Before the Deluge

A Legacy

by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 368 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Sybille Bedford
Sybille Bedford; drawing by David Levine

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…

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