The Warm South
April 15, 2011
"To write, to be a writer, had been the one true goal ever since I began to think; which was early."
This was said by Sybille Bedford, in an introduction to her novel, A Legacy, first published in 1956, and if was a refrain that ran through her many books. Writing, she maintained, was a "vocation", an "exalted calling". Bedford, who died in 2006, would have been 100 last month.
More than almost any twentieth-century writer, Bedford used the fabric of her own life, and that of her forebears, friends and family, their relations and connections and the incidents that marked them, as the mainspring of all her work, both fiction and nonfiction. Never in the least self-important, she spun and re-spun her own story, expanding, adding, explaining, remembering and recasting the past. In one form or another, she is always present, as child, adolescent, daughter, friend, lover, an "I" at times invisible, at others in the room, always nearby. It gives her work an extraordinary sense of completeness and unity.
Born in Charlottenburg, of a German father, Maximilian von Schoenebeck, a retired army officer, and a German-Jewish mother with English connections, Bedford spent her early years with her father in a schloss near Baden, full of Renaissance art. He had lost all his money, and they lived in austere seclusion, bartering their apples for butter and using candles for light, but he liked to sketch and was fond of animals, having kept chimpanzees in his youth. The ill-tempered family donkey was given felt slippers to wear when it came into the house. Von Schoenebeck was also a master of wine, and in the evenings, in the darkened schloss, he taught Bedford to love wine and to recognize the great vintages, particularly of claret. "Ci-git mon coeur", she would later say of claret, "my true love". Often, they played roulette.
Her mother, who makes repeated appearances under various guises throughout Bedford's fiction, was a wanderer. She was also capricious, beautiful, a captivating talker and much concerned with the humanitarian issues of the day. When Billi - as Bedford was known - was twelve, her mother sent for her. Then followed many months of being shunted around Italy and France before a new husband was found, a considerably younger Italian architect, and they settled in the village of Sanary on the Cote d'Azur. It came at much the same moment as von Schoenebeck's death, and Bedford would never wish to visit Germany again. ""The fear of Germany is in my bones", she later wrote. "All my life I have lived with nightmare visions of barrack-loud, dust-bound German officialdom, immovable, unsmiling, a total negation."
No one has ever written better about the sensation of going south for the first time, of emerging from the grey north into the brilliance and light of the Mediterranean, the "bleached bare spaces of Provence and the terraced Tuscan hills". It was a delight in all things southern, the sea, olive trees, siestas, markets, the heat of noon, the cicadas, that never left her. "Joy, like grief," she wrote, "can enter the bones."
In the German schloss there had not been much formal education. By the age of twelve, Bedford was prodigiously well read, but her handwriting, despite the brief attention of some despairing nuns, remained illegible. "I want your mind to be concrete and fastidious", her mother told her, arranging for her to go to London to live with a family of kindly but peripatetic artists, whore she went on reading, but still failed to go to school. She was, however, fast acquiring an appetite for enjoyment, later expressed in the thoughts of one of her female characters, Caroline in A Legacy. "She was equipped", Bedford wrote, "to appreciate, to derive entertainment, connotations, pleasure from almost any situation she happened to find herself placed in."
Among the many writers and artists who came to the Cote d'Azur during the 1920s and 30s - refugees from Nazi Germany like Brecht, Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann - were Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria. As a precocious adolescent, Bedford had devoured Huxley's books. Meeting him, when he was forty-six and she nineteen, gave her what she would call a "moral education", but his influence was not all good. With his encouragement, she began to write herself, two "pseudo-learned" essays on Flaubert and Baudelaire, and three "portentous novels of ideas", which did the rounds of publishers but were all rejected. She blamed this on having read too much and known too little, and on the fact that, fired by Huxley's fascination with the "queerness of reality, the extraordinariness of everything", she also sought to emulate his style. After the Nazis confiscated her German inheritance, Bedford fell back on driving for rich friends, and teaching the rudiments of English to the refugees hoping to emigrate to the United States. She loved fast cars, and sped up and down the Riviera in Maria Huxley's scarlet Bugatti. She was already choosing the wines for her older friends.
As war approached, and Bedford seemed likely to become stateless, the Huxleys arranged a mariage de convenance with a gay Englishman called Terry Bedford. She took his name and soon left for the States, but when the war ended, she travelled to Mexico, with a New York friend, Esther Murphy. "I had a great longing to move", she wrote, "to hear another language, to eat new food, to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible." Alternating luxury with extreme discomfort, she dragged the reluctant Esther on unpredictable and back-breaking journeys, on trains that ran seventeen hours late and buses full of turkeys and pigs.
Towards the end of the 1940s, Bedford, penniless, arrived in Rome. Bailed out by another generous friend, Allanah Harper, and prodded by her new acquaintance Martha Gellhorn with a "rough injunction about nonwriting writers", she at last sat down to work. The material out of which she would fashion her books for the next fifty years was all there: Germany at the turn of the century, the dazzling French Riviera, literary exiles, travel, a huge and complicated cast of characters, and memories metamorphosed by the imagination. At a time when fact was fact and fiction fiction, Bedford chose to move effortlessly between the two, She had taken no notes in Mexico, and was severely limited in her reading by a lifelong painful eye condition, and so she wrote from her memory and her thoughts, discovering that she did, after all, have her own voice, freed from Huxley's cadences.
The result was A Visit to Don Otavio, the account of her travels with Esther Murphy, caught in a stream of images, droll, informative, full of quirky details, one of those rare travel books, like Martha Gellhorn's Travels with Myself and Another, that possess a charmed quality. Bedford's own style, adopted then and never altered, was unmistakably her own: never tentative, never generalizing, thoughtful, deliberate, making, as Jan Morris once observed, other writers seem in comparison "tame and conventional". It included Alice in Wonderland conversations, staccato exchanges full of tantalizing implications. A Visit to Don Otavio suggested a sense of leisure not so much absent from modern travel as unknown to anyone under the age of fifty. It has never been out of print since.
That Bedford would write in English was never in doubt. Equally fluent in German and French - her mother called her a "polyglot parrot" - she saw the English language as a "rope to save me from drifting awash in the fluidities of multiculturalism that surrounded me". But neither then, nor later, would she ever talk down to her readers, simply assuming them to be as knowledgeable, well read and fluent in European languages as she was herself. In her books you find no translations for the foreign phrases or quotations, no explanation alongside historical or literary allusions, however obscure, no indication where quotes have been subtly altered to convey a more precise or witty meaning. The cultured world needs, she would say, alternatives for its expression. "Any language acquired opens song lines."
Don Otavio was published in 1953. Still living in Rome, Bedford turned to her own family history for her first novel, A Legacy, most of whose events take place before she was born, its child narrator recounting events that she could not, but seems to, have witnessed. The tale of three German families, and of her own father, cast here as Julian von Felden, A Legacy is about the endlessly shifting realities of the past. Though it was initially slow to sell, Bedford would always remember the moment she heard that it had been accepted by Gollancz, as she was standing watering the climbing plants on her Roman terrace, and also Evelyn Waugh's "tiny warm notice" in the Spectator. "We know nothing of the author's age, nationality or religion", Waugh wrote. "But we gratefully salute a new artist."
It was in A Legacy that appeared the first of what would be many sensuous celebrations of food, in this case a banquet given for a birthday: "great glistening lumps of sheer boned goose flesh sewn into its own faultless skin, five pound tins of caviar afloat in silver coolers, Strasbourg terrines large as bandboxes, hot-house asparagus thick as pillars, fifty plover's eggs in a nest of bronze twigs ... ". Bedford observes, but does not instruct.
Writing would never come easily to her, but other books soon followed. A sequel to A Legacy, A Favourite of the Gods (1963), in many ways the most earnest, least amusing of her novels, was followed by A Compass Error (1968). In both, mothers, daughters and grandmothers weave in and out of each other's lives, unable to free themselves. The atmosphere is heady, their exchanges both confiding and artfully unintimate. As with her descriptions of food, Bedford's characters are watched rather than shaped. Casual ruthlessness and the ease with which people ruin their own lives and those of others are deftly conveyed.
If there were long pauses between the books, this was due to Bedford's need to make money with journalism, and her longlasting fascination with the process of the law. Though sometimes overlooked, her coverage of trials - The Best We Can Do (1955), the story of Dr John Bodkins Adams, accused of murdering his elderly patients, and The Faces of Justice (1961) and As It Was (1990), two collections of her articles - were models of clarity and conciseness. As ever, it is Bedford's choice of detail that remains in the mind: the lawyers eating their sandwiches out of briefcases, the judge "an Elizabethan shadow gliding across the arras".
Travelling around the courts of Europe and America, she found herself mesmerized by the spectacle of people at their points of crisis. She felt huge sympathy for the men and women in the dock, often accused of nothing more than stealing a barrel of apples. "There is something in most of us", she wrote, "that longs for things and people to come out right." Just as Don Ottavio is not quite a travel book, more a soliloquy on the nature of discovery, so her trial reports are a disquisition on the nature of good and evil, guilt and innocence, luck and misfortune.
Nowhere more acutely than in the long article she wrote about what became known as the Auschwitz Trial, the prosecution of twenty-two former camp guards, held in Frankfurt in 1963, does Bedford's intensely keen sense of morality and personal responsibility come out. It was the first large-scale trial of its kind held by Germans, before German judges and jury. Sitting day after day in the press box, Bedford wrote about the "scum" in the dock before her, but what was on trial, as she saw it, was not simply a group of criminals, but the Third Reich itself, which had "deliberately trained and licensed that scum": if a child, she wrote, "with a history book in hand, were to ask one day `was that the worst thing that ever happened?' the answer may have to be yes".
Bedford may have freed herself from Huxley's style, but she remained extremely close to Huxley and Maria and in 1973 returned his many kindnesses by publishing a two-volume biography of him. It was a true act of love and took her six years to write. Too long - the paperback runs to well over 700 pages - and in its reticence and politeness curiously old-fashioned by today's lights, it provides an engaging picture of the -South of France in the 1920s and 30s and a reminder of why Huxley was so important for a whole generation of readers.
There were two more books to come. Jigsaw, which appeared in 1989 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is the most autobiographical of the novels - indeed, with all its ambiguities, there is a sense in which it is not a novel at all. The events it describes, among them one of the most painful episodes of Bedford's life, her mother's addiction to morphine, were, she conceded, "true in fact and essence ... but presented in a form suited to a novel, not a record". Jigsaw brought to the fore Bedford's way of conveying the world perceived by her characters as a series of scenes that look like paintings in the mind's eye. Long before writers were described as "painterly", she used art to conjure up her heroines. Melanie, in A Legacy, is a Watteau: Costanza, in A Favourite of the Gods, a "Giorgione modified by a Gainsborough", while her own mother, whose powerful nature and convoluted relationship to Bedford is seldom absent from the books, is, after her addiction to morphine, a "Rembrandt woman, an ageing Jewess howling by a wall". In her edition of Aldous Huxley's essay on Piero della Francesca, Bedford heavily underscored the words: "There does exist ... an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work .... That virtue is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself ". Integrity, in art as in justice, remained Bedford's fixed point.
Bedford was in her eighties when she started work on Quicksands (2005). Her eyes were constantly painful and it took her seven years to complete, but she never stopped feeling; and writing, with passion, and, as with Martha Gellhorn, old age did not stop her railing against the injustices of the world. Quicksands is the only book which openly calls itself a memoir, and it starts with a most endearing sentence: "I shall begin as I hope to continue: from the middle". Those who had hoped it would deal with the events and friends of the post-war years were disappointed: no more here than anywhere else does Bedford confide or explain. "It's hard to write about what one can't write about", she once said to a friend, and this struggle between candour and discretion was never resolved. But all the great pleasures of her life were there, the claret, the Mediterranean, the love of her friends. The middle could be said to be the place from which Bedford always started, spinning her web outwards from the centre in ever-larger circles, drawing on the memories of a lifetime, rearranged and reinvented.
Towards the very end of his life, Bernard Berenson, asked whether there were things that he would have wanted to change, replied that he would have liked another life, "and another ... there is so much I still want to do and could write, so much in nature and art and people I could still enjoy ... more time, more time". Bedford's conclusion, in the last words of Quicksands, is rather more ambivalent "Wish I could tell the half of it", she wrote. "But there seems to be no time." What there had been time for was a remarkable body of work, on the intricacy and delicacy of human communication, on the fallibility of memory, on pleasures and tastes, on the distortion of time and the importance of history, the whole brought together by an exceptional gift for narrative and an always discerning eye.