Before the Deluge

The New York Review of Books
November 15, 2001

Hilary Mantel

A Legacy
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 368 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Writers aspire to lead useful lives; not useful to the community of course, but to themselves. Exotic or outcast origins are useful, and so is a talent for catastrophe, self-induced if need be. There is nothing so sad one can’t capitalize on it; the general rule for a writer’s life is the worse things get, the better they get. In this respect, Sybille Bedford’s early life was very promising. Born in Berlin in 1911, the child of an unhappy marriage, she was dispatched like a badly labeled package from one European country to the next, crossing frontiers and changing languages; from the age of sixteen or so, she was left to organize her own education, both sentimental and practical. Someone of a less robust sensibility might have been destroyed by the experience, but Bedford put it to work in four remarkable books which draw on her childhood and young adult life. Through a writing career which continued into the 1990s, she showed her relish for change, risk, movement, innovation; but in her fiction her adult self is almost invisible, and she has made her memory her chief resource, putting her early years at the heart of her life’s work.

She was born in Charlottenburg, an affluent district of Berlin. Her father’s name was Maximilian von Schoenbeck, and her mother—about whom she has always found it difficult to write—was an Englishwoman, restless, reckless, and cosmopolitan. Sybille grew up with her father in the country, but when she was ten her mother sent for her, and for several years she moved between France, England, and Italy. Two novels written in the 1960s (A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error) would draw on her experience as a teenage girl shuttling between a London bed-sitting room, where she studied alone for part of the year, and her mother’s villa in Provence, where she would go in the summer to learn how to fall in love. In 1989 she produced a more expansive account of her childhood and adolescence: this was an “autobiographical novel” called Jigsaw. But her best-known novel, A Legacy, reaches back to the years before her own birth, to recount the history of three families, and to explore through their intertwined stories the forces that shaped the twentieth century.

A Legacy is a story from a vanished world, a world before the deluge, and it provides its reader with the disorienting, melancholy pleasure derived from looking at old maps. It is a sophisticated book with a cosmopolitan gloss which flatters the reader, induces a nostalgia for other people’s past: for the vanished configurations of fallen empires, and days when the dice were shaken differently, where emotions were operatic and whims well-funded, where borders were crossed with ease but countries were different from each other, where beauty was viewed not merely as a personal asset but as part of an aesthetic tradition, and where raw experience had uncertain value till it was rationally examined and filtered through the lens of high culture. In this book, three centuries of European history draw close together. There are intimations of the eighteenth century in the sentimental friendships of old men, their easy tears: Rousseauist whispers in a South German glade. In the distance, too far to be distinct, the shapes of the future mass like tanks on the skyline.

Sybille Bedford had started writing before she was out of her teens, but her early novels had been failures, unpublished. She was forty, and living in Rome, when she began work on A Legacy. A recent journey in Mexico had produced a travel book, and its acceptance by Gollancz in the summer of 1952 gave her permission to think of herself as a proper writer. Her first task was to finish the thirty-page fan letter she was writing to Ivy Compton-Burnett. In part it was a method of procrastination, in part a manifesto for her own work; the “cutting acerbities of Burnettian dialogue” were still in her head as she began to write, but she knew that she had to shape a narrative far broader than that of her model, whose tragedies take place between drawing room and hall.

A Legacy would take three years to write. Its setting is Germany of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the years, roughly, between unification and the Great War. It deals with three families, very unlike one another, linked by marriage: each confident of its own place in the universe, each deeply mistaken in that confidence. The Merzes represent the wealthy Jews of Berlin. The other two families are from the Catholic south. The Feldens are mild, cultured but rustic in inclination, antiquarian in mind-set, with a somnambulant backward-looking faith of a medieval quaintness. The Bernins—less affectionately portrayed—think of themselves as a family on the rise. They are meddlesome, fond of moralizing, flawed in perception of the outside world, deeply interested in power and ruined by the inept pursuit of it.

The history of these families comes to us by way of an eerie first-person narrator who can reproduce everything that happened before she was born—not just the events and conversations, but the scent of food and flowers, the play of the light. At her birth in Berlin, this narrator—later named as Francesca—is embraced as a member of the Merz household, though she is related to them by marriage, not by blood. Her father had married a Merz daughter who died young; but his in-laws still make him a yearly allowance, and think of him as one of themselves, for once the Merz family have got used to a person they don’t like to let go.

When the action begins, Grandpapa Merz is a spry, dapper, pink and white old gentleman turning ninety. Grandmama is “a short bundle of a woman, all swaddled in stuffs and folds and flesh, stuck with brooches of rather grey diamonds…. She had plump tranquil hands, and a waddling walk,” and since food is a high priority in the great house at Voss Strasse, “she saw the cook herself for half an hour every morning.” Under the Merz roof are a middle-aged son, Friedrich, who comes and goes and brings in the Stock Exchange News, and two cousins, Markwald and Emil, elderly gentlemen who lost their fortunes thirty years ago and have retreated to the bosom of the family. There is also Henrietta, the narrator’s half-sister, the child of her father’s first marriage. And there is her father himself, Julius von Felden, a bird of passage from the warmer climate of Baden, snared in the net of money and family warmth and implacable complacency.

The Merz family pay such close attention to their material comfort that it assumes the status of a heroic virtue. Their lives are a succession of meals:

Second breakfast was laid every morning at eleven-fifteen on a long table in the middle of the Herrenzimmer, a dark, fully furnished room with heavily draped windows that led from an antechamber to an antechamber. The meal was chiefly for the gentlemen. They ate cold Venison with red-currant jelly, potted meats, tongue and fowl accompanied by pumpernickel, toast and rye-bread, and they drank port wine. Grandmama sat with them. She had a newly-laid egg done in cream, and nibbled at some soft rolls with Spickgans, smoked breast of goose spread on butter and chopped fine. Grandpapa had a hot pousin-chicken baked for him every day in a small dish with a lid; and Cousin Markwald who had a stomach ailment ate cream of wheat, stewed sweetbreads and a special kind of rusks.

The Merz family never travel except to take the waters, and then in a private railway carriage with their own linen. Their butler, Gottlieb, has been in service with them for fifty-five years.

Outside their front door is a swaggering city of big buildings, big money, and big ideas. The trades are thriving, the middle classes gaining in wealth and influence, the rich becoming bloated; the old caste barriers have broken down, to be replaced by a social recklessness and unease.

Elsewhere in the country, a fluid identity prevails. The von Feldens of Baden are citizens of Europe, but their immediate world is pastoral, parochial; for them, Germany is an idea whose time has not yet come. The family is old, undistinguished, Catholic, and Francophile. They are hunters and husbandmen, dabblers in the natural sciences, wine drinkers with their own vineyard, musicians who make their own instruments; they inhabit a country of small farms and trout streams set in a gentle landscape. All this, the child-narrator knows intimately through her father’s reminiscences:

I knew the sheltered valley of Landen where the apricots had ripened on the south wall every year; I learnt the names of dogs and ducks and horses, and the smell of seasons—of the scent that drifted across the snow from where the sides of boar were smoked, of sweet clouded wine drunk foaming off the press and stands at sunrise immobile by a pond…. I learnt terms of bee-keeping and terms of stag-driving; I learnt of clean straw, oats and clover, of winter honey, walnuts and March wool…. I learnt that at Landen they had dined at exactly one hour after sunset and that my grandfather (or was it his father?) explained this to his guests as a custom of the Romans…. I learnt…that the boys were always given brandy and hot water when they came in from skating in the winter dusk, and that Johannes the third son had danced with a bear at a fair.

Among the Feldens, German is spoken to tenants and domestics, Latin to the curé, French within the family. The mother of the family is long dead. There are four brothers. Julius, the father of the narrator, is the second. As a young man, Julius accompanies a prince of the Baden ruling house on a European grand tour, and acquires more languages, social polish, and an informed taste in art and antiques:

He returned to Landen as a young man, with a lemur, some crates full of bric-a-brac…. It was after 1870; the Franco-Prussian War had been fought while Julius was in Spain, Baden was now a part of Germany, and he found everything quite changed.

The price of land is falling, and it is decided that at least some of the Felden boys must have careers. Gabriel is still a child, and Gustavus, the eldest, who is pompous and likes painting coats of arms, is allowed to stay at home in anticipation of his marriage. Julius, who had hoped to pass his life as an amateur cabinetmaker, is sent to Bonn to study for the examinations to enter the diplomatic service. Johannes had wished to make a career as an animal trainer. Instead, he is sent to cadet school; and it is this unwise decision that shapes the tragedy that governs the rest of the narrative. Brutalized at the savage academy, which is designed to turn out officers who are “defective human beings,” Johannes decides to run away, and after his first failed attempt, which results in beating and confinement, he treks cross-country to his home, pursued by the police. He arrives after eight days, barefoot, ragged, starving. He is revived with Tokay Essence and a hothouse peach. His stories of the stupidity and malice of his superiors are received with horror but also a measure of incredulity; why would anyone behave so? The Feldens suffer from a failure of imagination, bred from their own benignity.

The Johannes affair becomes a cause célèbre. The press is involved, questions are asked at the highest level, and it seems the government will be embarrassed. Now enters the novel’s third force, and third family. Count Bernin, whose daughter Clara is engaged to Gustavus von Felden, is an ambitious politician and leader of a Catholic clique, dedicated to a vision of a pan-European Catholic revival. The times are not propitious, but Bernin is a sincere and able man, well connected, omnipresent where committees gather and opinion is formed; he is quick-minded, experienced, charming, and altogether more worldly than the Felden family. It does not suit Bernin to allow the family with which he is to be linked by marriage to antagonize the government; and by a combination of flattery, emollience, and moral blackmail he coaxes out of Johannes’s father his consent to send the boy back to the military academy.

On hearing his father’s decision, Johannes tries to kill himself by eating the heads of sulphur matches. Once he recovers, he is carried bodily into a carriage, en route for an express train. Only Clara, Bernin’s daughter, has the wit to see the consequences, and drives Julius on to pursue them, and try to recover Johannes. What they do not know is that the youngest child, Gabriel, has set off with the same purpose. Gabriel tries to board the moving train onto which Johannes has been loaded. He falls, strikes his head on a stone, and dies at once.

The events following this are related by Bedford in a single, dry paragraph. When Clara turns up at the cadet school to see Johannes, she finds him in the infirmary. The author fights shy of finding a term for his condition, saying only that he is transferred from the academy to the country house of a Swiss doctor, where he remains for many years, living among animals and the doctor’s children. Visits from the family “after one disastrous attempt by Julius, were not practicable.” Here his story ends, for the time. The onset of his madness seems a slightly shaky plot device, theatrical and unlikely. However, there is no boundary set to the bad-taste melodrama of real life. In Jigsaw, her 1989 autobiographical novel, Bedford gives us the sober facts of the case. The real-life Johannes did not go mad, but lived to be commissioned as an officer, to become commander of his regiment, to marry, and to be shot by his wife’s lover, who subsequently shot himself. The widow was tried for her husband’s murder, sentenced to death, and reprieved on the testimony of a psychiatrist, who arranged for her rapid release from the institution where she had been confined, and who later became her second husband.

This is a story too convoluted and bizarre for the structure of a modern novel to accommodate. In fictionalizing it, Sybille Bedford has removed some of its wilder complications. Still, an undeniable part of the pleasure of reading her is the sometimes comical extravagance of her world view, the heightened, indulgent emotions in which she deals. Her characters are consciously exquisite; one thinks of them in costumes, rather than clothes. Their speech—which she often renders in a mixture of languages—is thrillingly flamboyant or else so umbrageous that sinister implications breed between the phrases:

“Quite hopeless,” said Julius.

“Hopeless?” said Sarah.

“Can’t you see? A young girl, Merz’s sister. Avec les jeunes filles cela ne peut finir qu’avec le mariage.”

“Well yes,” said Sarah.

“That’s what I thought.”

“The step is not entirely uncommon.”

“Too soon,” said Julius.

“She is young. Yet she’ll never be much older….”

“I mean I am too young.”

But in narrative passages Bedford’s style is quite concrete, and her imagery without elaboration. She tells you not what things resemble, but what they are. She seems not to be inventing, but to be describing a scene that is before her, rich and detailed and particular:

Luncheon was laid on bare pink marble under a trellis of mulberry.

There was a loaf of butter on a leaf, the bread was on a board; there was a dish of lemons and there were wooden mills for black pepper and grey pepper and salt; the china was Eighteenth-century Moustier and the wine stood, undecanted, in a row of thick green cool unlabelled bottles….

Her eye is exact, and she brings to her perception of a landscape a solid concern with its utility; what grows here, how is it watered, what living does it provide?

And if she deals generously with her characters and their foibles, her controlling intelligence is just rather than merciful. She considers her characters in the light of the times, allowing the patterns of their lives to emerge without haste, so that in shaping their stories she seems vigilant rather than manipulative. Her practical, skeptical intellect refuses premature commitments. Time will tell.

Part III of A Legacy begins in 1891, the “middle period” of the life of Julius von Felden, and tells how he first became involved with the Merz family—how he meets and marries Melanie Merz, a little sad-faced heiress of twenty, who is visiting the French Riviera. The projected marriage causes consternation in both families. “We have always been jews,” Grandmama Merz says in polite bafflement, before turning back to her second breakfast and remarking, “It is very nice pâté de foie gras today.”

Meanwhile Gustavus von Felden declares there are no such people as the Merz family:

“There were some Merzweiler Schleicheggs, but they’ve had no issue since the Diet of Ratisbon. And there are the Hungarian März März-Glinsky who…of course have been insane for a very long time.”

“There are,” said Count Bernin. “Arthur Merz. Merz & Merz… Phosphates. A sizeable fortune; quite idle.”

….There was a silence.

“Pious Jews—” said Clara.

Throughout the book, it is the male characters, and her father, Julius, above all, whom the narrator works to make us like. The women, though, are more complex, armored characters, weightier human beings. Time does no favors for Julius. In thrall to objects, he slides away from the strong feelings he arouses in people. He feels himself an exception to every rule, a delusion which is permitted in the young; as the years strip away his boyish charm, he is revealed as an aesthete with an empty heart.

Count Bernin is undone by vanity; he deludes himself, and so does the son of the same name who follows him into a political career. Clara Bernin, the count’s daughter, is rather a joke figure at her introduction, clumsy and gushingly pious; but she gains strength and a measure of the reader’s esteem, simply by perseverance, by her active conscience, by her practical efforts in the world. Even Melanie Merz becomes resolute when she falls in love. When she and Julius meet after their engagement in Berlin, she senses that he no longer wants to go through with their marriage. She acts quickly, before he can act. The trousseau, ready for years, is hurriedly embroidered with the seven-pointed coronet of the German baronetcy. Melanie has herself baptized—though by a misunderstanding, she is baptized into the Reformed Church. The wedding takes place quietly at Voss Strasse. The Merzes make a handsome settlement on the couple. Grandmama parts with some diamonds and lends the services of her personal maid. Melanie and Julius leave for Andalucia; for the Merzes, one place abroad is as bad as another. The author’s tone is one of bleak hilarity.

Melanie, installed in a large house among remote customs and remote people, has nothing to do but wait for her new husband to arrive from various excursions. Julius is not used to the notion of making a success of relationships, or having demands placed on him. There is something theatrical about their meetings, each of them determinedly acting the part of fond newlyweds. In the desert heat of Spain Melanie becomes a fugitive ghost. She finds she is pregnant. She does not want to return to Berlin. Julius takes a house in the Sologne, which he sees in an advertisement. It is set in “flat, still country of unmoving water and pine-soft ground, a hidden province, unvisited, of serried shallow ponds and scrub enclosed by forest….” In this veiled and obscure setting, Melanie’s child is born. It is a girl, called Henrietta, after her grandmother Merz.

Melanie falls sick, dies of consumption. The child, Henrietta, is enveloped by Voss Strasse, brought up there. Julius, the widower, remains prodigal, casual, open-handed. He is sure that someone will provide, and the Merzes do, endlessly, even after his remarriage to Caroline Trafford, the soignée Englishwoman who is the mother of the book’s narrator. Caroline is a beauty of unconventional mindset, who marries Julius on the rebound from a hopeless affair with an older married man. Caroline impresses the reader as a woman of a cold, facetious insolence, though perhaps her creator admires her, cagily. She is, in fact, sophisticated beyond salvation. She has made great efforts to fashion herself into a person without the ugly emotions of jealousy and possessiveness, and to respect her married lover’s scruples about leaving his wife, but these efforts have so strained her faculties that she has become an artificial person, a brittle self-creation who can no longer consult her real feelings. Julius is an escape, a diversion at least; his easy charm, his lack of intensity, seem to offer her a breathing space. For the second time, a marriage takes place at Voss Strasse; once again, Grandmama parts with jewels and her maid; once again, the couple leave for Spain.

It is at this point that news comes of the sudden death of Johannes von Felden. It is twenty-seven years since the first act of the tragedy. After his recuperation in Switzerland, the kindest refuge for Johannes proved to be—the army. He has passed his life hidden away in the Black Forest, in charge of a stud farm. He never wears a uniform and is seldom heard to speak. His personal attendants are discreet and loyal. As far as it can be contrived, he never sees a man in uniform—until a new-broom colonel wonders who is this Captain von Felden, who never reports to him—and sends an envoy to find out. Johannes attacks the man, who shoots him in self-defense.

What ensues becomes known as “The Regimental Tragedy.” Once again, the Felden family make headlines, and the Merz family are dragged into the mire with them by populist and anti-Semitic journalists. The past is misunderstood, willfully perverted. There is a summer of scandal and protest, angry crowds at the door of Voss Strasse. The press calls Julius “Baron Bluebeard,” alleging that his first wife died of neglect “or worse.” The tragedy reaches into every life. It ruins the Merzes and the Bernins too. In the autumn, when the story has died down and something like normality returns, it is learned that Caroline is expecting a child.

When this child, Francesca, is in her turn born and brought up at Voss Strasse, the grand fortune of Merz and Merz has been disbursed. The Merzes’ daughter-in-law, an aniline heiress from Frankfurt, buys the family house, keeping it in the same style after Grandpapa’s death, so that the old lady can see out her well-buttered days not knowing that the Merzes are poor. A letter comes to light, exposing a new truth about the night Johannes was bundled back to the cadet school. It incriminates the eldest brother, Gustavus—whose cruel, half-understood impulse was to tidy the affair away, so that nothing might occur to block his marriage to Clara Bernin. Unable to live with the sudden exposure, Gustavus puts a bullet in his brain. This presents a difficulty for the “strangely constituted conscience” of Caroline Trafford. It is she who finds his body, and who is asked to collude in a merciful lie to spare Clara’s feelings—to say that Gustavus was still breathing when she discovered him, so that Clara can believe he had a moment to clear his account with her Catholic God before his death.

Caroline finds this lie impossible. She finds no recourse but to leave, never to return—to leave Julius, promising to send for her child. But custody is awarded to Julius, and it is only when he dies of a chest infection in the winter of 1913 that mother and daughter are reunited at a railway station:

“Now let us see what you look like,” she said. “Do you still speak English, duck?”

“No, yes, I don’t know,” I said and found that I did.

So the book has drawn to a close with a tussle with Roman Catholic theology of which Graham Greene would have been proud, and with a plot twist—the hidden letter—that owes everything to Ivy Compton-Burnett. Elsewhere, Sybille Bedford will employ similar devices—concealed wills and copies of wills, chance scraps of paper. Words, left in the dark or hidden on purpose, seem to double in potency and deliver horrible shocks. When lost knowledge comes to light at a crucial moment in a plot, it is apt to seem arbitrary, and the reader can feel cheated, as if the novelist were detected in the act of drawing out playing cards from her sleeve. For Ivy Compton-Burnett, a plot is nothing but a line to hang the dirty linen on, and the brusque shakeouts of her final chapters are best not imitated. Her influence on Sybille Bedford is seen to better effect in the ruthlessness with which the smarter characters deal with each other, in the cold virtuosity of the dialogue. Like Compton-Burnett, Sybille Bedford is able to operate in the electric spaces between the lines.

A Legacy was published in Britain in 1956. It was not much liked, the author says, and met with critical obtuseness. Then Nancy Mitford saw it and recommended it to Evelyn Waugh, who reviewed it warmly in The Spectator. “Nothing that has been said about my work has given me so much pleasure,” Sybille Bedford says. “It has lasted me through life.”

It is not difficult to see why Waugh and Mitford responded to the book with a bow of recognition. Bedford’s humor is more decorous than theirs, less wild and subversive, but it is still sly and startling. Whether she is writing comedy or tragedy, she writes with an even tranquillity that requires close attention from the reader to actual words, rather than the broader situation. She has an emotional acuity and a knack for demonstrating how intelligent people, with good will toward each other, can reduce their lives to miserable incoherence. With Elizabeth Bowen, she shares a composed and thoughtful style and the early influence of Henry James. This influence is pronounced in A Legacy, or so Waugh complained. Later, as Bedford’s novels slim down, it is refined to the point of being unnoticeable. All the same, her two 1960s novels have a peripheral organizer called Mr. James, an American who attends on family disasters and arranges the characters’ railway tickets between one narrative setting and another.

But what distinguished Bedford among her contemporaries is the size of her canvas. “I have neither the talent nor the desire to write epic fiction,” she has said, but her scope is as broad as that of Richard Hughes, who in The Fox in the Attic (1961) and its sequel, The Wooden Shepherdess (1973), both intended and produced an epic—a story of two families in England and Germany, whose private lives are shaped by public events between the wars. For a modern reader, some of the pleasure of A Legacy may be nostalgic, but the thrust of its intention is forward. What is the legacy of the nineteenth century, how and in what manner did it transform intolerant and divided societies into societies where mass murder was practiced? Both Hughes and Bedford tell their stories in flashes—an action rapidly framed, a picture that creates a sudden insight. Hughes’s technique is obviously cinematic; with Bedford, it is as if a door has been opened, then slammed shut again by an unseen hand.

Like the narrator of A Legacy, Sybille Bedford left Germany as a child. She did not see it again until the 1960s, except for a brief visit a few months before Hitler came to power. Her material is derived from what she saw and heard before the age of ten. Her narrator says,

My knowledge of the institutions, government and temper of the Kaiser’s Germany is sketchy, conventional and instinctive, full, no doubt, of inaccuracies and gaps; it is also retrospective and so indelible as to be almost impervious to subsequent correction. It is lurid knowledge, of the kind one might acquire of a house through which one has made one’s way with a candle in one’s hand.

Within a family, she says, children find out what is going on through “the almost extra-sensory perception of a grown-ups’ disturbance.” She is fascinated by how memory works, and how a writer’s memory works in particular: how it functions on the borderlands of fiction and autobiography, steering a path between (in Jeanette Winterson’s phrase) art and lies.

We are said to re-invent our memories; we often re-arrange them. Did we hear this then? Do we remember saying that? or do we remember being told we said it? Did this happen at one time, or is this clear-cut scene, that amber moment, a collation, a palimpsest, a stereographic recording of many others?

We are not dealing with Proust’s collection of moments, each memory sealed within a funerary jar, safe from the fingertips of the future, but with versions of the past which can be altered. Adults shape children’s memories by telling and retelling from a superior point of view. This is how family identity is cemented; this is how the orthodox version is made. The wise child dissents from it, prizing not what is volunteered but what is sneak-thieved; the snippet of conversation overheard, the scene in the hall glimpsed from the head of the stairs. The trace of experience persists, half-understood, kept in the dark, unarticulated, written with the left hand on secret paper; until, like one of those dubious wills or lost letters, it leaps to the hand and the eye and the light of day.

At the end of A Legacy occurs the moment where the invented Francesca and the real Sybille draw close. It is that moment at a German railway station, a mother replaces a father, and a German child begins an English life. Many years later, in Jigsaw, Sybille Bedford would explain the importance of this moment:

From early on I had the absolute if shadowy conviction that I would become a writer and nothing else; I held on to the English language as the rope to save me from drifting awash in the fluidities of multilingualism that surrounded me. My German beginnings I discounted, sought to obliterate. In this I succeeded for a number of years until the force of circumstances became too great.