The Magazine

A Small Legacy

The revival of Sybille Bedford.

Apr 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 31 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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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."