An Observer of Catastrophe

In Sybille Bedford's work the great emotional and moral questions remain unanswered

Sybille Bedford, a German-born writer who has long lived in England, is not one of the twentieth century's best writers, but she is one of its most attractive literary curiosities. Born before World War I, she witnessed much of the tragedy, and enjoyed much of the beauty, that her volatile age had to offer.

Bedford spent her childhood and youth in her father's decrepit schloss in Baden, in the stuffy and well-upholstered Berlin residence of other relatives, in Fascist Italy, in high bohemia on the Côte d'Azur in the 1920s, and in England. It was a rich and strange life, and in each of her four largely autobiographical novels she rendered its off-color luster and subtle moral gradations with humor and a remarkable tolerance that in no way implies an absence of judgment. The twentieth century displayed the human circus at its most grotesque, and Bedford had a ringside seat throughout the performance.

Bedford is not only a novelist but also the author of books on legal issues and famous trials, a biographer, and a light journalist specializing in sensual essays on food, wine, and travel, à la M.F.K. Fisher. Her A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale From Mexico (1953) is one of the most charming travel books ever written. Her Aldous Huxley (1973- 1974) is still, after more than a quarter century, the definitive biography of the famous polymath, whom Bedford considered her literary and moral mentor.

Bedford's publishing history has done little to promote her name or reputation in the United States, where her books have appeared intermittently, under the aegis of different publishing houses, and have for the past ten years been out of print altogether. There has been no uniform American edition of Bedford's work until this year, with Counterpoint Press's reissue of her novels: A Legacy (1956), A Favourite of the Gods (1963), A Compass Error (1968), and Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education (1989). A Visit to Don Otavio will follow in 2002, along with a new collection of her essays on travel and gastronomy.

Everything Bedford has written is worth reading, but her reputation rightly rests on A Legacy and Jigsaw (shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize), for in these she draws most fully on her own matchless experiences. Bedford's father's family were minor aristocrats from the southern German state of Baden, Catholic and agrarian, oriented toward Paris rather than Berlin; they regarded Prussia "as a barbarous menace and united Germany a new nonsense." During World War I young Sybille, nicknamed Billi, and her unhappily married parents shut up the schloss and moved to Berlin to live with the parents of her father's first wife. After the Armistice, Billi's mother, a restless Englishwoman, left Germany for good. Billi spent her odd, isolated early childhood back in the schloss with her newly impoverished father and one faithful servant; later, reclaimed by her mother, she shuttled for years between England, where she was sent to be "educated" (in the very loosest sense of the word), and Sanary-sur-Mer, on the by then chic Côte d'Azur, where her mother had settled with a much younger, Italian husband.

A Legacy delves into the lives of Bedford's immediate forebears, interweaving their stories as they make their various ways through the more bizarre and exotic social circles of the Kaiser's Germany. The world she depicts is, as Evelyn Waugh wrote in the review that made Bedford's reputation, "far more remote than the Athens of Pericles or the Rome of the Borgias," and it is described "with an air of authority which compels acceptance." In a letter to a friend the charmed Waugh wondered who this "brilliant 'Mrs Bedford'" could be: "A cosmopolitan military man, plainly, with a knowledge of parliamentary government and popular journalism, a dislike for Prussians, a liking for Jews, a belief that everyone speaks French in the home."

A Legacy is set at theend of the nineteenth century and the opening of the twentieth, with Germany still smarting from the birth pangs of unification. As the various German states are uncomfortably yoked together, so are the novel's three wildly different families, through marriage. The Feldens, like Bedford's paternal relations, are southern German aristocrats, anachronisms and dilettantes, relics of the eighteenth century.

The French Revolution was still alive with them as a calamity, and of the Industrial one they were not aware. Their home was Catholic Western Continental Europe, and the centre of their world was France. They ignored, despised, and later dreaded, Prussia.

Where the Feldens are detached from the world and manifestly in decline, their neighbors the Bernins, into which family one of the Felden brothers marries, are political animals who devote their energies to the quixotic and irrelevant cause of the reunification of Christendom under the Catholic banner.

Added to this already highly flavored mixture is the Merz family, probably Bedford's finest creation. The Merzes are established members of Berlin's Jewish haute bourgeoisie, kind, complacent, and inconceivably narrow in their outlook and habits.

No music was heard at Voss Strasse outside the ball-room and the day nursery. They never travelled. They never went to the country. They never went anywhere, except to take a cure, and then they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets ... The Merz's had no friends, a word they seldom used ... They did not go to shops. Things were sent to them on approval, and people came to them for fittings. They never read.

In a turn of events just outrageous enough to be real (as so often happens in good fiction, the most apparently extravagant characters turn out to be the ones drawn most faithfully from life), a marriage occurs between a Merz and a Felden. The misunderstandings between these two families, with their mutually exclusive world views, make for very high comedy. Here are the Merzes, for example, on first hearing their daughter's name coupled with that of Julius von Felden:

"Von?" said Grandpapa Merz. "Von? Got himself baptized, eh, like poor Flora's husband?"
"Of course he didn't get himself baptized," said Sarah.
"They won't give you the von if you don't get baptized. Refused it myself three times. Once to the old Kaiser, twice to Wil'hem."
"The Barony in question was conferred by Ottomark the Bear," said Gottlieb.
"How do you know?" said Edu.
"I took the liberty of consulting the Almanach de Gotha last time I had occasion to be in your house, sir."
"We have always been jews," said Grandmama.

And the Feldens and the Bernins in a similar powwow:

"Israelites," said Gustavus, lowering his tone in spite of himself. "Presumably a papal title."
"Converts," said Clara. "Oh Conrad!"
"No title. Not converts. I shouldn't think they were christened."
There was a silence.
"Pious Jews—" said Clara. "It is well to remember the origin of our religion."

The negotiations are predictably painful; it is a case—not so unusual even today—of "theological dead-lock between non-practising members of two religions." Habits and prejudices are, as always, flatteringly disguised as values and traditions. The connection with the larger political deadlock of Wilhelmine Germany and of Europe in general can hardly be avoided. Bedford's fine sense of justice eventually tips the balance of A Legacy from farce to tragedy; her special subject has always been, as she puts it, "the links between private and mass catastrophe." An old Felden family scandal is unearthed, and its reverberations shatter the ill-assembled Felden-Bernin-Merz alliance, much as the ill-assembled new Reich is soon to be shattered by the war it will help to ignite. In Bedford's canny narrative, political disaster, like the personal variety, is the inevitable result of pride and stupidity.

A Legacy is not a perfect book; Bedford is often technically awkward. Her method of narration is unconvincing, as are some of the characters; the conversations, particularly those that dominate the second half of the book, are drawn out and too obviously expository. Never mind; the source of our dissatisfaction is that Bedford's skill is not quite equal to the extraordinary nature of the material. And whose would be?

Her weaknesses are far more apparent in her next two novels, A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error. The first of these, though, is saved by a clever subplot in which Bedford effectively reversed the Jamesian archetype of American innocence and European experience, "the view of aristocratic Italian homelife as conveyed by high Anglo-Saxon literature—those great tales of American heiresses corrupted, exploited and deprived in cold unions and palazzi." To this end she created a high-thinking but not really very plain-living New England heiress who wears her virtue—or is it simple asexuality?—like a badge of honor, and makes life hell for her trophy husband, a malleable, good-natured Roman prince. Bedford next turned her fictional talents to the re-creation of her life at Sanary during the 1920s, first with the unsatisfactory A Compass Error and then, more than twenty years later, with her marvelous and explicitly autobiographical Jigsaw.

"As no other place in Europe, no other place in the world," Bedford has written, "France between the wars made one this present of the illusion of freedom." Although Bedford's life-long love for France never soured, the word "illusion" is nonetheless significant, and there is a distinct edge to her evocations of the apparently idyllic sensuality celebrated by her Sanary friends, a circle of artists and intellectuals that included Aldous and Maria Huxley, Thomas Mann and his family, and the painter Moise Kisling. Here "freedom was the great thing, and it meant freedom from almost anything pre-war." As always in Bedford's fiction, there is a strong element of the travelogue. She enjoys life's little luxuries to the fullest, and her seductive mixing of Provençal scenery with Jazz Age and modernist legend caters to the seemingly perennial hunger for all things relating to France in the twenties, and also to the more recent obsession, fueled by Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes, with the good life as lived in Mediterranean Europe. But in Bedford's world the aesthetic pleasure of the landscape and the open sexuality and affection of the bohemian newcomers to its shores are recognized as being, at least on one level, pure fantasy. Love, sex, friendship, are neither simple nor open. Instead they are complex, treacherous, often vicious. Bedford's experiences show that her set's ethos of honesty and free love did not work on the personal level—and in the end it did not work on the political one either. Once again we are confronted with the "links between private and mass catastrophe"—in the repellent story of Billi's beautiful, intelligent, narcissistic mother and the slow movement of France toward moral and military collapse. The Sanary idyll that began so promisingly moves by stages to a grim conclusion. The uncomfortable interplay of family members and friends; the emotional education of Billi (unsentimental indeed!); the final, reluctant defection of her long-suffering young stepfather; the mother's appalling descent into drug addiction and her willful involvement of her daughter in her own degradation—all these events are described with grim exactitude and a surprising compassion.

Bedford's fictionalized memoirs come to an end at a moment of unsustainable tension between mother and daughter; the reader is left dissatisfied and deeply curious. Bedford is now at work, though, on a sequel to Jigsaw, titled Quicksands, to be published by Counterpoint in 2003. What new layers will be revealed? Bedford has never claimed to provide solutions; in her work the great emotional and moral questions remain unanswered. It is the oblique light she casts on them that gives her fiction its gentle, if cool, detachment and occasionally brings her close to penetrating the mystery of love and the peculiar forms it so often takes.

By Sybille Bedford
By Sybille Bedford
By Sybille Bedford

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.