Bilkish Vahed

Notes on Style & Daily Rebellion

Tag: erotic self

A Chopin Waltz


Marguerite Duras was seventy when she published her autobiographical novel The Lover Moody, melancholic, deeply reflective –  Duras tells the story of a clandestine relationship between a French teenage girl and a twenty-seven year old Chinese man, in 1930’s  Saigon. A story about a relationship that she actually had whilst growing up in Vietnam. “It’s very simple,” she says in the documentary Worn Out With Desire To Write (1995). “It’s a true love story, the story of our affair.”

“Inside the limousine there’s a very elegant man looking at me. He’s not a white man. He’s wearing European clothes – the light tussore suit of the Saigon bankers. He’s looking at me.”   —  The Lover 

Devoid of sentimentality, the tale of love is entwined with an exploration of “otherness.” The otherness of a wealthy Chinese man in French colonial Indo-China, who becomes the sexual awakener of a white, French, fifteen and a half year old emerging woman. Duras probes the desire that sparks and takes form in the young woman.

Then there is the family of the girl, marked by deep despondency. The poverty and day to day struggle of living; the emotionally remote mother; the brutish elder brother; the younger brother whom the girl loves tenderly –  these threads wind and loop around the unraveling relationship with the Chinese man.

“Never a hello, a good evening, a happy New Year. Never a thank you. Never any talk. Never any need to talk. Everything always silent, distant. It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable. Every day we try to kill one another, to kill.”  — The Lover

Darting backwards and forwards in time, in spare prose the writer wrestles with the circumstances of her life. Throughout the reader remains tentative about the true nature of this relationship between the girl and her lover, unsure of it’s real depth. Then suddenly, at the end of the slim volume, in the midst of a dark ocean, we feel with potency the shifting understanding that filters into the woman’s heart and mind, in the notes of a Chopin waltz.

“On the main deck there was a sudden burst of music, a Chopin waltz… the burst of Chopin under a sky lit up with brilliancies. There wasn’t a breath of wind and the music spread all over the dark boat, like a heavenly injunction whose import was unknown, like an order from God whose meaning was inscrutable. And the girl stared up as if to go and kill herself in her turn, throw herself in her turn into the sea, and afterwards she wept because she thought of the man from Cholon and suddenly she wasn’t sure she hadn’t loved him with a love she hadn’t seen because it had lost itself in the affair like water in sand and she rediscovered it only now, through this moment of music flung across the sea.”     — The Lover

Years later, “after marriages, children, divorces, books, he came to Paris with his wife.” Even then, even after having received the “heavenly injunction,” having been swept up in the realisation of love, still the woman feels his otherness. He tells her that he still loves her, “that he’d love her until death.” We don’t hear her response, don’t know if she remains silent. But the Chopin waltz continues to play softly in the distance, filling the mind of the reader.

Celibate in Paris


Imagine being at a party, people milling around drinks in hand, conversation is interesting then momentarily tedious, when someone suddenly says quietly: 

“For a long while, and I really don’t wish to say when it was or how many years it lasted, I chose to live in what was perhaps the worst insubordination of our times: I had no sex life.”  

This is Sophie Fontanel’s opening admission in her memoir The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex (2013).

It’s true that I’ve had intimate unasked for details of sexual exploits foist upon me, by a tipsy bragging man or woman at a party, but talk of no sex life? Not that, which makes Fontanel’s opening claim surprising and even shocking.

Spontaneously I flicked to the back jacket cover, and was greeted by a smiling, radiant, attractive woman, who has been an editor at French Elle for more than a decade, I read. What had prompted this decision, I wanted to know? Fontanel did not apparently find herself simply going through a dry period where no lover materialised to flame her desire; hers was, she tells us, a determination, a choice to be celibate – why? 

For a few months Fontanel’s friends tolerated her solitude and state of abstinence with curiosity. Curiosity soon gave way to harassment – had she met someone yet? Why was she not dressed properly – showing more leg, more cleavage and where in heavens name were the high heels?  They urged her, shoved her towards a man, any available man, but she was having none of it.

“I’d had it with being taken and rattled around. I’d had it with handing myself over. I’d said yes too much.”

In breezy prose and loosely connected vignettes, the narrative goes on to tell about the sexual lives of Fontanel’s friends. The guy who had been a star but who now is alone and melancholy and lives with his Monet; Henrietta who “bound herself to a man” through love, because she figured that “without anything, one has nothing”; the woman from Basel who extolls the wonderful sex that she has with her industrialist husband, though she still hankers for other men and her husband fantasises about a threesome; the neighbour who has been suffering for five years because his wife won’t let him touch her, as she finds the male body repulsive. 

Dissatisfied, compromised, sad lives – what did they tell me, if anything, about what sat at the heart of Fontanel’s story?

‘If you force yourself to make love, if your sex life isn’t as good as the one you dreamt of or expected, if you don’t feel respected, can you just stop? 

‘The answer is yes. And the fact that women can make love when and how they want is sexual liberation. But sexual liberation is also to not do it, if you don’t want to.’

Fontanel talking to the Telegraph

Could the key lie in the experience of the young girl who at thirteen looked sixteen? The precocious teenager who followed her lust into a hotel room with a handsome tourist from Mexico, twenty years her senior, a stranger who took what she had unconsciously offered, irreversibly. Did that first sexual experience shape everything that followed? 

At twenty her first serious boyfriend had his way with her. He woke her in the middle of the night but she was never grumpy. In bed, he tugged her head this way and that but she didn’t bat an eyelid. He strode around the apartment imperiously. She remained impassive and mysterious but something else lurked within.

One day her boyfriend was in bed watching a television show about dog handlers. Contrary to what the public think, a colonel explained, the dangerous dogs are not those that bark and carry on, appearing fearsome, for those dogs give someone a chance to actually plan an approach and form a relationship with them. The dog that appears placid, on the other hand, that allows you to approach, doesn’t growl, welcomes your pat, then suddenly whips around to tear off your cheek because you have unknowingly touched her on “some nondescript place” – that’s the tricky dog. A picture of a female Dalmatian appeared on the screen. Fontanel chillingly realised – she was that tricky Dalmatian.

Ours is a culture where to admit to having no sex life is to open oneself to ridicule. Someone who is not doing it  – frequency is crucial – can feel like a pariah condemned to silence. Fontanel’s slim volume goes a way to lifting the veil of silence, but more needs to be written with sensitivity and intelligence about the unravelling complexities of desire.

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