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Child of the Century

It’s hard to state with any real confidence the facts about Sybille Bedford, beyond the unignorable fact of her being, at her best, a brilliant and original writer. Her subject has often been herself and her immediate world, but treated with much obliquity, reticence, and fictional license. These are all legitimate habits, or tactics, and discretion is a welcome, if old-fashioned, virtue; but their result is that you rarely know exactly where you stand. You could, for example, read her entire output without ever discovering her name, that is, the name of her family, which she relinquished by making a marriage of convenience in 1936; and it is only in her new memoir, Quicksands, published in her ninety-fifth year, that she satisfies half a century of curiosity about the identity of Mr. Bedford.

Sybille, daughter of a German baron and a flighty English beauty, and resident in the south of France, had had her assets seized by the Nazis, and was unable, and indeed unwilling, to renew her German passport. With the example of W.H. Auden’s marriage to Erika Mann in mind, her friend Maria Huxley saw at once that “we must get one of our bugger friends to marry Sybille” and so provide her with a British passport. It turns out that Terry Bedford was the ex-boyfriend of the butler of “a designer friend” of Aldous Huxley’s, and on the form at the registrar’s office he gave as his occupation “Club Attendant,” a marvelously vague calling. It is symptomatic of Quicksands, which contains much vivid and valuable writing, that we are not told the designer friend’s name.

Perhaps we only feel these frustrations because Bedford was, from the first page of her first book, a writer who excited curiosity. The Sudden View, published in 1953 and later reissued as A Visit to Don Otavio, is an account of an extended journey she made through Mexico in the years (again, she doesn’t say quite which) just after the war. The only facts she vouchsafes about herself are that “I had spent some years in the United States and was about to return to England”; though of course we take away from the book much more about her than that, a clear sense of her mind and preoccupations, her eye (somehow both generous and unsparing), her sense of humor and her sense of injustice, her deep and critical involvement in all matters of food and drink. The book affords the pleasures of the best travel writing, the simultaneous immersion in a foreign culture and a fascinating mind.

Don Otavio is very funny without resorting to any patronizing slapstick about Mexican life, or the inevitable low moments in a long journey through a relatively undeveloped country. Bedford traveled with her friend Mrs. Esther Murphy Arthur, referred to only as “E.”:

E.’s life is history and politics; she used to appear on Radio Forums described as Traveller and Commentator. She detests travelling, or rather she has neither aptitude nor tolerance for the mechanism of actual travel in progress.

E.’s concern for her own comfort and her increasingly skeptical view of Bedford’s more romantic travel projects provide much understated humor. E. is very well informed. Their mutual friend Nancy Mitford described her as “a large sandy person like a bedroom cupboard packed full of information, much of it useless, all of it accurate.” She seems to be that reliably funny thing, a person without a sense of humor. Descending the western Sierra Madre by train at “an exceedingly steep angle,”

I believe this is a very great engineering feat,” said E. “We had the same problem in the Rocky Mountains. No rail-bed can take that kind of stress long. You remember the Colorado Pass Rail Wreck in ‘39?”

At parties, she earnestly pursues sociopolitical topics. Rattled, she remembers who she is: “‘I am an American,’ said E. in an uncertain tone, as though she were practising for her level; ‘I am an American. I will not be pushed around.’” On a visit to a “Secret Convent,” accessible only through tiny hidden doors, that is exactly what she will not be; required to crawl through double-bottomed “sideboards,” the bedroom cupboard draws the line.

In Quicksands, Bedford acknowledges her early debts, as a writer, to Hemingway, Huxley, and Martha Gellhorn, but her tone in Don Otavio, droll, concise, imagistic, but never self-consciously poetic, is impressively her own:

Concert at the Teatro Nacionál. Virtuosi from the USA. The National Orchestra. Brief Bach. Brahms. A contemporary suite, not brief at all, thumping with fiesta motives, failing to do for Mexico what Ravel does for Spain. The public is cosmopolitan provincial, like an afternoon audience at the Casino in Nice. At midnight, more stanzas of the national anthem are played than is usual elsewhere at such occasions. Then we disperse from the stuffy foyer into a remote and silent night, bitter as a night in the desert. On the pavement hundreds of Indios are curled in sleep.

What could one deduce about the writer of such a passage? A person who doesn’t like to waste time, and yet who notices everything; who sees that a mere note is sufficient for one thing, while a sinuous dry joke is best for another. It is an English tone of voice, which pays the reader the social compliment of believing he will hear and share its tremor of irony; but its hint of a possible snobbishness (that “cosmopolitan provincial” audience) is swiftly offset by the sudden view of the cold Mexican night and the shelterless Indios. It is a voice that conveys the author’s openness to experience but also inspires confidence that she knows what she’s talking about. There are reserves of pathos, but they are reserves. This is the talk of a very dry wit whose wit itself seems a guard against any more personal exposure.

As a teenager with ambitions to be an author, Bedford’s prayer was “Make me a writer, but not yet!” It was meticulously answered. She was forty-two when her first book came out. She had had almost no formal education, beyond brief attendance at a village school in southern Germany when her father had fallen on hard times, and extreme economies prevailed at the family Schloss. Her account of this period in Jigsaw, her novelized memoir of 1989, is a masterpiece of her dual method, both a mosaic of vital childhood impressions and a penetrating historical analysis. Later on, when the polyglot Bedford was living with her mother and young Italian stepfather in the south of France, the classic literature she read was mainly French, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, “Flaubert rather than Dickens or Trollope; Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir every year from page one to the end and its unfailing shock; Colette….” Yet when it came to the moment of marrying Terry Bedford she saw that, yes, what she wanted was to be “an English writer.”

Intellectual discipline came from conversations, almost debates, with her mother, whose Fabian ideals and fatalistic view of human suffering lastingly colored her daughter’s mind and work. One must always use the evidence of A Legacy and Jigsaw warily, since they are avowedly novels, but it seems likely that her mother did indeed say to Sybille, “I want your mind—if you turn out to have one—to be concrete and fastidious”—a further prayer that was answered.

Sent to stay, in her adolescence, with a rackety artist and his family in England, Bedford discovered Waugh, the clearest influence, in style and procedure, on Don Otavio and her next book, A Legacy, which have much of Waugh’s economy without his fe-rocity. At the same time, Aldous Huxley became the subject of near idolatry: Antic Hay, Crome Yellow, Lim- bo, the early essays “seemed to bring to me everything I would then have liked to know and think.” When the Huxleys came to live near Sanary, in the south of France, Bedford found herself their neighbor, and in due course their intimate friend. The two-volume biography of Huxley she was later to write owes part of its intense interest to its being a commemoration of this great shaping coincidence in her life. It is a work of scholar-ship but like all her best work has a strong personal note. In Quicksands she mentions three novels rejected by publishers before she was thirty, and gives the outline of one, a fable about a Faustian pact between a young atheist and a sadistic businessman which is totally unlike anything she was actually to publish. There the strong personal note was entirely missing.

When A Legacy was published in 1956, Nancy Mitford sent a copy to Evelyn Waugh, declaring it to be “one of the very best novels I ever read.” Waugh “read it straight through with intense pleasure,” and largely concurred with her verdict, going on to write what he called “a tiny warm notice” in The Spectator. (“We know nothing of the author’s age, nationality or religion. But we gratefully salute a new artist.”) He clearly hadn’t read Don Otavio, but appreciated in particular a quality the new book shares with it, the account of specialized material (in this case German social and political history) made “with an air of authority which compels acceptance.” He and Mitford must have felt, too, a certain kinship with the novel’s knowledgeable evocation of the eccentricities of the rich and titled, as well as with the irony that informs it.

A Legacy is a brave attempt to make artistic shape out of the complicated history of Bedford’s paternal family in the decades leading up to World War I. The shape is a self-consciously modern one, a bundle of fragments, brilliant in themselves, around which a more conventional narrative bow is forcefully, and rather startlingly, tied at the last moment. So multifaceted a book defies easy summary, but its most personal rationale is perhaps to tell the story of Bedford’s father, Julius von Felden in the novel, and of the two marriages he made, neither happy, to beautiful younger women.

The Feldens are from the principality of Baden, in the Catholic south, “old, landed, agreeably off without being in the least rich and of no particular distinction.” Julius has three brothers, one of whom marries the daughter of a scheming Catholic count, while another, sent away to a Prussian military academy, escapes, goes mad, and becomes the subject of an immense public scandal which threatens to bring down Bismarck’s government. These brothers’ stories are indeed handled with “an air of authority” as well as much formal bravura, the latter one surely explaining something about Bedford’s own strong anti-military convictions, but it is really in Julius’s story that the heart of the novel lies.

Julius is a connoisseur, collector, and cook, a charming unknowable eccentric who keeps (and disastrously travels with) a family of pet chimpanzees. His first marriage is to Melanie Merz, daughter of a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, whom he takes away to a life of miserable isolation in Spain and then in the Sologne, in northwestern France:

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