The Brilliance of Sybille Bedford

Terry Smith/Camera Press/Redux
Sybille Bedford, 1989

“Survivors pay with their conscience,” Sybille Bedford observed in her memoir, Quicksands, written in 2005, toward the end of her very long life. Born in 1911 outside of Berlin in Charlottenburg, Germany, she died in London in 2006, just a month before she would have turned ninety-five. She’d endured two world wars and the heedlessness preceding each of them as well as the Holocaust, though from afar, and the painful, impossible, and sometimes exhilarating reconstruction of several cultures: she understood firsthand the burdens of survival. Perhaps as a result she developed her remarkable talent for making the inchoate circumstances we retrospectively understand as “historical forces” seem real, palpable, human. So too “the small things men do to each other every day if they have the power and the lack of imagination, or if their convictions happen to run that way,” as she once noted. “It goes unrecorded, it is hardly voiced, but it lives in the memories of those concerned.”

A Legacy, her finest novel, and superb by any standard, is partly about memory, both personal and cultural.* “We are said to re-invent our memories; we often re-arrange them,” comments its narrator, a woman born shortly before the advent of World War I (like Bedford) who pieces together her peculiar inheritance from the rumors, innuendoes, and snatches of conversation she heard as a child: the tale of a long-ago family scandal that once almost toppled the German government. “In a sense this is my story,” she reflects. “I do not know a time when I was not imprinted with the experiences of others.” Her peculiar inheritance, then, is also the story of Prussian pride, political scandal, anti-Semitism, and moral negligence, which is the legacy, in a word, of the twentieth century.

Bedford did not publish until the age of forty-two, in 1953, when her first, luminous book, The Sudden View (later renamed A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller’s Tale from Mexico), appeared only after, as she said, “many desultory years of false starts and failure, hedonism, sloth and doubt.” Actually, hers had been a nomadic life. Her father, Maximilian von Schoenebeck, was a polite and withdrawn aristocrat from Baden in southern Germany. (“Yes, he did lift his hat to the donkey,” Bedford reminisced, “when they met on a walk in the park.”) He preferred to speak French in family conversation; he considered German vulgar. His second wife, Bedford’s mother, was a great beauty some twenty years his junior; partly Jewish, imperious, and Hamburg-born, she insisted on English. Bedford grew up multilingual and torn.

When her parents divorced shortly after World War I, Bedford spent several years living in semiseclusion and semipoverty with her father in the schloss in the German town of Feldkirch that her mother had bought him. They raised chickens and sheep, traded apples for salt and candles, and…

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