To date, I have read quite a few of Francoise Sagan’s books. Like the majority of English speakers, I imagine, I began with her quiet masterpiece, Bonjour Tristesse, which was published when the author was just nineteen, and led her to become something of a literary sensation. I have since encountered such gems as A Certain Smile and her short story collection, Incidental Music. Each time I come across one of her books therefore, regardless of the invariable ugliness of the paperback copy, I will happily pick it up.
The Still Storm has been heralded ‘Sagan’s finest love story’ by Elle, and The Guardian deems it ‘serious, skilled and successful’. The rather short novel is set in Angouleme, in the French province of Aquitaine, where Flora de Margelasse, a young woman recently widowed, has arrived to reclaim her family estate. A local man named Nicholas Lomont, who works in the legal profession, narrates the whole. He immediately falls in love with Flora, but she is quite unable to return such feelings to him. When she falls in love with someone else, ‘the son of a farm labourer, who shamelessly betrays her, the world of Nicholas Lomont and the provincial French bourgeoisie is shattered.’
Told in retrospect, Nicholas attempts to relay his memories of Flora: ‘Writing and remembering, both, have dangerous and painful consequences… I continue to write for no reason and for no one’s benefit. The scratching of this pen is an end in itself…’. He is honest, sometimes painfully so, of his experiences of loving Flora: ‘Let us simply say that right from the start I was resigned to loving Flora; worse, I was proud to love her, proud in advance of all that she would bring upon me, including the cruellest unhappiness.’ He goes on to recount her relationship with the young farmhand, Gildas.
The Still Storm begins in the following manner, which effectively sets the tone of the whole: ‘If one day someone else should read these pages – if an author’s blind vanity or some quirk of fate prevent me from destroying them – that reader should know that it is for my own recollection, and not for the entertainment of others, that I embark on this account of the summer of 1832 and the years that followed.’ Sagan’s style of writing, and the plot which she has woven, put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier throughout.
The French countryside has been vividly evoked, and the changing of the seasons depicted with such care: ‘Despite the little, round, prancing clouds – pink, white, blue, and bright red in the west at sunset – the sky dominates the landscape. It seems to rest on our meadows, our churches, our little towns, lying heavily on our land and stretching to the horizon on all sides, day after day… The weather is of more importance here than elsewhere because the sky is closer and the sunshine more direct. The nights are darker, the winds wilder, and the heat and snow more still.’ Sagan also has a real strength in demonstrating her characters, from their passions to their appearances. The final time in which Nicholas sees Flora, he writes: ‘I remember her as I saw her then. She wore a dress of crumpled silk, and her superb profusion of blonde hair danced in the bright sunlight like an oriflamme captured from the enemy that was branded in derision over her face now white and sexless and ageless.’
The edition which I read has been wonderfully translated from its original French by Christine Donougher, and was published in France in 1983, and English for the first time the year afterwards. The Still Storm is engaging from start to finish. Sagan’s writing is rich, and has a beautiful clarity to it. There is undoubtedly a touch of the Gothic, and of overblown melodrama, but that makes it all the more fun to read. The Still Storm is a wise and contemplative novel, sometimes dark and surprising, which reflects upon both individuals and the wider society.