10 Minutes After the Sexual Revolution

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Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s bestselling novel has recently been published by Achuzat Bayit in a new translation by Dory Manor. Originally published in 1954 when Sagan was 18, it became an immediate best-seller. The book was translated into 22 languages, including a Hebrew translation by Aliza Shani in 1955.

Poet, editor and translator, Manor received the Tchernichovsky prize in 2008 for his translations of French poetry, which include Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, as well as translations of Rimbaud, Verlaine and Victor Hugo. On a rainy November afternoon Manor shared his thoughts on Bonjour Tristesse, Sagan, and culture – both Israeli and French.

Dory Manor: This book was published in 1954. Now, 55 years later – half a century later, I find it fascinating that the book appeared a moment before the sexual revolution. It is written in the voice of a young woman who speaks of things that were not spoken of before in this way.

She talks about sex of course, but not only sex, also about feelings,  issues within the family, the way she talks about her father – people didn’t speak that way before, certainly not in France. In a certain sense she is the harbinger, one of the harbingers of the sexual revolution.

10 minutes before…we are now sadly, 10 minutes after [the sexual revolution] in a period that is newly conservative, reactionary, right wing.  Israel, and not just Israel, is religious, isolationist, closing in on itself.
Of course these are sweeping generalizations.

The generation of the 60s, these are the parents and even the grandparents of the youth of today. It’s fascinating to see this book that was published a moment before the sexual revolution, republished now a moment after. There was a period in the 70s– as we know the 60s happened in the 70s – there was a time, I am speaking in terms of the subversive message of the book, when it might have been seen as trivial. They did such daring things    in the 70s, people talked so freely and openly about sex, they experimented with the institution of the family.

Hearing what she [Sagan] said five minutes earlier was archeology, it was interesting from a historical perspective but it was not earth-shattering in the way that it can be again today.

Ayelet Dekel: Do you really think that the book can shake up someone reading it for the first time today when we live in an age where “everything goes”?

DM: Yes, but that is an illusion. We are inundated with images of sex, with provocative – as if provocative images everywhere of course, on television, in advertising, internet ads, pornography (there is also erotica in the good sense of the word). It creates a paradoxical situation because it is assimilated into a conservative world view.

I hear responses from people who are reading the book for the first time –it   really touches them. They are moved by the book and very much affected by the biographical details of the author. A young girl writing about herself, in the first person, in a very openly autobiographical manner.
She is writing at age 18 about events that took place a year ago, when she was 17, and there is an element of daring in that which speaks to people today as well. We have become accustomed to a plastic kind of exposure (self-exposure) of weekend magazines; we are not accustomed to the deeper aspects of self-revelation.

AD: If Sagan was writing the book now, perhaps she would have written a blog.

DM: It’s possible; perhaps she would have written a blog. Nevertheless, I think that the book has literary qualities that would not have been possible in a blog.

First of all, a blog is something that belongs to the present. You describe things that are happening to you today. The perspective here [in Bonjour Tristesse] is not of a long period of time, it’s a year, but it represents a literary choice, it transforms the book from a diary to a work of literature. The framing and the framing of a feeling – this is very French. Choosing a word, which is actually a feeling and fishing for it, trying to capture it throughout the book – its very French.

It’s interesting that this same Francoise Sagan always has a very ambivalent relationship with French culture.

On one hand, she enjoys rebelling very very much, stomping all over the icons of French literature and culture. For example, Bergson [Henri-Louis Bergson 1859 – 1941)– she has to study for a test and she puts him down, regards it as a punishment to read him…like a 17 year old girl.

In the first half of the 20th century Bergson was the figure, an influential philosopher. You can’t say such things about Bergson…perhaps today we can, perhaps somewhat thanks to her, but at that time…

Although the book was a best-seller, it was despised by intellectuals, perhaps there was an element of sexism in their derision. But even if a young man had written this book, it would have angered people. Sagan did everything in her power to be provocative and rebel against the intellectual and cultural establishment, and paid a heavy price.

It’s not a great book, but it is full of charm and fun to read. It’s surprising to see how well it has stood the test of time, despite everything. There is something about the period she describes…It always reminds me of the period in the 1950s – the Côte d’Azur, the most ephemeral things –
the lightest things, bathing suits, yachts, the beach. When we look back we can see the deeper cultural processes taking place beneath the surface.

Like Brigitte Bardot, well, she was a goddess, a beauty, who has remained an icon and not by chance because she represents something very deep about the 20th century. It’s uncomfortable to admit, but she is not a good actress, she is racist and facist. But she is popular not just for her beauty, she expresses a zeitgeist, the mood of the period. The comparison to the book is not coincidental.

The mood of the period is expressed in certain places, that space between Paris of the 1950s and the Côte d’Azur expressed the period in a very pure manner.

AD: It makes me think of the photograph of Picasso walking on the beach with Francoise Gilot, holding up a huge beach umbrella.

DM: It’s exactly that. You can let yourself fall in love with the heat and the sun and the tanned bodies – things that you could not think about before, now you can fall in love with them. It’s a world of after the war, a liberal world that wants to become de-politicized. I think this is what the book represents. Perhaps I am ascribing too much meaning to it.

AD: Reading the book in the late 70s I felt that it had a female power and that – this is the fantasy. It also connects, for me, to the gay liberation movement of the 70s, does that sound strange to you?

DM: It’s a logical connection, not strange at all. Things that were forbidden to be mentioned before now have a name. Homosexuality was called “l’amour qui n’ose pas dir son nom.” The moment it dares say its name – it receives a name. The possibility of liberation comes into being. The instinctive feminism of Francoise Sagan in this book very much reminds me of the gay liberation movement.

AD: The book conveys message that sex can be enjoyed. Sagan offers it as an option, an option that has a price.

DM: She really lived like that – it’s not just the book. Her life extracted a heavy price; she didn’t end her life in a good way.

AD: She never fulfilled the promise of this first book.

DM: Yes, not just in terms of acceptance.  She didn’t write great books after this one. I haven’t read them all, but that is my impression from the ones I have read. She tried to put into practice the world view she expresses in this book, but that is not precise, because it is not didactic, it is very instinctive.  She tried to produce her life like a literary work. She lived a life of pleasure, a spendthrift life of race cars, gambling and drugs – at some point the money came to an end.

As a translator I enjoyed getting into her skin.

AD: I enjoyed the Hebrew. It flows, it doesn’t feel dated, I imagine that is a choice made in translation.

DM: It’s a choice, but a complex one.

Translating the text was a complex choice; on one hand you want to retain the language, so that it will sound natural in the mouth of an 18 year old girl so that she won’t sound like her own grandmother. But to make her sound like an 18 year old girl in Israel of 2009 would not be credible, it would sound pathetic. To give her a Hebrew that will be natural yet timeless…I had to avoid slang altogether even though I love slang.

It [translating the book] was very easy. I usually translate poetry and only dead writers on principle, so that I don’t receive any unpleasant emails.
Every time I translate I enter the character of the writer.

Baudelaire – I am a Parisian in the mid 19th century, poète maudit, an opium addict with syphilis. I am currently translating Stéphane Mallarmé – a heavy headed intellectual who has pondered every word in the language.

Sagan was fun – I am on the Riviera, I have affairs with the sexiest men on the Riviera. There’s a bit of melancholy, but it’s all good. You have to strike the right tone. Not to create anachronism, to let her be a girl. It went very quickly, it took me four months to translate. It was a kind of summer vacation.