A Favourite of the Gods
Sybille Bedford was born in Germany 100 years ago this week. She was the daughter of exotic parents – a German nobleman and an Italian princess – but her childhood was dogged by death, addiction, abandonment and upheaval. Armed with such rich material, she went on to be one of our greatest writers, even though in Quicksands, her memoir published shortly before her death in 2006, she claims she is slothful, subject to false starts and failures, doubts and anxieties and 'serene inertia'.
'Writing: to be someone who wrote – books, of course – was what I had wished to be from childhood, seeing it as an exalted calling, a vocation, bestowed on me, however unworthy,' she says. Yet her first two books were rejected and she was in her 40s before she was published. After her funeral, a slender volume of accolades was published with contributions from Victoria Glendinning, Selina Hastings, Hilary Spurling and others. Elizabeth Jane Howard said: 'There is nothing self-conscious nor pretentious about her style. It is very true and honourable and exact, just as she is.'
She was the ultimate writer's writer whose small sales belied her exalted position in the literary world of the end of the last century. Born and brought up in Germany, she chose to write in English, clinging to it like a rope, to save her from 'drifting awash in the fluidities of multilingualism that surrounded me'.
Her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio, was published in 1953 when she was 42: the European sensibility of her writing delighted the cognoscenti at that time. Of her second book, a novel called A Legacy, Evelyn Waugh wrote that it was 'new, cool, witty and elegant. We know nothing of the author's age, nationality or religion, but we gratefully salute a new artist'.
Bedford led an extraordinary life, particularly in her childhood, and it is to this material that she returns again and again, in her fiction and non-fiction, writing and rewriting the stories of her life. Perhaps because her parents were both cavalier with the truth, Bedford herself values the truth above all and that is maybe one reason why she adheres to what she knows, rather than inventing new worlds. Thus Jigsaw, her only book to reach a wider audience, shortlisted for the Booker, is a novel, yet it is actually the most accurate memoir she left. Whereas Quicksands, her actual memoir, contains moments where she declares she can say no more, leaving the reader somewhat frustrated.
But the oddity and at times cruelty of her young life not only gave her enough material for a dozen novels, it also left so many unanswered questions: writing it at different times and from different vantage points, was a way to make sense of the disorder and chaos.
Sybille was the daughter of a penniless German aristocrat and, by the age of six or seven, was her father's companion and butler. They dined together, like adults. They had no money, but steadily worked their way through a cellar of classic claret. Each night, she was sent down to the cellar to fetch another bottle. It was pitch black, she only had a candle and she knew she must not let go of the valuable bottle, but equally, she must not let go of the candle.
Largely educated at home, she learned almost nothing in a formal sense. Handwriting was not her strong suit. But in her late teens, trying to make money translating catalogues in London, she developed her life's writing style.
'I learned to draw clear figures and wrote words in block letters, a laborious job indeed. It kept me busy.' Throughout her life she rued this lack of a formal education. It prevented her from going to university and becoming a barrister, and her handwriting was almost illegible.
Her father died when she was 10 and she was sent to Italy to live with her mother and her young Italian lover. Bedford's Jewish-German mother was sophisticated (she was said to speak 17 languages), wellread, artistic, dramatic and beautiful. She was also erratic and seemingly devoid of even the most basic concept of mothering. For long periods, she packed Sybille off to England to school, lodging her with odd people she had met, never accompanying her young daughter on the long train ride or visiting to check on her situation. That Bedford soldiered on is a testament both to her resilience and the invariable kindnesses of the strangers she encountered.
In the mid-Twenties, with the rise of Mussolini, her mother moved to Sanary-sur-Mer, between Toulon and Marseille, where they lived for the next 14 years. It was here, in this small fishing village, that Bedford first met Aldous and Maria Huxley, who became her lifelong friends. It was here, too, that her mother became fatally addicted to morphine, prescribed by a sleazy local doctor whom Bedford memorably describes as 'gaunt as a starving horse, yellow-faced with darkly ringed, sunken eyes and a few strands of flat black hair, dressed winter and summer in a greasy black suit.'
Initially she took the drug for a broken heart, and then because she could not live without it. When her stepfather left for an extended holiday with his lover, Sybille had to inject her mother herself. 'He taught me to give her the treatment, prepare the syringe… It is not something one likes doing, I recognised it as unavoidable and minded every time.'
And when the local pharmacist refused to fill the prescriptions, Sybille had to go further and further to meet her mother's growing daily demand.
In the Thirties the Nazi Party in Germany discovered Bedford's partly Jewish descent, so in 1935 she married an English army officer, Walter 'Terry' Bedford. There were no illusions: it was a marriage of convenience that didn't last. In England, she pursued her love of the legal system, covering trials around the country and, later, in German, Swiss and French courts. In 1961 she published The Faces of Justice, that Rebecca West thought had been written 'by an extremely gifted and perhaps slightly eccentric governess'.
While we know a great deal about Bedford's early years, she was surprisingly private about her later years. In 1940 she followed the Huxleys to California (she later wrote his biography), lived in France, Italy, Britain and Portugal and had a 20- year relationship with the American novelist Eda Lord. She lived an elitist life but maintained strong principles, fiercely anti- Mussolini at a time when Shaw and Pound were praising him. Utopias made her sceptical but she always wanted better government and Huxley's pacifism she thought supine. For over 20 years she worked with PEN, the organisation that supports and helps writers who have been imprisoned for their words and opinions. Armed with her knowledge of international law, she rose to become its deputy director. But she returns over and over to the years in Germany, France and Italy: her mother's drug addiction, like the meeting with the Huxleys, appears in three books. Curiously, this never irritates, only fascinates with the material's familiarity, giving the reader the illusion of being one of the author's most intimate friends.