalls the superiority, petulance, ruthlessness, shortsightedness, adoration and inconsistency of youth. The mistaking of intensity for longevity. Even more, the passing of these things, the later perspective from which you view your selfishness. It was like seeing myself on an operating table, skin folded back, ribcage cranked open, my insides, which felt so unique, so special, just looking like everyone else’s, vulnerable and slightly shameful.

“‘Your idea of love is rather primitive. It is not a series of sensations, independent of each other….’ I realized how every time I had fallen in love it had been like that: a sudden emotion, roused by a face, a gesture or a kiss, which I remembered only as incoherent moments of excitement. ‘It is something different,’ said Anne. ‘There are such things as lasting affection, sweetness, a sense of loss….but I suppose you wouldn’t understand.’”

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