Infamous from an early age for her novel Bonjour Tristesse, her career as a songwriter, and even writer of librettos for ballets has long been forgotten. A recent release reminds us of this addition to the oeuvre of a precocious talent.
Mention Françoise Sagan and the first thing that springs to mind is inevitably Bonjour Tristesse, her debut novel which caused a sensation in its native France, due not so much to the sexual nature of the text — this was France after all — but the tender age of its author. Sagan was barely 18 when the book was published.
She went on to write a further 19 novels, a number of plays and a celebrated autobiography, yet despite her precocious talent and prolific output most people today would be hard pressed to name another of her works. Penguin classics publish A certain Smile along with Bonjour Tristesse and it is possible, with a little searching, to find copies of Aimez vous Brahms? but most of her output is now, sadly, out of print. A biography of her extraordinary life has never been published in English.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that her career as a song writer and even writer of librettos for ballets has long been over looked, if not completely ignored. The recent release of Chansons et Ballets: Françoise Sagan et Michel Magne attempts to rectify that omission. Comprising her brief but entire oeuvre it offers a fascinating glimpse not only into the mind of this precociously gifted young woman but also her world, peopled with many of the leading literary and cultural figures of the day .
Born Françoise Quoriez into a comfortable bourgeois background, she took her pseudonym from one of Proust’s characters, the Princesse de Sagan. Intelligent, but not exactly studious, she wrote Bonjour Tristesse in a series of Parisian cafes just to see if she had the willpower to finish a novel. The manuscript was snapped up within days of its delivery to the publishers René Juillard and its success was almost immediate. Paris Match dubbed her ‘an 18 year old Colette,’ and within weeks she had won the prestigious Prix des Critiques. François Mauriac wrote on the front page of Le Figaro that, ‘the literary merit explodes from the very first line and is beyond doubt.’ However, there were detractors. Le Monde’s chief literary critic, the poet and novelist Emile Henriot called it, ‘immoral,’ and one member of the prize jury feared that the novel would, ‘deal a fatal blow to the image of young French women in the eyes of foreigners’.
It is doubtful if Sagan cared much for the criticism. This, ‘charming little monster,’ as Mauriac dubbed her, went on to revel in her infamy, indulging in all the pleasures and vices that her new found fame and wealth could pay for. Which were considerable. Until the age of 21 her father was required by law to administer her work, including all deals for copyright and foreign language adaptations. He was obviously a very astute businessman as his daughter soon found herself in possession of a small fortune. And his advice to her was to spend everything she earned
She became the darling of the press who hung on her every word and action. When she turned up in St Tropez in an open-topped sports car and made it a regular hang out, she managed to make the resort fashionable years before Brigitte Bardot had even set foot there. The first author to feature on magazine covers, she appeared to be the incarnation of freedom in post war France.
The bars and clubs of Saint Germain des Prés were her usual haunts when in Paris and it was here that she met Michel Magne, a musician known for his experimental creations in musique concrete and as a composer of film soundtracks. He would go on to set up the first home recording studio at Chateau d’Herouville which would be used by both home grown talent such as Brigitte Fontaine, Nino Ferrer and Michel Polnareff and international stars such as David Bowie and Pink Floyd. Magne and Sagan shared the same lust for life and became natural companions.
Magne had been looking for lyrics for his songs but having tried over fifty lyricists he had still not found a voice with which he was happy. In the gamine authoress he felt he had found a writer whose prose style would suit his music perfectly. He gave her his ideas musically and she responded in words which suggested experience way beyond her years. Her songs reveal a romantic soul, devoid of the cynicism sometimes found in her novels. These are tales of night time sojourns, fuelled by alcohol and tinged with a private melancholy which almost takes pleasure in the pain of love. Her protagonists appear at times to be almost intoxicated by their torments.
They found their first performer when the novelist Michel Déon took Sagan to see the singer Annabel, who at the time was performing in a somewhat insalubrious nightclub called Le Carol’s. In a 2004 interview the singer recalled how Sagan had said she’d really like to write some songs for her and she’d replied ‘With pleasure!’ but thought, ‘ it was just the kind of remark that people make at three in the morning when they’re having a good time.’ She was a little surprised when Sagan actually returned with some of her collaborations with Magne. Soon she was performing their songs on stage and the three would regularly end their evenings out around a piano putting the finishing touches to their latest creations.
However, it was to be Renée Caron, the future wife of Magne’s friend, the comedian Fernand Raynaud, who recorded their first work on disc. Caron liked Michel’s songs so much that she devoted her entire first album to him. Renee Caron chante Michel Magne, was released early in 1956. Magne wrote the words and music for all the songs except Sans vous aimer which was to become the first song with Sagan’s lyrics to appear on disc.
A forlorn plea to a lover not to leave, Caron’s version is charming but it would be Juliette Gréco’s infinitely more sultry interpretation , which certainly appears to offer more incentive to stay, that would provide the duo with their first real success.
Sagan’s close friend Florence Malraux, a future assistant director to Alain Resnais, organized the meeting with Gréco. Her creations were handed over in the Brasserie Lipp, the celebrated left bank haunt beloved of intellectuals and politicians alike. Gréco later recalled that although she had read Francoise’s books before she met her, and liked her style very much, she had assumed that given the gap between her age and her manner of writing she must be unbearable as a person. Fortunately when they met she changed her mind and the two were to become life long friends. Gréco was extremely enthusiastic about the songs and chose four which would appear on an EP entitled, Juliette Gréco chante Francoise Sagan: Sans vous aimer, Le jour, La valse and Vous mon Coeur.
Delivered in the voice which Sartre once described as having a million poems in it, Sagan’s lyrics find possibly their best interpreter. Gréco’s record did well and was probably the duos greatest success, although none of her collaborations with Sagan feature on the numerous ‘Best ofs,’ which have been released over the years. The only musical link to the young novelist which remains in her repertoire today is the theme tune to Otto Preminger’s film version of Bonjour Tristesse which she recorded in 1958. Sagan did not write the lyrics but it is included here as a bonus track.
Two further EPS of Sagan and Magne’s compositions were released in 1957. The first by the singer Mouloudji , contained four new titles Les jours perdus, En dormant, Ciel et terre and Va vivre ta vie, delivered in a jazz influenced style reminiscent of Boris Vian, whose songs he often performed.
The second was an intriguing collaboration with Annabel who had remained close friends with Sagan. She would often accompany her on her trips to St Tropez, a resort they frequented so often that she nick-named it St Tropez des Prés. Annabel recorded her own versions of La Valse and Les jours perdus as well as two new titles Pour toi et moi and Le jour. Her versions are sublime but they are almost surpassed by Sagan’s spoken word versions which appeared on the B side. Her youthful, melancholy voice infuses the lyrics with a wistful, languid sensibility.
The following year saw both the release of the film of Bonjour Tristesse and Sagan’s fourth novel, Aimez-vous Brahms? The subtle, sensitive portrayal of a 39 year old woman who becomes embroiled in an affair with a younger man made it seem as if the author had gained twenty years of emotional experience in the past five. It was turned into a film in 1961 featuring Ingrid Bergman as Paule and Anthony Perkins as her young lover. Sagan was involved in the music for the film writing the lyrics for Quand tu dors prés de moi with music by Georges Auric based on a theme taken from Brahms’ Symphony no.3.
Three versions of the song appear on the CD. A beautifully sultry interpretation by French icon Dalida and an English version by Diahann Carroll, the American actress and singer, who appears as a nightclub singer in the film. But perhaps the most intriguing version is that by Anthony Perkins. His role as Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho has managed to eclipse virtually everything else in his career so it has probably been long forgotten that he had a brief career as a singer. Quand tu dors pres de moi shows him to be a more than competent romantic French crooner, rolling his rs like a gentler version of Brassens. It was released on the French EP Anthony Perkins Chante en Francais.
The ballet for which Sagan wrote the libretto, Le Rendez-vous manqué, is possibly best described as an interesting period piece. There had been great excitement around the idea of France’s literary star moving into another medium. Juliette Greco was originally in line for the lead role and the set design was to be by Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Roger Vadim would produce. However, in the end the lead role went to cabaret dancer Nöelle Adam and the sets were designed by Bernard Buffet, a friend of Sagan and Magne’s. The critical response was less than enthusiastic. ‘It has to be said that Françoise Sagan will not be putting her name to the art of ballet in the same way as she did with novels,’ was one of the kinder reviews. Although Vadim remained as producer one critic considered the production, ‘so amateurish as to defy belief that an eminent film producer could have been responsible.’
Its plot centres on a young man from a good bourgeois provincial family who meets an elegant young woman. They enjoy a brief affair but eventually the time comes for her to return to her husband in New York. She promises him one last rendez-vous.
The ballet opens with the man filled with joy at the prospect of seeing his lover again. However, when the knock at the door finally comes it is not the young woman but a surprise party. He finds himself attracted to one of the guests and ends up having sex with her in the bathroom. Sickened by his behaviour he drives everyone out. In the second act, convinced he will never see his lover again, he drinks poison. At which point the young woman arrives. He recovers enough to dance with her for one last time but finishes collapsed on a sofa. Thinking he is merely asleep the woman goes to kiss him, at which point he rolls on to the floor, dead.
The premiere was held in Monte Carlo in the presence of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. The bathroom scene caused something of a sensation and the next morning a message came from the palace saying that unless the production was changed the Royal couple would not attend the second performance. Everyone frantically got to work sanitising the scene. According to the British critic, Peter Willliams, ‘by the time the curtain rose again, the offending moments had been so ironed out that the ballet could have been shown to a kindergarten.’
This didn’t prevent an awkward moment when the second interval appeared to go on interminably and Grace and Rainier did not return to the Royal Box. Everyone assumed a walk out, but it turned out that Grace had simply had to put a call through to New York and cared little if this meant the audience had to wait. The ballet eventually concluded.
When the ballet made its debut in the UK, English critics and audiences were bemused by the fuss. One old lady was quoted by Dance and Dancers summing up the difficulty thus, ‘You see dear, had it taken place in a bedroom it would have been perfectly alright, but for such as thing to shown in the bathroom, no that will not do at all.’
In general the critics’ views were summed up by the headline in The Dancing Times: ‘Much ado about nothing’.
So, it is perhaps just as well that purchasers of the CD have no more to do than listen to the music which includes jazz, rumbas and Spanish influenced dances. The actual performance is probably best left to the imagination.
The box set is accompanied by detailed notes from Olivier Julian and a complete discography.
Admirers of her literary work will be fascinated by this softer side of Sagan, even if it is a softness which suggests an underlying sense of weariness, borne from too many cigarette and alcohol fuelled nights contemplating the infinite complexities of love.