The Magazine

A Small Legacy

The revival of Sybille Bedford.

Apr 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 31 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A Legacy
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 320 pp., $15

A Favourite of the Gods
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 320 pp., $16

A Compass Error
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 240 pp., $16

Jigsaw
An Unsentimental Education
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 320 pp., $15

SYBILLE BEDFORD: The name rings bells. Readers of modern British literature might recall that, during the 1960s, Bedford emerged as an English journalist in the wry, cold-eyed manner of Rebecca West and Nancy Mitford. Bedford specialized in the courts and the law; "The Best We Can Do" (1958), her account of the 1957 trial of John Bodkin Adams, a British physician suspected of dispatching patients with overdoses of morphine, has been called "a classic of its kind." Others might remember Bedford as a travel writer, wine critic, or biographer whose big 1973 study of Aldous Huxley was widely noticed and praised.

Bedford, born in 1911, has also published four novels, all of them ambitious works of art. The first three--"A Legacy" (1956), "A Favourite of the Gods" (1963), and "A Compass Error" (1968)--earned good reviews and then sank from view, as most novels do. Critics and readers were surprised when, in 1989, Bedford's fourth novel, "Jigsaw," was shortlisted for one of Britain's most important literary honors--the Booker Prize. Even in Britain, where she has lived for many years, Bedford was known mainly for her critical writing and reportage.

Bedford didn't win the Booker, which went instead to Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day." But the nomination brought new attention to Bedford and her previously published works. "As It Was," a 1990 anthology of Bedford's nonfiction, was widely and rightly praised. Bedford's fiction, meanwhile, was hailed by John Fowles, David Leavitt, and A.S. Byatt, among others; even Auberon Waugh, a man not easily pleased, called her "a writer of consummate artistry."

Given such ample praise, Bedford's American publisher has recently released all four of her novels in smart new editions. It's a worthy enterprise, for Bedford is a smart, singular writer with an intriguing career. But it's also risky. For Bedford, I think, isn't best represented by her novels, which are self-obsessed as well as self-possessed--the often elegant works of a highly observant writer whose eye is too frequently turned inward.

These new editions include attractively candid introductions by the author herself. Writing, Bedford admits, "was and is and ever will be very very tough for me." "A Legacy" proved especially difficult. "Oh I got stuck so often," she writes, "made what I call fausse route." For Bedford, filling pages is like "chiselling" words.

Bedford is reluctant, however, to "retell or analyze" her own novels, which are distinctive in many ways. No contemporary writer can match her fondness for rhetorical questions, French phrases, and italics used freely as a mark of emphasis. But one senses in Bedford's fiction the lingering presence of her early literary heroes. Bedford's tone, like Aldous Huxley's, tends to be ironically cool; like him, she often portrays artists, intellectuals, and wealthy bohemians. Like Ivy Compton-Burnett, Bedford is drawn to dialogue; and, like Henry James, she favors psychological analysis, internal action, and elaborate prose. Evelyn Waugh, Bedford proudly notes, much admired "A Legacy"--despite its "too large a dose of Henry James."

"A Legacy" is Bedford's most accomplished novel. It takes place between 1870 and 1914, and focuses on three affluent, influential families: two are Catholic, one Jewish. They are for the most part highly unattractive people--haughty, humorless, a bit dotty. And they are at least partially responsible, Bedford implies, for those "vast and monstrous" things that came in the wake of German unification: Prussianism, Nazism, and two world wars.

Bedford notes that "A Legacy" derived "from what I saw and above all heard and over-heard as a child." She based many of its characters on members of her own fading aristocratic family. Bedford's father, for example, appears in "A Legacy" (and again in "Jigsaw") as a handsome, eccentric Francophile--a man whose "prudent" but "susceptible" ancestors had similarly "married late and died young."

BEDFORD was only nine when her father died, broken and broke, and she left Germany for good. Bedford spent the rest of her childhood and much of her adolescence living in boarding schools or with family friends, for her beautiful, volatile English mother "was not interested in children, not at all." "You were very sweet as a baby," Bedford's mother once told her. "But you're going to be very, very dull for a very long time--perhaps ten or fifteen years. We'll speak then, when you've made yourself a mind."

For the young Bedford, dinner with mom could turn suddenly into an oral examination. Her mother expected good food and wine and sparkling conversation. Her own talk was "always about books or concerts or paintings," Bedford recalled, "and if you couldn't keep your end up, no matter how young you were, you either left the table or ate in silence." Bedford told one interviewer that, as a child, "I never had any maternal love." And yet, she was "grateful," for her mother "taught me everything about literature and art and world affairs." More important, "she instilled into me the idea that it was a very grand thing to be a writer."

Bedford's books suggest that over time she grew closer to her mother, who remained something of a conteuse--and an intuitive collector of talented friends. During the 1920s and '30s, the two spent much time together in Sanary, a village in the South of France where her mother lived with her second husband, a robust and obliging Italian much younger than she. Between the wars, Sanary had become a fashionable retreat for artists, intellectuals, and assorted bohemians, including the writers Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann, whom Bedford's mother liked to call "poor Tommy."

Huxley, who died in 1963, is no longer widely read, although certain students can still readily identify him not only as the author of "Brave New World," but the dude who, in "The Doors of Perception," turned Jim Morrison onto the mind-altering possibilities of LSD. Although limited as a novelist, Huxley was in fact a splendid essayist, idiosyncratic and erudite, and one of the most influential public intellectuals of his day. For Bedford, he was both an "intellectual and moral idol" and a trusted friend who proved particularly reliable when her increasingly unstable mother developed a dangerous addiction to morphine.

Given Bedford's dramatic life, one might be surprised to learn that she hasn't yet published her memoirs. But Bedford matured as a writer back when autobiographical writing was relatively rare--the discreet, ghostwritten genre of explorers, statesmen, and sports stars. Moreover, she professes no interest in exposing old lovers or settling scores. "Private life is private life," she insists, "which means private."

IT'S AN admirable stand. In the current climate, established writers are easy prey for scriptwriters and biographers; in exchange for successfully creating characters they must become characters themselves--exposed, diminished figures in somebody else's narrative. Consider only the case of the late Iris Murdoch, a disciplined and widely admired novelist whose often disordered personal life, kept private for years, is now vividly displayed in books and on movie screens. No wonder Bedford is wary. And no wonder Thomas Pynchon is still out there, somewhere, lying low.

And yet, as "A Legacy" first demonstrated, Bedford's fiction draws repeatedly, if teasingly, on the facts of her life. Both "A Compass Error" and "A Favourite of the Gods" include characters modeled closely on Bedford's mother and Bedford herself. Packaged as a "biographical novel," "Jigsaw" features a narrator called "Billi"--just as Bedford was herself known to family and friends. Billi's father, like Bedford's, is an aging sensualist facing poverty at the end of his days. Her self-destructive mother rips through life in top gear and resorts, ultimately, to drugs. Occasionally Billi pauses to discuss her literary career, which mirrors exactly Bedford's own.

Billi, like Bedford, spends her holidays in Sanary. She enjoys books, but she's high-spirited too, and--after living in England on marmite and tea--is understandably eager to enjoy a range of French pleasures. Food, it seems, is the chief of these. "Jigsaw" abounds with explicit descriptions of memorable meals. Here are artichokes, olives, almonds, "spicy fish stews," and a "coeur-creme with apricot jam." And here, most impressively, is a New Year's feast that includes, among other things, "a platter of fruits de mer" and "quenelles de brochet as light as feathers," as well as "small young turkeys, roasted unstuffed in butter" that are "served with their own unthickened roasting juices," and complemented, of course, by "a creamy chestnut puree," a "sharp salad of watercress," some "carefully chosen cheeses and a bombe a glace."

When she's not eating like Julia Child or savoring the local wine, Billi's pursuits are familiar enough: She falls in love, broods about life, dances the foxtrot, battles with her mother, and longs to write. Like her mother, Billi easily attracts suitors and friends, including the Polish painter Moise Kisling and his wife, Renee--a "force of nature" whose "infidelities were frequent, unconcealed, casual on the whole, often concurrent."

AND LIKE BEDFORD Herself, Billi is drawn particularly to Aldous Huxley and his family. Huxley, "all six foot two of him," is vividly portrayed. We learn of his "regular working hours" and the Beethoven records he "listened to in hammocks in the garden and under the stars." Huxley's wife, we're told, is an "eccentric" cook and "the soul of tact." The Huxleys "were far less touched by gossip than most people"--although it's not quite clear why.

But then, various names and characters drift through "Jigsaw" with little or no direct connection to each other, or to its larger design. The book is nearly half over before the narrator admits that "it occurred to me--a little late--that I have not said what my mother looked like." This is particularly curious since Billi's mother dominates the novel. "Jigsaw" shows how a single individual can powerfully affect the lives of those around her, for good or ill, and for a very long time. Billi, it's clear, will spend the rest of her creative life coming to grips with a commanding parent who was both stimulating and slighting, inspiring and remote. "Ma mere," she admits, "est une femme impossible."

IN HER INTRODUCTION to "Jigsaw," Bedford notes that she found "the freedom of fiction" bracing after long stints of writing nonfiction prose. This is completely understandable, of course, for narrating facts can be tedious, and it's almost always more amusing to just make things up. But "Jigsaw" sticks so closely to the known events of Sybille Bedford's life that it hardly seems fair to call it a novel at all. It's a personal narrative with some imagined dialogue and other fictional bits thrown in. In other words, it's a memoir.

Of course, mixing fact and fiction is as old as print. Moreover, it's a practice that, over the past decade or so, has grown so commonplace (consider only V.S. Naipaul's "The Enigma of Arrival" and Saul Bellow's "Ravelstein") that almost no one bothers to complain anymore of its ethical or aesthetic implications.

But at a very minimum, what a book is called affects the way it's read. As a novel, "Jigsaw" seems pretentious and slack: The author is both intrusive and coy. "The Kislings and the Aldous Huxleys are the Kislings and the Aldous Huxleys," she explains in a prefatory note. "My mother and I are a percentage of ourselves"; other characters are "to a large extent themselves." Inevitably, readers are left wondering which parts of the book are "true," and which are imagined. Bedford, tellingly, admits to "a puzzled sense about the relativity of given truth."

In a memoir, however, one expects a looser structure, a string of lively if unrelated episodes, and the chance to watch an intriguing mind at play. "Jigsaw" makes an often fascinating memoir, effectively recalling a period in European history that, more than a half century later, seems both prescient and quaint. "Jigsaw" isn't social criticism of any kind. But it recalls a time when summering in the South of France was still a privilege; when a writer like Colette was still considered shocking; and when an "instinctive" hedonist like Renee Kisling could still fancy herself a pioneer of the new morality, striking her own blow against "bourgeois sexual orthodoxy."

At the time of her Booker nomination, Bedford was compared to other recent writers who came to fame late in their careers. Both Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald, for example, wrote dark, oddly comic novels that languished for years before attracting large and avid followings. Pym was living quietly as a pensioner in Oxford, her books long out of print, when in 1977 Philip Larkin called her the most underrated novelist of the twentieth century. Suddenly Pym became a literary celebrity, the subject of books, articles, and at least one television film. Even now her more ardent fans pore over "Excellent Women" and "Quartet in Autumn" at annual meetings of the Barbara Pym Society.

Like Fitzgerald, Pym possessed a shrewd understanding of human nature that was belied somewhat by the clarity and directness of her style. Pym's characters can be complex, contradictory, like the people we know; they're quirky, and psychologically convincing. They're attractively ordinary too. Pym's characters contend with loss and dullness and disappointment. And they visit the dentist and attend flower shows. Pym is no Jane Austen, to whom she is sometimes compared; but her novels are deft without being pretentious, displaying a very English sort of sturdiness that retains its own appeal, perhaps particularly among American readers.

BEDFORD TOO will have her champions, particularly among fellow writers drawn to the careful grace and luster of her prose. Still, Bedford's novels are too aloof, fatalistic, and mandarin to attract large numbers of readers; they're oddly inconsistent too. Thus "A Favourite of the Gods" alludes to Gibbon, Byron, and Stendhal and includes the sort of characters who collect books and hang about villas and who could tell you the difference between a Pomerol and a Pauillac. And yet, in one scene, a character "flung herself into a chair"; another "succumbed to Rome at sight." In brief, it's a high-brow romance that, although published in the 1960s, retains the flavor of prose published thirty years before--as if Cyril Connolly were collaborating with Elinor Wylie.

Still, you don't have to like Bedford's novels to admire her nonfiction. In fact, her American publishers would do well to reissue "As It Was," which first appeared in English and American magazines during the 1950s and '60s. "As It Was" features Bedford's coverage of the trials of both Jack Ruby and Lady Chatterly's lover. It also includes "The Worst that Ever Happened," a particularly memorable account of the 1963 trial, in Frankfurt, of 22 Germans who abetted the horrors at Auschwitz during the Second World War. In these eight essays Bedford emerges as an innovative and idiosyncratic reporter and writer whose best work retains its power and relevance still.

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.