Sagan et Fils by Denis Westhoff
Release date (France): 30/05/2012
Francoise Sagan is synonymous with fast cars, cigarettes, teenage rebellion and expensive extravagance. But what was this mythical celebrity novelist like as a mother? In a new book that publishers have been clamouring for since her death in 2004, Denis Westhoff, her son, has written “his truth” about France’s “charming little monster”.
She became France’s first teenage literary star in 1954 when she published Bonjour Tristesse at the age of 19. It is the story of a rich, carefree, amoral teenager who goes to dangerous extremes to prevent her father from remarrying. The explicitness and ambiguous morality of the book caused a scandal, but the young author’s talent won her almost overnight fame.
Denis Westhoff, is Sagan’s only child, is now 50 years old and a photographer. Two years following his mother’s death in 2004 he accepted to inherit everything from her, which included a debt of over a million euros. He also inherited about thirty novels, and a dozen plays.
From the introduction of his book, Westhoff establishes that he is revealing half of his mother’s life “as attentively and objectively as possible”. Of course, as a son’s portrait of his mother, it is very different from the portrayals drawn by ordinary biographers. It is full of complicity and discretion.
Westhoff evokes an unpredictable mother who loved to live dangerously by pushing all boundaries. Revisiting certain places, he remembers intimate conversations, intense moments, happy but also painful: the terrible car accident, the addiction to morphine, the physical and financial deterioration.
Sagan’s son also describes those who were closest to her, including his grandparents and also his father, an American, Bob Westhoff. He shines a light onto the mysterious life of one of the great figures of French literature, who was for him a loving mother, very careful to protect her child from publicity.
The woman described by Denis Westhoff is a generous friend, and a generally joyful person. She also had a deeply solitary personality, preferring to be surrounded by friends, but subtly keeping her distance. Westhoff remembers, for example, the “peaceful and happy sanctuary” that was her house in Normandy, where they would read for whole afternoons, lying down in her study, while from the next room they could hear lively conversations and laughter.
Denis, born in 1962, never knew the insanity of his mother’s sudden fame after the release of Bonjour Tristesse, and he was quite embarrassed by her legend. Even his mother herself once said “I was a heroine in a comic book called Sagan. People only talked to me about money, cars and whisky…” Yet despite the celebrity and the myth surrounding her, Sagan does not seem to have been a distant mother, and it is hard to find any trace of bitterness in Denis’s narrative.
He describes a mother who taught him respect, freedom, indignation, enthusiasm, and who gave him a taste for reading. “My mother and I”, writes Denis Westhoff “we shared thirty real years of happness, of surprises, of intelligence, humour, spirit, ideas”. Sagan et fils is the nostalgic and tender declaration of a great filial love.