Writers aspire to lead useful lives; not useful to the community of course, but to themselves. Exotic or outcast origins are useful, and so is a talent for catastrophe, self-induced if need be. There is nothing so sad one can’t capitalize on it; the general rule for a writer’s life is the worse things get, the better they get. In this respect, Sybille Bedford’s early life was very promising. Born in Berlin in 1911, the child of an unhappy marriage, she was dispatched like a badly labeled package from one European country to the next, crossing frontiers and changing languages; from the age of sixteen or so, she was left to organize her own education, both sentimental and practical. Someone of a less robust sensibility might have been destroyed by the experience, but Bedford put it to work in four remarkable books which draw on her childhood and young adult life. Through a writing career which continued into the 1990s, she showed her relish for change, risk, movement, innovation; but in her fiction her adult self is almost invisible, and she has made her memory her chief resource, putting her early years at the heart of her life’s work.
She was born in Charlottenburg, an affluent district of Berlin. Her father’s name was Maximilian von Schoenbeck, and her mother—about whom she has always found it difficult to write—was an Englishwoman, restless, reckless, and cosmopolitan. Sybille grew up with her father in the country, but when she was ten her mother sent for her, and for several years she moved between France, England, and Italy. Two novels written in the 1960s (A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error) would draw on her experience as a teenage girl shuttling between a London bed-sitting room, where she studied alone for part of the year, and her mother’s villa in Provence, where she would go in the summer to learn how to fall in love. In 1989 she produced a more expansive account of her childhood and adolescence: this was an “autobiographical novel” called Jigsaw. But her best-known novel, A Legacy, reaches back to the years before her own birth, to recount the history of three families, and to explore through their intertwined stories the forces that shaped the twentieth century.
A Legacy is a story from a vanished world, a world before the deluge, and it provides its reader with the disorienting, melancholy pleasure derived from looking at old maps. It is a sophisticated book with a cosmopolitan gloss which flatters the reader, induces a nostalgia for other people’s past: for the vanished configurations of fallen empires, and days when the dice were shaken differently, where emotions were operatic and whims well-funded, where borders were crossed with ease but countries were different from each other, where beauty was viewed not merely as a personal asset but as part of an aesthetic tradition, and where raw experience had uncertain value till it was rationally examined and filtered through the lens of high culture. In this book, three centuries of European history draw close together. There are intimations of the eighteenth century in the sentimental friendships of old men, their easy tears: Rousseauist whispers in a South German glade. In the distance, too far to be distinct, the shapes of the future mass like tanks on the skyline.
Sybille Bedford had started writing before she was out of her teens, but her early novels had been failures, unpublished. She was forty, and living in Rome, when she began work on A Legacy. A recent journey in Mexico had produced a travel book, and its acceptance by Gollancz in the summer of 1952 gave her permission to think of herself as a proper writer. Her first task was to finish the thirty-page fan letter she was writing to Ivy Compton-Burnett. In part it was a method of procrastination, in part a manifesto for her own work; the “cutting acerbities of Burnettian dialogue” were still in her head as she began to write, but she knew that she had to shape a narrative far broader than that of her model, whose tragedies take place between drawing room and hall.
A Legacy would take three years to write. Its setting is Germany of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the years, roughly, between unification and the Great War. It deals with three families, very unlike one another, linked by marriage: each confident of its own place in the universe, each deeply mistaken in that confidence. The Merzes represent the wealthy Jews of Berlin. The other two families are from the Catholic south. The Feldens are mild, cultured but rustic in inclination, antiquarian in mind-set, with a somnambulant backward-looking faith of a medieval quaintness. The Bernins—less affectionately portrayed—think of themselves as a family on the rise. They are meddlesome, fond of moralizing, flawed in perception of the outside world, deeply interested in power and ruined by the inept pursuit of it.
The history of these families comes to us by way of an eerie first-person narrator who can reproduce everything that happened before she was born—not just the events and conversations, but the scent of food and flowers, the play of the light. At her birth in Berlin, this narrator—later named as Francesca—is embraced as a member of the Merz household, though she is related to them by marriage, not by blood. Her father had married a Merz daughter who died young; but his in-laws still make him a yearly allowance, and think of him as one of themselves, for once the Merz family have got used to a person they don’t like to let go.
When the action begins, Grandpapa Merz is a spry, dapper, pink and white old gentleman turning ninety. Grandmama is “a short bundle of a woman, all swaddled in stuffs and folds and flesh, stuck with brooches of rather grey diamonds…. She had plump tranquil hands, and a waddling walk,” and since food is a high priority in the great house at Voss Strasse, “she saw the cook herself for half an hour every morning.” Under the Merz roof are a middle-aged son, Friedrich, who comes and goes and brings in the Stock Exchange News, and two cousins, Markwald and Emil, elderly gentlemen who lost their fortunes thirty years ago and have retreated to the bosom of the family. There is also Henrietta, the narrator’s half-sister, the child of her father’s first marriage. And there is her father himself, Julius von Felden, a bird of passage from the warmer climate of Baden, snared in the net of money and family warmth and implacable complacency.
The Merz family pay such close attention to their material comfort that it assumes the status of a heroic virtue. Their lives are a succession of meals:
Second breakfast was laid every morning at eleven-fifteen on a long table in the middle of the Herrenzimmer, a dark, fully furnished room with heavily draped windows that led from an antechamber to an antechamber. The meal was chiefly for the gentlemen. They ate cold Venison with red-currant jelly, potted meats, tongue and fowl accompanied by pumpernickel, toast and rye-bread, and they drank port wine. Grandmama sat with them. She had a newly-laid egg done in cream, and nibbled at some soft rolls with Spickgans, smoked breast of goose spread on butter and chopped fine. Grandpapa had a hot pousin-chicken baked for him every day in a small dish with a lid; and Cousin Markwald who had a stomach ailment ate cream of wheat, stewed sweetbreads and a special kind of rusks.
The Merz family never travel except to take the waters, and then in a private railway carriage with their own linen. Their butler, Gottlieb, has been in service with them for fifty-five years.
Outside their front door is a swaggering city of big buildings, big money, and big ideas. The trades are thriving, the middle classes gaining in wealth and influence, the rich becoming bloated; the old caste barriers have broken down, to be replaced by a social recklessness and unease.
Elsewhere in the country, a fluid identity prevails. The von Feldens of Baden are citizens of Europe, but their immediate world is pastoral, parochial; for them, Germany is an idea whose time has not yet come. The family is old, undistinguished, Catholic, and Francophile. They are hunters and husbandmen, dabblers in the natural sciences, wine drinkers with their own vineyard, musicians who make their own instruments; they inhabit a country of small farms and trout streams set in a gentle landscape. All this, the child-narrator knows intimately through her father’s reminiscences:
I knew the sheltered valley of Landen where the apricots had ripened on the south wall every year; I learnt the names of dogs and ducks and horses, and the smell of seasons—of the scent that drifted across the snow from where the sides of boar were smoked, of sweet clouded wine drunk foaming off the press and stands at sunrise immobile by a pond…. I learnt terms of bee-keeping and terms of stag-driving; I learnt of clean straw, oats and clover, of winter honey, walnuts and March wool…. I learnt that at Landen they had dined at exactly one hour after sunset and that my grandfather (or was it his father?) explained this to his guests as a custom of the Romans…. I learnt…that the boys were always given brandy and hot water when they came in from skating in the winter dusk, and that Johannes the third son had danced with a bear at a fair.
Among the Feldens, German is spoken to tenants and domestics, Latin to the curé, French within the family. The mother of the family is long dead. There are four brothers. Julius, the father of the narrator, is the second. As a young man, Julius accompanies a prince of the Baden ruling house on a European grand tour, and acquires more languages, social polish, and an informed taste in art and antiques:
He returned to Landen as a young man, with a lemur, some crates full of bric-a-brac…. It was after 1870; the Franco-Prussian War had been fought while Julius was in Spain, Baden was now a part of Germany, and he found everything quite changed.
The price of land is falling, and it is decided that at least some of the Felden boys must have careers. Gabriel is still a child, and Gustavus, the eldest, who is pompous and likes painting coats of arms, is allowed to stay at home in anticipation of his marriage. Julius, who had hoped to pass his life as an amateur cabinetmaker, is sent to Bonn to study for the examinations to enter the diplomatic service. Johannes had wished to make a career as an animal trainer. Instead, he is sent to cadet school; and it is this unwise decision that shapes the tragedy that governs the rest of the narrative. Brutalized at the savage academy, which is designed to turn out officers who are “defective human beings,” Johannes decides to run away, and after his first failed attempt, which results in beating and confinement, he treks cross-country to his home, pursued by the police. He arrives after eight days, barefoot, ragged, starving. He is revived with Tokay Essence and a hothouse peach. His stories of the stupidity and malice of his superiors are received with horror but also a measure of incredulity; why would anyone behave so? The Feldens suffer from a failure of imagination, bred from their own benignity.