Bilkish Vahed


Category: MUSES & IDEAS (page 1 of 2)

Françoise Sagan, 1954


In  Sagan, Paris 1954  Anne Berest delicately weaves multiple narrative threads. The events of early 1954  that led up to the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, and the reflections of a woman who is going through “one of the most painful periods of her life” since being separated from the father of her daughter – Berest herself.

Anne Berest ©SIPA

What emerges is an exposition that criss- crosses genres: the novel, biography, fictionalised autobiography. Events are imagined – Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is placed on the night table of the young Sagan, only to be tossed in the air later after a conversation with Sagan’s best friend, Florence Malraux. “Do you think that in 1954 Françoise might have had A Room of One’s Own on her bedside table?” Berest asks Florence. “I don’t think people read Virginia Woolf until quite a bit later. In 1954 we were reading Proust, Dostoyevsky… but Woolf, I don’t think so.”

Françoise Sagan

Anne Berest had been immersed in the writing of her third novel when Denis Westhoff, the only son of Françoise Sagan, approached her. In his “soft, staccato tone,” he asked her to write a book about his mother. “We will soon be marking the tenth anniversary of her death… and I would like people to remember just what the publication of Bonjour Tristesse represented for society back in 1954.”

Chapitre Premier  – Bonjour Tristesse

“Sur ce sentiment inconnu don’t l’ennui, la douceur m’obsèdent, j’hésite à apposer le nom, le beau nom grave de tristesse. C’est un sentiment si complet, si égoiste que j’en ai presque honte alors que la tristesse m’a toujours paru honourable. Je ne la connaissais pas, elle, mais l’ennui, le regret, plus rarement le remords. Aujourd’hui, quelque chose se replie sur moi comme une soie, énervante et douce, et me sépare des autres.

Cet été-là, j’avais dix-sept ans…”

Bonjour Tristesse written in six weeks and published almost immediately was a literary triumph. It is a refined story told by a young sophisticate about boredom and love. What is arresting is the tone, the voice.  The cool, clear eyed, sure footedness of the young woman narrator. Her steady nonchalance.

It is probably Sagan’s abiding fearlessness, intimately wound up with her recklessness and voraciousness that pulses through her text and her life, catching her public’s attention. Hers is the glamour of both a Paris Match style combined with a real love of books. “My mother was never afraid,” Denis Westhof tells Berest. “No, she wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone… It was one of the things she taught me. Not to be afraid.”

In the end, this is not a book primarily about a debut novel. It is an encounter between two women, both French writers. Berest creates a kind of mystical space for this when she makes an appointment to see a clairvoyant, overlaying Sagan’s own visit to a fortune teller.

“Yes, I can see that you’re writing a book on someone’s life,” the clairvoyant says. “It’s the life of a woman who lived as a man would…. She was a woman who had experienced everything. She did whatever she wanted to do.”

Then with certainty she says, “I am seeing Françoise Sagan – that’s correct, isn’t it?”

The clairvoyant alerts Berest: “You are sometimes going to want to do certain things that you are not used to doing….. go ahead…. You have nothing to fear, she is watching over you.”

Berest encounters Sagan. Sagan moves through Berest, altering her.

The Charm of Hanna


During the winter of 2010, when I was a German language student in Berlin, I saw the Tom Tykwer movie Dreia social comedy about a heterosexual couple who have lived together for twenty years and who separately, and unknowingly, embark on an affair with the same man. The next day I couldn’t stop enthusing about the movie and recommended it to everyone in class. My teacher, Doris, promised to see it that weekend, so Monday morning I greeted her with a look of expectation?

Her delicate facial features hesitated, wavered between a smile and something more reflective. Then her nose scrunched up and her mouth pouted, “Es war so körperlich,” she burst out. I laughed heartily remembering the many scenes of naked bodies that graced the screen for a full two hours. The movie wasn’t Doris’s cup of tea. I put it down to a form of conservatism and didn’t think more of it.

But the film played on my mind. It wasn’t the arrangement – one woman and two men in three configurations – that intrigued me, that was of secondary interest. The reportage of life in Berlin which I was then experiencing first hand, did engage me, but something else asked to be grasped. What intrigued me was the appealing quirkiness – or what my foreign eyes saw as quirky – of the lead lady Hanna, played by Sophie Rois.

Sophie Rois as Hanna in “Drei” Foto: © TriArt

Hanna is a forty-something Berliner, attractive but not conventionally beautiful, elegant in dress but not glamorous, a cultured urbanite, a “Frau Doktor” who sits on an Ethics committee for stem cell research and is a television reporter. Her conversations are sharp, she says “quatsch” a lot.

“quatsch” = bollocks;  boloney;  fiddle-faddle;   nonsense

In the opening scene of the movie, Hanna and her partner, Simon, are naked in bed, he on top. Simon looks into her eyes and declares, “You are dogmatic.” Without losing a beat, Hanna spurts back, “You are dogmatic. I am totalitarian.” Simon smiles quietly. “Agreed,” he says.  With a push, Hanna turns him over so that she’s on top. The conversation continues.

Hanna is spirited. Mercurial, argumentative, demanding, and funny.  She engages with the world intellectually but is also tuned into her body, her erotic impulses are alive. She lives with contradictions, is contrarian. Unthinkingly leaves her cell phone at home, arrives at 2am after the theatre and dinner with friends, and is totally surprised that Simon was worried about her. Her life is messy, though full.

Hollywood screen sirens, swathed in fur, flawless skin, crimson lips, glossy hair perfectly coiffed, ooze sophistication and glamour. Hanna, now pouting, there batting her eye pointedly, scurrying out of her lover’s bathroom window to escape what she doesn’t want to escape; Hanna is a different kind of character. Sophie Rois’s sparkling portrayal of a woman who is headstrong, sometimes silly, smart, vulnerable, opinionated, individual, enlarges the oeuvre of the silver screen.

You & Me



it took me a long time

to see, to finally see

that you never really liked me

not all of me, not me


only a part of me

some part  that enticed you

you wanted a part of me

but there i stood grotesque

oozing all of me


you chipped away

chiseled, hacked and sculpted

tweaked and reshaped

i became your sticky version of me


flickers of awareness

darted in my dreams

skipped and slipped and tripped

disappeared unseen


it took me a long time

a long time to see



When my eyes were averted, you slunk around me

Spinning a tender lattice of awareness

Wilfully piercing my consciousness, forcing me to awaken

When my eyes were averted, you wanted me.


Irresistibly I turned and looked back at you

Smiled, said something, let my eyes laugh into yours

You drew back surprised, disoriented, your radiant face darkened

When I looked back at you, you closed up on me.


Stunned, confused, awash in shame, I collapsed in a heap, grew small

What had I done, I called out to the night, what had I done?


Effulgent comprehension arrived slowly and in its wake,

Indignation, purple anger, rage bubbled and frothed until

Raucous laughter burst forth, my blood ran warm and

I grew large, enormous, and full.



I miss the letters you used to write me,

Chock-full of aliveness and vitality,

Brimming, luscious and uncensored,

Tales of your day to day in raw openness let slip,

Unheeded into the soft container of our affection.


Abruptly a sliver of discomfort has slipped between us,

You write me posts, comments, tweets, texts,

You write to me and to all of them at once,

The silent ones who watch and listen are now a cryptic presence,

Between us, in the midst of us.


The murkiness of otherness has altered your voice, changed you,

But I know the colossal beauty and brilliance of your unfettered self,

I want you back, I want you back again,

Unconstrained by the cameras and the din.

I miss you. I miss hearing from you.

Ugly, beautiful and all that


Diana Vreeland2

Diana Vreeland is compelling to watch on film – her independent attitude, spiritedness, uniqueness, her clipped almost incantory style of speaking, her body language – are brought fully to life in the documentary The Eye Has to Travel.

With a frankness that is brutal she tells how her mother used to say, “It’s too bad that you have such a beautiful sister and you are so extremely ugly.”

“I was always her ugly little monster,” she continues coolly.

“And how did that make you feel?” the interviewer, George Plimpton, asks.

“Now George,” she says, ” I don’t think we want to go there. Let’s just say, mum was a wild woman, you know, she used to hunt rhinos.”

One evening at a party in 1924 Diana fell in love with an elegant, quiet man.

“I never felt comfortable about my looks until I met Reed Vreeland. He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. Very quiet. Very elegant. I loved all that. I believe in love at first sight because that’s what it was. Reed made me feel beautiful, no matter what my mother made me think.” – DV

Diana & Reed Vreeland

Diana & Reed Vreeland

Diana VreelandDiana Vreeland getting into a taxi

Despite her alleged lack of beauty, she was a wild success in a world defined by bodies and faces: fashion. Fashion Editor at Harpers Bazaar for twenty six years (1936-1962), then Editor of Vogue for eight. Writing about Vreeland in Vanity Fair Amy Fine Colins  explains that Vreeland was unerringly prescient about fashion trends, “a kind of seeress, a philosopher whose subject happened to be style.”

“Vogue always stood for people’s lives. I mean a new dress doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s the life you’re living in the dress.” – DV

“You don’t have to be born beautiful to be wildly attractive.” – DV

“The only real elegance is in the mind; if you’ve got that, the rest really comes from it.” –DV

A Sassy Noble Voice


Had Maya Angelou written only two poems –  And Still I Rise  and  Phenomenal Woman – she would have earned her place in the hearts and minds of many for all time.  But she didn’t, she wrote plenty. Nuggets of cascading, rhythmic stories of life, she spoke them in a voice that loped and crooned and glittered with steel, a pliant steel, a steel of deep humanity that cut through the crassness of false difference.

“Human beings are more alike than we are unlike. And let us see that. And not only cherish that, but delight in the differences because differences are superficial, and they should delight us.”
— Maya Angelou to Tim Sebastian of the BBC

A black woman born in the American South in 1928. When her parents divorced she and her brother were sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her grandmother. She was three years old. Four years later she returned to her mother in St Louis where she suffered a trauma that caused her to stop speaking for five years. Whilst mute she read voraciously and fell in love with Poe and Shakespeare, she connected with the rhythm and music that can run through words. The poet was born.

The power of what Maya Angelou had to say was made alive and vital by the way she spoke it, performed it. Whether reciting poetry – her own and what others had written that she knew by heart – or responding to a question in an interview, she brought tone and cadence to her words, lacing them with spirit. Her sense of self was richly grounded, defiantly sure, open, bold, sensual, unafraid.

Maya Angelou at the Lewisham Theatre in South London 1987

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