The Illusionist by Françoise Mallet-Joris
Cleis Press, 250 pp., $14.95
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Harper Perennial, 160 pp., $12.99
Gossip Girl’s running homage to the 1782 masterpiece Les Liaisons Dangereuses — or, more accurately, to the Upper East Side-set movie adaptation Cruel Intentions — is one of the show’s less guilty pleasures. The high school characters’ acumen in the finer points of sexual weaponry puts a genuinely subversive spin on their underage bed-hopping, drug-taking and old-money-fueled decadence. So it is quite breathtaking to read a novel like The Illusionist by Françoise Mallet-Joris, which also cheekily references the erotic manipulation in Liaisons, and realize that it was written sixty years ago by a teenager who clearly could have given Gossip Girl’s arch villainess Blair Waldorf lessons in amorality.
In The Illusionist Hélène Noris, a fifteen-year-old living in a desperately dull and conservative Belgian town, reads Liaisons with her lover Tamara, a 36-year-old Russian divorcée who also happens to be the mistress of Hélène’s father, René. The book, reports Hélène, “liberates” her from the sentimentality that her swooning infatuation with Tamara might otherwise have provoked: “Had I followed my own inclinations I would have treasured souvenirs — bits of ribbon, half-smoked cigarettes — and would have looked at a star each night at the same time as did my beloved.” Because in sharp contrast to the jaded likes of Blair and company, Hélène is, before she meets Tamara, a true innocent who doesn’t even know about French kissing, so that “for several weeks following this first kiss, I was under the delusion that it was Tamara’s own marvelous invention.”
It is Hélène’s virginal purity, as well as her loneliness — her mother is dead, her father is distant and preoccupied with his work and political ambitions, she despises her classmates — that makes her such a ripe victim for Tamara’s cold-blooded, dazzlingly expert corruption. The two first meet when René, too scared of Tamara to cancel a planned rendezvous, asks Hélène to give her a message. Consumed with curiosity about her father’s girlfriend, Hélène decides that instead of telephoning she’ll go to Tamara’s apartment. Its location in a glamorously disreputable section of town augurs life-changing experiences, as do the female sculptures that decorate the building, “their long, slim, writhing bodies […] veiled with parallel lines and incrusted here and there with shells hiding a too suggestive protuberance.” But it is the spectacle of Tamara, austerely beautiful and impassive with “a husky, muffled voice, in which was a trace of a foreign accent,” that instantly enchants Hélène, who, having “never talked about myself to anyone before,” now “suddenly discover[s] the charm of confiding in someone.” In the days that follow, although Tamara has so far done nothing except listen to her young visitor’s confidences, gently tease her and kiss her cheek, Hélène is overwhelmed with premonitory angst:
Everything had become real, the world had taken on a threatening and concrete reality. An upheaval had occurred in my little girl’s world, and the entire landscape had been transformed…Perhaps I should have foreseen that my visit to her house would set going an entire mechanism that would henceforth work unfailingly. But to a certain category of innocence nothing is so unpredictable as logic.
And so it is with smooth inevitability that, following the revelation of their first kiss, the next stage will occur, when, in Hélène’s coy words, “Tamara did something more than kiss me.” In the ensuing relationship, Tamara not only seduces Hélène but enslaves her, taking enormous pleasure in wielding an irresistible power, in slapping and taunting, all of which has the desired effect of enthralling Hélène to her lover’s “hardness, her energy, her mocking superiority.” As their affair becomes unambiguously sadomasochistic, culminating in a drunken episode during which Hélène is beaten black and blue with a belt, she falls even deeper under Tamara’s spell, a psychological state so complete that the smitten teenager neither reflects upon her sexual identity as you might expect, nor suffers any particular squeamishness, much less guilt, about sharing a lover with her own father. “The idea that my father enjoyed similar moments of intimacy with Tamara never crossed my mind, did not ever bother me,” she confesses, “strange as that may seem.” Hélène is, like most fifteen-year-olds, enviably, imperviously solipsistic — and as such is a fascinating and remarkably convincing fictional creation.
Mallet-Joris once claimed that Hélène’s story was based on the experience of a school friend, but at the age of fifteen the author herself had embarked upon an affair with an older man, a playwright. “I had no principles,” she explained in a work of autobiography published in the U.S. as A Letter to Myself. “I took a lover through the natural needs of my body and my heart.” Her worried parents, writer Suzanne Lilar and politician Albert Lilar, responded by sending her — “like a scandalous and embarrassing package” — to study at Bryn Mawr. You can hardly blame them for thinking that an American women’s college in the 1940s, with its chastity-policing and labyrinthine etiquette, would keep young Françoise out of trouble for a while. But the Lilars underestimated their daughter: she managed to get pregnant by one of her professors, a French man, whom she married and then swiftly divorced. Armed with French citizenship, she set up home with her baby son in Paris, where, while living as a teenage single mother, she wrote The Illusionist.
The novel, whose original title is Le Rempart des Béguines (the name of the street where Tamara lives and a wink at the lesbian theme, Béguines being Flemish Catholic women who lived in all-female communities as lay nuns) was published in 1951. Reviews were, not surprisingly, mixed — “One needs a great and decorous talent to venture into such damned lands,” wrote one critic. “Madame Françoise Mallet-Joris merely employs an unfortunate violence.” — and sales modest, despite publisher René Julliard’s best efforts to capitalize on his author’s youthful appeal by running ads depicting her in pigtails. But a few years later, another precocious novelist named Françoise would appear and shine the spotlight back on to Mallet-Joris. Françoise Sagan’s sensational debut Bonjour Tristesse, published, also by Julliard, when she was just eighteen, incited a media frenzy that had force enough to bolster the earlier novel as well. By the end of 1956, Le Rempart had sold 30,000 copies and made its author a Parisian celebrity.
Sagan’s more famous novel is narrated by Cécile — also, not coincidentally, the name of the corrupted teenage convent girl in Liaisons — a hard-drinking, chain-smoking seventeen-year-old who shares with her widowed father, Raymond, an entirely hedonistic attitude to life. During their summer vacation on the Côte d’Azur, Cécile’s cherished freedom is threatened when Raymond becomes engaged to Anne, a cerebral, sensible 42-year-old who begins to disrupt the perfect complicity enjoyed by père et fille and intends to conventionalize their raffish existence. “At all costs,” muses Cécile, “I must save myself, regain my father and our former life.” She wastes no time inventing a plan of sexual deception that ingeniously exploits the vanity, jealousy and desires of everyone around her. Her dastardly plotting works only too well, leading to Anne’s suicide and a certain wistfulness in Cécile, if not exactly guilt:
Soon we could speak of Anne in a normal way as of a person dear to us, with whom we could have been happy, but whom God had called to Himself. I have written God, and not fate — but we did not believe in God. In these circumstances we were thankful to believe in fate.
In other words, shit happens. Beyond the superficial parallels between these two novels, both narrated by motherless teenage girls whose precocious involvement in the romantic lives of the older generation constitutes their (un)sentimental education, what resonates is their shared mood of irresponsibility, in which the wider consequences, moral or otherwise, of one’s actions are scarcely of concern. Both Cécile and Hélène are avowedly disinterested in the future: When Anne grills Cécile about how she did in her baccalaureate, the cheerful response is “Flunked!” and she finds the idea of further study frankly horrifying. Similarly, Hélène avoids going to school as much as possible, and isn’t troubled by a thought in her head save those pertaining to her immediate emotional gratification. Fantasies of weddings and babies and maybe even a career, so omnipresent in contemporary chick lit, are conspicuously and pleasingly absent. Sagan has said that she viewed her character as a much-needed affront to the prevailing moral order. Cécile was a literary anomaly by virtue of having sex without winding up pregnant or married — unlike her 18th century namesake who, of course, had to suffer a miscarriage. As for Mallet-Joris, she claimed to be inspired by “the superficiality of the bourgeoisie.”
The Illusionist goes one better than Bonjour Tristesse in overarching nihilism. Both narrators are forced into some kind of confrontation with the traditional heterosexual domesticity they so strongly oppose. But whereas Cécile realizes that the respectable family unit envisioned by Anne is, despite everything, worth mourning with a certain tristesse (meaning sadness or melancholy), Hélène is nothing but appalled when Tamara agrees to marry René for the sake of “stability and security.” Such words are anathema to all that Hélène has come to value, and Tamara, now beholden to a man and no longer a paragon of narcissism, is suddenly pathetic:
On that face I had loved and admired so desperately, that had been my sun, my horizon, the very incarnation of beauty, cruelty, voluptuousness and suffering, all equally delicious, there was painted that odious humility of beggars and of beaten women, that cowardice of irresponsible people, that same weakness that I had hated in myself and that she, unknowingly, had taught me to hate.
Emma Garman is a writer living in New York. She can be visited online at emmagarman.com.
Books mentioned in this review: