Child of the Century

Sybille Bedford
Sybille Bedford; drawing by David Levine

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…

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