What they don’t tell you about Bonjour Tristesse is that it’s more than a novel. It’s a condition that Françoise Sagan likely pulled from her own experience of post-coital dysphoria (apart from ripping the title off of a poem called “À Peine Défigurée” by Paul Éluard). The only difference is Éluard attempts to say, “Adieu tristesse,” in his narrative–perhaps because he is of the male persuasion, and it’s always easier for them to say goodbye to unpleasantries like heartache, primarily because of their adroitness in the art of suppression and self-induced memory malfunctioning.
But Sagan knew that it’s always, “Hello sadness.” Forever hello. Because in an effort to not feel alone, to find someone by trial and error, there will inevitably be the potential for sex. All of which is usually rendered hollow in the long-run as a result of predictable abandonment. Renée Christienne, a thirty-five year old who had fled Paris for the even more insufferable Rouen three years earlier, tried to explain this to her therapist on a weekly basis, but Doctor Caron merely worked to undo all of the diligence she had put into making these tapes to play over and over in her head–like he wanted to destroy their message by unspooling them. What did he know? He was a man. Adamant in telling her that it was only natural to feel some sense of post-coital dysphoria when taking into consideration her robust body count. That is to say, Doctor Caron felt that the number of men she had slept with was what ultimately prompted her to incur this level of dysphoria.
When it first started happening, around the time Renée was twenty-one and living in 90s-era Montmartre, she took upon her shoulders a feeling that would soon become all too familiar: like a chasm had opened up in the universe and she was expected to enter it while in panic attack mode, only further adding to the intensity of the panic attack. The horror only lasted five minutes, and her brief lover, Gaspar, was kinder than most would be when it came to comforting her, even held her for an hour after the display–which is an unheard of amount of time in terms of what a male is usually willing to offer in affection for a relative unknown.
She left his apartment writing the incident off as a fluke–something that would never and could never happen again, at least for the sake of keeping her embarrassment levels to a minimum. But a week later, the same feeling, the same descent into a sinking pit of despair happened again with Alexandre, an attractive businessman she had picked up while performing an interpretive dance in the metro. Though she saw him a few times after that, making the “relationship” last a full month because he was better in bed than most (oh how naive she was in her experience at that time), she couldn’t stop feeling the unbearable sadness the second he finished and rolled over. It was an unshakeable emptiness like the kind you find in a drum. And those first few years when it began to blossom, she wanted to blame herself. Thought it must be her own mental defect causing this unwanted negative association with one of the only things in life that made it worth living–and was actually free. But the psychological cost was greater than any financial one, Renée discovered by the time she was twenty-six, and couldn’t seem to pick herself up from a pile on the floor. And it wasn’t as though she were rich or anything and could afford the luxury of a breakdown. It was merely that she was manic enough to make money in bursts, spend it all and then force herself to work again. But this time, it was taking too long for her mania of productivity to kick in. She decided the only cure was the cause, and forced herself to go out that night to coerce a willing body into her bed. At her happiest when a man was inside of her, Renée began a new experiment in running post-coital tristesse off the path: always having a hard object between her legs. If it wasn’t real flesh, than it had to be a dildo. Maybe, just maybe, if she always sustained the peak oxytocin, endorphin and prolactin levels that arrived with every orgasm, she would never have to experience any semblance of PCD. This begat a new problem entirely. She had been inducing pleasure so often that it became more of a challenge for her to orgasm. And soon, the method was made ineffective by her inability to finish every time. What was the point of sex without orgasm? It was like dinner without dessert–utterly unsatisfying, almost insulting. It was then, at the age of twenty-seven and with the number of notches in her bedpost totaling approximately 1,211 that Renée decided to succumb to psychiatry. Doctor Flaneur popped her “on the couch” cherry, prescribing her right away with a heavy dosage of fluoxetine. And at first, it seemed effective. So long as Renée took her medication close to the time that she was planning (for she always planned it) to engage in sex, she would only feel a slight pang of sadness in the aftermath, which helped her adopt the aloof aura that made men want to ask for her number so that they could see her again. This, too, helped contribute to her improved mood. For superficial though it may be, Renée, like so many women, fed off of the so-called approval of men. Who knows? Maybe all females are cursed with Queen Grimhilde’s malady–which is to say, they must be constantly reassured that they and no other woman are the fairest of them all. That’s, in part, what Renée was seeking in her sexual safari. Neither of her parents had ever praised her for her looks, though it seemed as though every other stranger on the street did, even encouraged Renée’s frumpy mother, Sophie, to get her daughter involved in modeling. Her father, Paul, brushed aside such notions when Sophie casually brought up what Mrs. So and So said to her at the bakery, declaring, “Modeling is not a profession. It’s socially accepted prostitution and I won’t have my daughter involved in it.”
Eventually, when her parents divorced, they both stopped trying to control her path, merely intervening in her dreams when it came to not being able to financially back them. So whatever aspirations she had quickly fell by the wayside in favor of street performing. She made quite a great deal from it, her various childhood lessons in gymnastics, ballet and theater paying off. It was also her greatest source for being picked up by men. Sure, they were all rather dubious. What kind of man has the gall to hit on a street performer unless he sees her as some sort of circus curiosity? And that’s what she was to them. Though it took her a very long time to realize it, with eventual guidance from Doctor Caron.
The move to Rouen was somewhat calculated. While many who fled from the psychological damages of Paris opted for the quietude of the south, Renée couldn’t bear the idea of not inhabiting a city. Rouen was, perhaps to use an overstatement, the next best thing. And with a referral from her then current shrink, Doctor Mathieu, she was sent on her way, soon to take the stage upon new landmarks like the Jardin des Plantes and the Rouen Cathedral.
Rouen also proved a sounder choice for her mental health in that she found it more challenging to peruse through men at her disposal like a rolodex. There was more reluctance in this city about sex than there was in Paris. Cut off the supply of sex, cut off the sadness. But soon, this left a different kind of void in her heart. And before very long, she was starting to find her attraction to Doctor Caron fairly undeniable. A cliche as old as the profession of psychiatry, patient was falling for doctor.
Caron, naturally, could sense what was happening on the other side of his desk, and had to decide, morally, how to proceed. In one regard, he believed in experimentalism, that maybe by fulfilling her wish to sleep with him, he could cure something in her. In another, she could sink into a depressive hole more cavernous than the vagina itself. What to do, what to do. Oh the challenges facing a psychiatrist that the civilian could never understand.
Continuing to ruminate over the possibility, as well as Renée’s overtly flirtatious demeanor as she persisted in telling Caron that she hadn’t fucked anyone for months, things finally escalated during one of their sessions. But rather than becoming unbearably melancholic when it was over, as Caron feared she would, Renée appeared euphoric, chipper even. This demeanor would maintain in subsequent meetings as well.
It was only after the news arrived that he was able to interpret why she had been so happy before her death: she had at last, with confidence, decided to end things by hanging herself with a bedsheet. She was a histrionic one, at that, Caron mused as he read the article about a woman found hanging in a mattress warehouse. Had he finally sent her over the edge? Proven once and for all that all men are mongrel dogs not to be trusted with one’s emotions? He shrugged as he X’d out of the article. His next patient would be arriving soon. A new client he had recently taken on after much cajoling on her part. A nymphomaniac.