Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 8. 1962.
The Decline of Sin
The Decline of Sin
An unusual feature of writing in the last decade has been the number of succsseful (in the financial sense at least) novels written by young women of seventeen or eighteen. In 1955 in France, Francoise Sagan published 'Bonjour Tristesse" (in later years she has given us "A Certain Smile." "Those without Shadows" and "Aimey-Vous Brahms").
Shortly afterwards in America, Pamela Moore published "Chocolates for Breakfast." Finally in 1958 a young French peasant girl named Berthe Grimault. in collaboration with her village postman, produced "Beau Clown" and "Tuen Son Enfant." (The latter, has been published in English as "Blood on the Straw").
As well as being written by young women, these books have other resemblances. First, they all have rather sensational themes. As is well known Francoise Sagan portrays the amoral amatory goings on of bored young French sophisticates.
Pamela Moore writes about similar activities among a group of equally bored Americans, who are a little younger and a little less sophisticated. Berthe Grimault, in "Blood on the Straw" manages to cover infanticide, nymph mania, insanity and suicide.
Not unnaturally a second similarity is that the sensational theme in conjunction with the age of the authors has ensured a succes de scandale wherever these books have appeared and have brought fame and money to the authors. One of Sagan's blurbs, for example, describes her as "the idol of youth ... the most celebrated living French person." She owns (and crashes) five fast cars, and likes speed, whisky and jazz.
Sagan, of course, has been the most successful (partially because she has continued to write readable novels and because she has attracted the attention of Hollywood, which has filmed at least three of her books) but the others have nothing to complain about.
Berthe Grimault was given an invitation by "the headmistress of a delightful finishing school in Kent to spend a year as a non-paying pupil," and has become "a well-mannered, reasonably self-possessed young lady and she remains a sweet and simple girl whose personality is totally devoid of vice." (I quote her publisher).
So successful have these novelists been, in fact, that many critics have suspected that the whole phenomenon is nothing more than a commercial gimmick well exploited. 'Peyton Place" and that ilk have proved conclusively that sex and violence sell well anyway; have them described by a girl of eighteen and the readers of the world are yours. Alternatively, the girl of eighteen need not actually write the stuff, but merely put her name to it.
There are, however, two factors which reduce this last possibility almost to nothing. One is the fact that it would be easily enough exposed. Sagan has gone on writing, while a year in a finishing school in Kent would surely have shown Grimault up as a fake if she was one.
The second factor is the quality of the writing. Sagan writes short nerveless stories whose method and manner is perfectly adapted to their subject matter. Her characters have no great depth, but they are sharply outlined. An atmosphere of disillusioned boredom is brilliantly created and maintained.
As for Grimault, I have never read anything quite as shattering as the opening two chapters of "Blood on the Straw." If the succeeding pages are less shattering it is because we have been drawn powerfully into the atmosphere of a rather brutal French peasant family. Their actions no longer surprise us quite so much.
Moore's work is a bit dubious on both grounds. She has, to the best of my knowledge, disappeared from the literary scene, which is in itself suspicious. Furthermore, the writing in "Chocolates for Breakfast" has not the distinction of the two French girls'. The book is less cncentrated than theirs, and could have been produced by any competent literary worker.
Consideration of one book by each of these writers will place us in a position to make some interesting generalisations about the social and literary implications of this phenomenon.
"Bonjour Tristesse" by Francoise Sagan is about Cecile, a girl (17), spending a holiday with her father. The keynote of the took is struck in the opening paragraph: "A strange melancholy pervades met which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egotism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness."
Immediately we are in a world where everything is tinged with cynicism and boredom. Cecile's father Raymond has a series of affairs with various women. She doesn't mind but " his only fault was that he imbued me (Cecile) with a cynical attitude towards love which, considering my age and inexperience, should have meant happiness and not only a transitory sensation. I was fond of repeating to myself sayings like Oscar Wilde's: "Sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world."
Eventually Anne, the latest in Raymond's series of mistresses shows signs of wanting to reform him and settle down. Cecile encourages another woman, Elsa, in her uesigns on Raymond. Anne sees these two together and kills herself in her car as a result.
For a while the relationship between Cecile and Raymond is rained, then they both find new lovers and forget the whole thing.
Such is this girl's introduction to love and life. Only Anne, of these people, ever takes account of anyone else. Cecile "loves" her father, but has no compunction in interfering wth his life as she sees fit. He "loves" her, but leaves her entirely to her own devices. She drinks, makes love, sulks, works as she pleases.
For these people there is no depth or height of emotion. One cannot be hurt by what someone else does, because whatever it is, it is only to be expected. Nobody shouts, or weeps or hits anybody.
Only on one occasion is this attitude of emotional somnolence broken. That is when Cecile insults Anne in Raymond's presence. Anne is the outsider in this book. She is no pious moralist, certainly, but she does have ideas of finding stability and permanence in love.
It is this that Cecile resents. Raymond is tinged by Anne's ideas only sufficiently to demand a formal apology from Cecile. The very formality of it underlines its irrevelance to this milieu. At the end of the book Anne is just an odd memory.
Pamela Moore's Book "Chocolates for Breakfast" opens in a girls' boarding school in America. All the girls are there because their parents can't think of anything else to do with them. The heroine is innocent but eager and has a friend who is not innocent, but still eager. The plot moves to Hollywood where the heroine's mother is a hack actress and where she loses her innocence.
Then she and her friend team up again in New York. By this time they are nineteen and women of the world. They down whiskies with monotonous regularity and sleep in company when asked.
They attend paitles every night and cultivate friends who, at twenty-three are proud to be suffering from cyrrhosis of the liver. When the book has c vered two hundred or so pages, it stops.
As previously mentioned the writing is just competent. It is not, for example, in the same class as Salingar's "The Catcher in the Rye" but, perhaps by sheer repetition, it makes its point. These people kn w only two things which can keep their interest in life even moderatively alive; sex and alcohol.
After these two jaded looks at the educated classes it is something of a relief to plunge into "Blood on the Straw" by Berthe Grimault, even if the way of life portrayed savage. Josette, a peasant girl who is fond of men has a child by one of them. It is born dead one day when her parents are away. Francoise, her sister puts it in the pig trough and they conceal the event as best they can. Eventually Josette goes mad and is committed to an asylum.
On her return she is helped in maintaining an uncertain balance by being able to nurse a child belonging to a neighbour's city daughter. She becomes convinced the child is her own, and when it is taken from her, commits suicide with her father's slaughtering knife.
I said this book was almost a relief which may seem strange. But at least, by contrast with the characters in Sagan and Moore these people are emotionally alive. They scream, they love, they hate. They are not bored. But their life is hopeless for all their vitality. All they have to recommend them is a sort of punitive animal innocence. They do not rationalise, they do not control their lives. Events happen to them and they take them as they can.
It has been said of Francoise Sagan that she records precisely how boring life can be when it is lived without morals, philosophy or religious feeling. The same is obviously true of Pamela Moore. If one substitutes for "boring," "hopeless" then the same is true of Berthe Grimault. These books are peopled by men and women with no philosophy and no religion. Morals seem almost irrelevant to them.
This is life as it is seen by three young writers. I think it is reasonable to ask why the picture is so grim. Is it merely that it is hard to write about virtuous, purposeful people, or must we leave this to M.R.A. propagandists? Is, in fact, sin the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modem world?
A most depressing feature of all this is that the sin which is made so much of in these books is not vivid at all. It is qutie monotonous. One has only to consider Rabelais, Sterne, Boccacio, Chaucer, Balzac and other writers of the past who covered similar themes. By contrast this stuff lacks gusto and humanity.
If today's characters seemed to enjoy their behaviour in the manner of Balzac's monks, for example, one might think more of them as people. To them, however, and therefore to the reader, modern sin is dull stuff. C. S. Lewis has said that in these days the really big sinners have died out, and we are left with a lot of petty fornicators. These books certainly seem to illustrate the point.
Furthermore, althouh they live their lives without reference to anybody else, these people are not individualists. Sin can be individual and interesting when some people remain moral. These authors do not write the usual gibes at "conventional" morality for they do not appear to know it exists. Such an attitude to life seems to me to negate all freedom.
It means that the more outrageous one's behaviour, then the more like everyone else one is, and the less room there is left for individual variation. The onrush of conformity has been detected in many places by many writers, here it is again, at the doors of the nursery. Sin, it seems is just not original any more.