A Past Recaptured

In Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthropologist on Mars, there is an essay on the artist’s memory. He remarks that it is the discontinuities in life that fuel reminiscence and, through reminiscence, myth and art:

One may be born with the potential for a prodigious memory, but one is not born with a disposition to recollect; this comes only with changes and separations in life—separations from people, from places, from events and situations, especially if they have been of great significance, have been deeply hated or loved…. Discontinuity and nostalgia are most profound if, in growing up, we leave or lose the place where we were born and spent our childhood, if we become expatriates or exiles, if the place, or the life, we were brought up in is changed beyond recognition or destroyed.

Sybille Bedford is a distinguished and neglected writer whose life and work fits Sacks’s observations perfectly. She was born in Berlin in 1911, and her parents’ marriage ended soon afterward. She was brought up in the German countryside by her father. When she was ten, her mother, a well-off Englishwoman, demanded custody, and Sybille was handed over at a railway station on the Dutch border. The years following were divided between France, Italy, and England, where she received a patchy education. Fluent in several languages, she began writing in her teens, and it was the English language that gave her a focus, a sense of security. But her masterwork, A Legacy, concerned itself with her German self, with her earliest childhood and with events which took place before she was born. It is a fictionalized reconstruction of life in Germany among the Catholic minor aristocracy and the haute juiverie of Berlin, and its narrative spans almost fifty years, beginning in pre-unification Germany and ending with the Great War. Its child-narrator describes events she could not possibly have witnessed, but describes them with a sensuous precision that almost convinces the reader that her consciousness predates her birth.

This elegant and haunting novel, which appeared in Britain in 1956, was the first of Bedford’s fiction to be published. Through her early career as a writer she seldom settled, moving between Rome, Paris, Provence, living the kind of scapegrace life that writers seemed to manage in those days, finding kind friends, patrons, hospitality—everything contingent and glamorous, perhaps better in the recall than the living: or at least the modern writer has to hope so. In 1958 she published The Best We Can Do, an account of the murder trial of Dr. John Bodkin Adams, and she reported on a number of other major trials, including those of Jack Ruby and the guards of Auschwitz. In the early 1970s she produced a two-volume life of Aldous Huxley, whom she had known since she was a young woman. Settling at last in London, sitting on writers’ committees, embracing writers’ causes, she reported on her frequent European travels and wrote about food and wine.

There had been …

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