A Past Recaptured

The New York Review of Books
November 29, 2001
Hilary Mantel

A Favourite of the Gods
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 312 pp., $16.00 (paper)

A Compass Error
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 221 pp., $16.00 (paper)

Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint, 351 pp., $15.00 (paper)

In Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthropologist on Mars, there is an essay on the artist’s memory. He remarks that it is the discontinuities in life that fuel reminiscence and, through reminiscence, myth and art:

One may be born with the potential for a prodigious memory, but one is not born with a disposition to recollect; this comes only with changes and separations in life—separations from people, from places, from events and situations, especially if they have been of great significance, have been deeply hated or loved…. Discontinuity and nostalgia are most profound if, in growing up, we leave or lose the place where we were born and spent our childhood, if we become expatriates or exiles, if the place, or the life, we were brought up in is changed beyond recognition or destroyed.

Sybille Bedford is a distinguished and neglected writer whose life and work fits Sacks’s observations perfectly. She was born in Berlin in 1911, and her parents’ marriage ended soon afterward. She was brought up in the German countryside by her father. When she was ten, her mother, a well-off Englishwoman, demanded custody, and Sybille was handed over at a railway station on the Dutch border. The years following were divided between France, Italy, and England, where she received a patchy education. Fluent in several languages, she began writing in her teens, and it was the English language that gave her a focus, a sense of security. But her masterwork, A Legacy, concerned itself with her German self, with her earliest childhood and with events which took place before she was born. It is a fictionalized reconstruction of life in Germany among the Catholic minor aristocracy and the haute juiverie of Berlin, and its narrative spans almost fifty years, beginning in pre-unification Germany and ending with the Great War. Its child-narrator describes events she could not possibly have witnessed, but describes them with a sensuous precision that almost convinces the reader that her consciousness predates her birth.

This elegant and haunting novel, which appeared in Britain in 1956, was the first of Bedford’s fiction to be published. Through her early career as a writer she seldom settled, moving between Rome, Paris, Provence, living the kind of scapegrace life that writers seemed to manage in those days, finding kind friends, patrons, hospitality—everything contingent and glamorous, perhaps better in the recall than the living: or at least the modern writer has to hope so. In 1958 she published The Best We Can Do, an account of the murder trial of Dr. John Bodkin Adams, and she reported on a number of other major trials, including those of Jack Ruby and the guards of Auschwitz. In the early 1970s she produced a two-volume life of Aldous Huxley, whom she had known since she was a young woman. Settling at last in London, sitting on writers’ committees, embracing writers’ causes, she reported on her frequent European travels and wrote about food and wine.

There had been two other novels, A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error, published in 1963 and 1968 respectively; both were semiautobiographical, drawing on summers spent in France as a young girl. Then in 1989 she published Jigsaw, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A “fictionalized autobiography,” it continued the story of A Legacy‘s narrator into her middle childhood, and provided an alternative history of her teenage years. Is it “more true” than her novels? No one can say; almost certainly the author cannot. Taken together, the books are a close examination of the nature of confabulation by an author devoted to the pursuit of truth.

The first part of Jigsaw describes the village of Feldkirch in Baden, minutes from the French border, where she lived with her father, an impoverished minor aristocrat, in the château that her mother had bought for him. The two of them managed with one servant in a house of twenty bedrooms, with a collection of Renaissance furniture but no ready cash, with candles instead of electric light; the money had gone with her mother. She particularizes the lives of the village people, their food and their clothes: their breakfast coffee made of roasted barley and chicory essence, their dark and shapeless workclothes. A pupil at the village school, she was taught that divorced people go to hell; this made her panic, since the company of the damned included her mother and father. When she picked up head lice, her father decided on home tutoring.

The end of this phase came for Sybille (known as Billi) when her mother claimed custody. The adult Bedford got stuck when she had to bring her mother into the story. She felt she could not be fair to her without including a complex sequence of tangled events, remote circumstances. Overnight, the problem was resolved: “The writer had won over whatever we might call it; filial duty, decency….” A novel, after all, is not a court of law. It was necessary to accept that she would not make the reader warm to her mother, who seems to have possessed none of the usual maternal virtues. The writer is indebted to her for imprinting “her unshakeable rejection of war, nationalism, social injustice…her passion for literature and art…,” but “sadly, I was not often able to love her….”

When she is parted from her father, Billi is first told that she is to join her mother in Italy. Her mother is to marry a painter and they are to live near Florence. However, she writes, “my mother’s arrangements (as I had to learn) were often impulsive and reversible.” Another man comes along. His name is Alessandro; he is handsome, amiable. Her mother is now thirty-eight or thirty-nine, her new beau is fifteen years younger. There is an unsettled interlude for Billi. Her mother is prone to leaving her with comparative strangers while she pursues mysterious maneuvers in another city or country. Who is responsible for Billi? Where will she live? Who will pay the bills? Her mother’s money is evaporating and the German courts pursue her with letters to which are affixed vast, impressive seals. The project is to send Billi to England—but when she gets there she finds herself boarded out with acquaintances who have made no suitable arrangements for her schooling. Still, what is most dreary in English life is exotic to her. Tinned salmon and pineapple cubes, bloater paste and Marmite, she devours it all:

Food is as revealing as money and sex, and is revealed more often. People can’t wait to tell you that they mustn’t eat cabbage or have a craving for puddings; whereas how frequently do you hear, I’ve got ten thousand in my deposit account, or I can’t bear parting with small change? As for the truth about sex….

Every time she visits her mother in Italy she notices alarming changes: more Black Shirts in the streets, more parades, wall posters, boasts, and lies. Her mother sees the danger, her young stepfather shrugs it off: “It won’t stick…. Musso’s dream; playing lions, days without pasta, little boys carrying daggers, it’s too silly, we’re not cut out for regimentation.” All the same, by 1926 her mother and Alessandro find it wise to leave Italy. They migrate to Sanary-sur-Mer, a modest Provençal fishing port set among olive trees and vines.

At first her residence seemed just another transitional arrangement, but soon Billi would think of the small town as her home. In winter she studied in London with tutors, living in a bedsitting room, solitary, frugal, purposive: still delighted by the gushing profusion of London bathwater, a novelty to someone who had spent her girlhood bathing in scant rainwater heated on capricious wood-burning stoves. Returning to France each summer, she always had to intuit her mother’s situation: Financial or marital upset? Plans to move on?

By the time she was seventeen, a handful of writers, refugee politicians, and painters had begun to arrive in Sanary, and Billi’s relationships with them were to form the subject matter of two novels, A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error. With the first of these, published in 1963, Bedford set out to write “a serious story written as a comedy of manners.” It is also perhaps one of those novels written to explain things to oneself. The emerging theme is the one Bedford has neglected—mother–daughter relationships—and here they are traced through three generations, beginning around the turn of the century. The first generation is represented by Anna Howland, a polished and beautiful New Englander. Traveling in Europe after the death of her revered father, she meets a prince by an Italian lake, and becomes the mistress of a Roman house, “noble, shuttered, peeling…in a back-street in the papal quarter between the Tiber and the Farnese Square.” At first, the marriage seems a great success. Bedford neatly inverts the more usual story of the American heiress fallen among Europeans; Anna is adored by her husband’s large family, and no one gambles away her dowry, or insults her moral values, or tells her how to behave. The family’s Catholicism is of a relaxed and accommodating style, and the prince, Rico, is happy for her to pursue her cultural interests.

The first child of this marriage is Constanza, the “favourite” of the title. She is beautiful, strong-minded, and indulged. She loses her faith at thirteen, and takes lovers early and without ugly consequence—they only breed an increase in her benevolence toward the world. Her childhood ends with her parents’ separation. When he married, Rico did not think of giving up his long-term mistress. Anna knows this, but does not admit to herself what she knows; she allows her knowledge to become conscious only when she wants to use it to break up the marriage. Later she regrets it—but she and the prince find themselves in a situation that neither of them knows how to negotiate. The forces that shape our behavior, Bedford tells us, lie further back in the past than we know, back in a family and a culture we may have abandoned. Anna—herself coquettish but frigid—is compelled to play to type, and fling at the prince the New World insult “you are all depraved.”

Forcibly separated from her father, transported to London to live in a hotel, Constanza can only guess at what has caused the breakup; she believes that her father has somehow embezzled her mother’s money. In the years ahead, Anna becomes spoiled, precious, selfish. Constanza, however, becomes a society darling. The reader may be less enchanted with her, and even her creator describes her in distanced terms: “People, even people whom she loved, were separate entities to her and she left them to their own convictions and decisions.” At the age of twenty-one, in 1914, she marries Simon Herbert, a bouncy egotist who sets a high value on himself; to the modern ear, he is a mass of affectations, camp in the most irritating way. Constanza, that sexual buccaneer, at first finds him only “a comfort and a good companion.” But Simon and Anna make an unspoken pact to admire each other; Constanza’s marriage is an attempt to heal her mother’s fractured happiness. Later, a useful friend of the family called Mr. James will tell her that “the things one feels obliged to do against one’s inclination are often the most harmful.” But Mr. James with his caveats is never quite where he’s needed.

In the second year of the Great War Constanza gives birth to a daughter, Flavia. Neither she nor Simon is very pleased. Simon has gone to war; invalided out to an administrative post, he develops political ambitions and starts an affair with a useful newspaper heiress. Constanza in turn has begun to have affairs. There is a messy divorce. Once again Constanza sacrifices her own interests. She is willing to play the guilty party, to keep Simon’s good name clean for his political bosses. To give him grounds for an adultery suit she goes off to a hotel with a mysterious friend of Simon’s called Captain Ware. The judge at the divorce hearing is not impressed by either parent, and awards custody of Flavia to her grandmother, Anna.

Ten years pass, years of growing discontent for Constanza:

She had learnt to travel light. In her youth she had looked at fate as the bolt from the clear sky, now she recognized it in the iron rule of time on all human affairs…; the second chance is not the first.

She still has looks, health, money, and a large measure of freedom; but carpe diem, once the true gospel, is now a “sad pagan creed.” In Italy, Mussolini consolidates his rule. Constanza is an antifascist “by instinct and by reason” though the prevailing mood in her father’s circle is of “opportunism disinfected by a dash of cynicism.” She carries messages for the resistance, though the group she works for is “professorial” and amateurish. Anna has taken her granddaughter, Flavia, back to Italy where, shut out from the last generation’s secrets, she grows up fantasizing about her grandfather and his family. “Is the prince in Rome a hunch-back? … Does he stab his adversaries?”

Then the mysterious “Captain Ware,” so helpful at the time of her divorce, turns up in Constanza’s life again. He now calls himself Lewis Crane, and claims to be an art dealer. The end of the story, chronologically speaking, is told in the opening pages. Constanza is en route to marry the art dealer in Belgium, with Flavia in tow. Their journey is interrupted, and they find themselves in a Provençal seaside town, looking over a villa which was meant for someone else. With swift illogicality, declining to explain herself, Constanza decides this is where they will stay. The closing pages are crowded with a melodrama over two versions of Anna’s will, and show the child Flavia growing into a woman of decision. Once again, the invented character has drawn close to the reality of Bedford’s own girlhood—the unreliable mother, the sojourn in a small Mediterranean town among friendly and curious strangers. In the final scenes the mother departs for Paris with a new lover, leaving Flavia behind. The stage is set for the next novel, A Compass Error.

A Favourite of the Gods is not Sybille Bedford’s best book. It is a slow starter with a rushed denouement. Though the author works hard on behalf of her characters, the reader is struck by their pride, selfishness, and lack of empathy. Faced by a problem, they usually feel that movement will improve matters. They pack a bag, take a boat, take a train—but all this self-assertion is confounded by fatalism, so that they allow accidents and coincidences to rule their lives. The casual pain inflicted by the characters on each other, and the corruption of communications between them, make the book a bitter farce in the chilling Waugh style; at its publication in the mid-Sixties, it may have seemed out of tune with the mood of the times, and its rapid, glancing take on the rise of fascism may have meant little to readers bent on making over their memories and leaving the war years far behind. It may be that the book seemed a period piece that had not yet acquired a patina of charm.

Bedford’s world is unashamedly elitist. Her most admired characters are aristocrats—sometimes aristocrats of beauty or wit rather than birth, but she prefers them if they are also the offspring of a distinguished family. The lower classes contribute much-prized servants, treated sympathetically by both characters and author. It is the middle classes who are not quite human; they are gossips, often malicious, and faintly ludicrous in their manners and morals. Her female protagonists are both beautiful and clever, with an economic freedom that allows them to escape the circumstances that generally constrict women’s lives; but like Jane Austen heroines, they are looking for men who will instruct them as well as amuse them, men whom they can look up to. A Favourite of the Gods is, as designed, a comedy of manners: but of the manners of people for whom we don’t care quite enough. Yet its sequel, A Compass Error, with its compacted dramatic action, is a powerful and merciless book—a classic coming-of-age novel which visits on its heroine a series of humiliations that cut to the quick.

The action occupies two months of summer. Seventeen-year-old Flavia has been left in Sanary: to prepare for her Oxford entrance examination, to lose her virginity, and (quite separately) to fall in love. In her introduction to the new edition, Bedford is as cagey as ever; you must not think this happened to me, she tells us, but that something like it, if seen in a certain light, happened to a part of me, or to a person of whom I am a part. Her fictionalized self is a trainee gourmet, a trainee intellectual: a self-conscious child, earnest and vulnerable. She spends her days studying in a tower which is the home of a neighbor, and her evenings in the small town’s cafés, exchanging pleasantries with the residents. One evening she joins the group that surrounds Therese, an artist’s wife, whose show-off good looks and social ease immediately attract her. Therese takes her under her wing, and in a week or so takes her to bed. What Therese recommends is a life of compliance with one’s instincts. It’s fine to sleep with one’s friends, she tells Flavia; one must be kind and generous, never possessive, never jealous; one must live in the present. To Flavia’s innocent mind, this philosophy is powerfully attractive. It is easy to feel immune to jealousy when one has no experience of the pain of loss. She feels sure, also, that she will always like women, though she goes to bed with one of the local boys simply as a matter of getting it over with.

Meanwhile, what has happened to mother? She has gone away with the man she hopes to marry. He is Michel, owner of the tower where Flavia spends her days studying. He is a politician who has withdrawn from Paris and the Chamber of Deputies on a matter of principle. He is “the austere ideal” whom Flavia admires without reserve. Flavia knows that there are obstacles in the way of the new marriage. Michel is not yet divorced from his first wife, who is making difficulties over signing the papers. To cover the lovers’ absence, Flavia has been told to say her mother is in Italy, visiting her family. The lie holds, until an enigmatic stranger called Andrée arrives in the district and throws Flavia’s feelings into turmoil. She is Michel’s wife, though Flavia contrives to miss all the clues that point her to this conclusion. She falls in love with Andrée, and after some days of hope and torment, and some tricky negotiations over an intimate dinner—consommé madrilène, sole florentine, and framboises nature—takes her back to Michel’s tower. Andrée, noting where the key is hidden, returns to the tower secretly to obtain Michel’s address abroad. Flavia has ruined her mother’s chance of marriage; for Andrée does not mean to let Michel go, and proceeds to send detectives to the lovers’ hide-out in Spain, to furnish evidence for a counterclaim and bring the divorce proceedings to a halt.

Andrée treats Flavia with a calculated cruelty, not simply abusing her naiveté, but mocking her for it. The scene in which she confronts Flavia with the knowledge of her gullibility is so pointed, so merciless, that the reader feels she has watched a stabbing in broad daylight. But worse is in store for Flavia. Her attempts to mend matters only make them worse. One false step is followed by another, and when she is truly enmired, snared in her own error, Andrée follows to sneer and berate her. Andrée destroys the benign Therese philosophy of easy friendship and easy sex: “Physical passion…has little to do with friendship, moral worth, choice or will; it is not cosy, easy, reassuring, debonair.” Crushingly, she tells Flavia, “You are as fit to live as the next person—if you lower your sights a little.”

Flavia’s judgment has wobbled off course; she had not set out to do damage, but damage was done, and she was the agent of it. Is she guilty? She is guilty of knowing and not knowing, like her grandmother Anna; guilty of a failure of attention, of looking away at the critical moment. Bedford does not give the reader the consolation of believing that Flavia’s error can be quickly retrieved, but tells us that she remained for many years in the wilderness of her own making. Her error is of the kind that is passed over, but not forgiven. As Ivy Compton-Burnett says, “Time has too much credit…. It is not a great healer. It is an indifferent and perfunctory one. Sometimes it does not heal at all.”

Something close to the originals of the characters of A Compass Error are found in the more autobiographical Jigsaw. The events that ensue are less compacted and less cruel than those of the fictionalized version, but still hard to stomach. In Jigsaw Billi falls in love with a woman called Oriane, “a thwarted feline beast.” Oriane snubs the young girl in a cold-blooded fashion. Her infatuation becomes public knowledge, and Billi’s mother, complaining of her immaturity—”after all the trouble I’ve taken…”—packs her off back to England. In grimy London, the girl feels “stony desolation.” The Christmas holidays come, and her kindly stepfather, Alessandro, pleads for her recall. Her mother receives her airily. “He says I behaved badly to you. Perhaps so. One does.”

In the later part of Jigsaw Alessandro, whose philosophy is “things just happen to people,” falls in love with a younger woman, a friend of the family. He leaves—a trial separation. Billi’s mother takes to morphine, in such doses that she is quickly dependent. These are harrowing, still-angry pages. The sense of being on the brink of disaster is still vivid, as Billi, shut in with her mother’s physical pain and craving, humiliates herself to beg local doctors and pharmacists not to cut off her supply. Finally Billi sends a telegram recalling Alessandro, and a doctor in Nice proves willing to arrange treatment:

Alessandro said, “This cure? What will it do to her? Will it hurt her? Is it very bad?”…

“Very bad,” the consultant said. “These cures always are.”

During this period, her beloved Oriane treats the beleaguered girl “as one might a clever and devoted stray dog who followed one about.” But it is Oriane who first, for her own studied amusement, treats her as a writer: “mon jeune écrivain,” a new kind of puppet, to be shut in a room with a supply of ruled paper and a tiptoeing maid. And when Alessandro finally leaves the catastrophic household, taking his departure at dawn, he turns back, and hands Billi his Remington portable typewriter. “You had better have that. Use it.”

Bedford’s stories are haunted by semi-selves. In the quasi-autobiographical form, every revelation is balanced by a concealment. No writer can produce except out of her own experience, however disguised, and for that reason the dull injunction to “write what you know” is superfluous. But the essence of Bedford’s achievement has been to stretch the boundaries of the little word “I,” while seldom actually using it. Working through the same elaborate story, she allows chronology to slide beneath her reader’s feet, shifts focus and emphasis, sifts each event for all the meanings it will yield; walks, in imagination, down roads not taken. Breeding a plurality of artistic experience out of a single life, she has remained fastidiously individual, and scrupulous in questioning her own motives. She relies on a reader’s close attention, emotional openness, and tolerance of ambiguity: “It takes two to tell the truth…one to speak and one to hear.” As her early life was marked by loss—of her father, her country, the milieu and culture of a vanished era—it is natural to catch in her work the accent of mourning. “I did not see them again. They are all dead now. Their houses are no more. Their few descendants must be dispersed over three continents.” The century she has survived has perfected techniques of erasure. But art creates a past that is constantly renewed, and these scenes, these pictures, will not pass away.