The Four Corners of the Heart: An Unfinished Novel
"This is a short book, one in which every sentence deserves to be savored, one that holds hidden depths in the astute observations of a brilliant writer."
Buried in Francois Sagan's papers was a slim manuscript, this unfinished story now published for the first time. Though a film adaptation was made based on The Four Corners of the Heart, no printed
version was publicly available until now. There were brief thoughts of having someone else finish the story, but this was wisely abandoned. The work is so incisively, completely Sagan, it merits reading even without the ending, perhaps especially without the ending. Instead the reader is invited to come up with their own satisfying finish given the lead-up to the grand evening party which surely would have closed this narrative.
Sagan fleshes out her characters with taut language that spares no niceties. This is a family drama. A pompous, commanding father; his invalid second wife; his adult son who has recently returned home after three years in various rehab centers, struggling to recover from an almost lethal car crash; the son's viperish wife; and in the last section of the book, the kind-hearted mother of the cruel, vain wife.
The setting is La Cressonnade, a garishly ugly manor, built to impress the neighbors, as many of the other characters also work to do. Sagan is wickedly funny in her capsule descriptions of the family's various faults. Here she is on Marie-Laure, the wife of the recovering son, Ludovic Cresson, and her attitude toward her husband:
"Ludovic Cresson would make a loyal husband, this was clear. Alas, almost all of his qualities—apart from his wealth—were faults to Marie Laure. Sophisticated, light on education but, thanks to a grab-bag of fashionable reading and a handy polish of buzzwords and taboos, she was known to her circle as a quick and perfectly attuned intelligence. . . . But she had no idea what life was nor what she wanted from it, unless that was luxury."
Marie Laure barely tolerates Ludovic while he's away in various hospitals. Once he returns home, she makes clear her total distaste for him, considering him an addled idiot. The book opens shortly after Ludovic's return, and the plot centers around his father's plan to hold an evening party proving to the town that his son is fine. Henri, the father, isn't noble in his ambitions, however. He is driven by the need to appear better than anyone else.
"Henri preserved a psychological aloofness that offered respite from the inevitable inanities exchanged over dinner. And during this dinner, our patriarch calmly and philosophically concluded at several points, that his son probably had lost his marbles, his daughter-in-law was worldly and witless, his wife was ugly and an imbecile . . ."
When Fanny, Marie-Laure's widowed mother, arrives to help with the planned soiree, the tone shifts. Finally there is a sympathetic character, one who sees clearly the fault lines in this supposedly superior family.
"The pretentiousness, indifference, and mild aggression in response to stupidity at La Cressonade was founded on a complete lack of interest in anyone else. . . . There was nothing left beside this huge fat house full of staircases, machicolations, and self-centered people. Fanny had met and appreciated in their turn rich people, snobs, and the buyers her designer worked with, but she had never identified or met people as strange to her as these. It wasn't money that ruled here, nor ambition nor the taste for power—nothing she had encountered before, but rather a deliberate non-communication practiced by the whole family, which chilled her to the core."
This icy distance extends to her own daughter, Marie-Laure. The only warmth Fanny feels is from the dog and from the supposed idiot, Ludovic, who basks in her integrity and honesty as if in the light of a rare sun.
Ludovic had been a bit of a thoughtless rake before the accident, but years of scrambling to survive have pared him down to an essence that surprisingly turns out to be good.
"Ludovic had been saved by his lack of interest in himself, but his absolute lack of esteem—or indeed of contempt—for himself. Denied any responsibilities except for the few dubious and sentimental ones he had occasionally invented, he seemed now to have no rights . . . He had been a carefree and steadfast man, quite ignorant of his own happiness, who was then ripped from the flow of his easygoing life and was now a troubled man, a man resigned to his solitude by the years of despair that had passed over him. Deprived of affection since childhood, he had long felt like the invalid he had officially become."
The coming together of Ludovic and Fanny offers Sagan more time to explore how people can matter to each other, what makes for a full life and what makes for a distraction masquerading as a real life. The ending of the story would have revealed which will triumph, callous, yet powerful nastiness or vulnerable, yet authentic goodness. Whichever one Sagan would have ultimately chosen, it would certainly have unfolded with a sharp clarity that would leave the reader stunned.
This is a short book, one in which every sentence deserves to be savored, one that holds hidden depths in the astute observations of a brilliant writer. Sagan's son, the executor of her estate and the one shepherding the publication of this book, says it best himself in his afterword. The book is "published at last in its most authentic, unadorned form, an indispensable gift to all her readers." Truly, it's a gift to all readers period, especially for those who don't know Sagan as much as those who do.