Today in Literary History – June 21, 1935 – novelist Francoise Sagan is born

The French novelist Francoise Sagan was born on June 21, 1935, as Francoise Quoirez.

Sagan became an international literary celebrity at the age of 19 with the publication of her first novel Bonjour Tristesse in 1954.

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Sagan said that she wrote the book just to see if she could, and completed it in a couple of months. It was immediately accepted for publication.

Her parents agreed to her publishing the book just as long as she used a pseudonym, because of its strong sexual content. She chose the name Sagan from one of the characters in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Princesse de Sagan.

The novel tells the story of 17 year old Cécile, who is spending the summer on the French Riviera with her widowed father, a wealthy playboy. Cécile has a sexual affair with the young man next door. She also schemes to derail her father’s plans to remarry, for fear of losing his affection and the freedom he allows her.

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The novel was an overnight sensation but it also drew condemnation for its depictions of underage sex.

“It was inconceivable that a young girl of 17 or 18 should make love, without being in love, with a boy of her own age, and not be punished for it,” Sagan later said. “People couldn’t tolerate the idea that the girl should not fall madly in love with the boy, and not be pregnant by the end of the summer. It was unacceptable, too, that a young girl should have the right to use her body as she will, and derive pleasure from it without incurring a penalty.”

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Sagan went on to write another 20 novels, nine plays and three collections of short stories. Her work did well commercially, but she never reached the artistic heights of Bonjour Tristesse again.

She did become a belovedly eccentric celebrity, providing plenty of fodder for Paris Match and the tabloid press with her self-destructive behaviour. She once said that early wealth and fame kept her from having to grow up, “as a result I don’t really understand adult values and I never will.”

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She was a compulsive gambler who lost much of her fortune in the casinos of Monte Carlo; she was addicted to alcohol and various drugs and was twice arrested for cocaine possession in the 1990s; she was also convicted of tax fraud in 2002. She was bisexual and had two failed marriages and many messy relationships. She was also famous for her love of driving expensive sports cars at reckless speeds, barely surviving a serious crash in 1957 which put her in a coma.

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Sagan died in 2004 at the age of 69. She composed her own epitaph: “Appeared in 1954 with a slender novel, Bonjour Tristesse, which created a scandal worldwide. Her death, after a life and a body of work that were equally pleasant and botched, was a scandal only for herself.”

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