Living Large

Voice Literary Supplement
June 1990
David Leavitt

Sybille Bedford at Home and Abroad

Near the beginning of Jigsaw, the striking “biographical novel” she published in 1989, Sybille Bedford recalls a teatime conversation with Ivy Compton-Burnett which made Bedford feel acutely her “outlandish place” as the multilingual daughter of a German father and an English mother, raised all over the European continent: “Ivy herself once said to me,” she reports, “when I had asked for a ginger nut instead of a ginger biscuit, ‘I take it that you were not entirely brought up in England ? ‘ ”
She had no use for ‘abroad’,” Bedford goes on to observe of the “astringent” Compton-Burnett, proving, both by her arch tone and her fondness for the minutia of tea biscuits, what a very English novelist she grew up to become, in spite of the childhood years she spent being shuttled from Berlin to Alsace to Italy to France. “My attachment to England,” she writes in Jigsaw, “was instinctive, a bid for, if not roots, a kind of self-preservation. 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.” But though English did become the language in which she wrote, England was rarely the world of which she wrote. Instead, she brought to the portrayal of continental Europe in the first half of the 20th century a particularly English palette. Dry wit, careful attendance to detail, dialogue in which, as Elizabeth Bowen once wrote, there is “more to be said than can come through,” are the hallmarks of Bedford’s fiction, which rarely concerns itself with tea.
Born in 1911, she was an almost exact contemporary of Auden, Isherwood and Spender, though her education could not have been more different from theirs. She never made it to Oxford, never made it to any university. An autodidact by necessity, she grew up chiefly in a little village on the French Coast called Sanary-sur-Mer, where her neighbours included Aldous Huxley and the painter Moïse Kisling; there she forged her own perspective on the period between the Wars. While Bedford, who now lives in London, has written non fiction on a variety of subjects (most notably several accounts of legal trials and a biography of Huxley) it is around what Stephen Spender called the “Indian summer” of the ‘20s and early ‘30s that her four novels – published in 1956, 1963, 1968 and 1989 – revolve, the calm between two parts of a historical hurricane. If her work of fiction share a goal, it could probably best be stated as the determination to show the ways in which the private lives of individuals reflect the larger political life of their culture, and vice versa. Like Isherwood and Spender, she portrays the evolution of Nazism and Fascism where it really took place – in living rooms, kitchens, and on beaches; and like Isherwood and Spender, she is constantly drawn back to the paradoxes of public sanctity and personal sadomasochism.
She is also, as Peter Vansittart puts it in his introduction to her second novel, A Favourite of the Gods, “an authority on law, a connoisseur of unusual houses and families, of manners, wit, social rituals, food and drink.” Yet though she has often been characterised as a domestic writer, her pleasure in describing a meal or the intricacies of a family’s life by no means diminishes the power which is generated when she brings her considerable intellect to bear on a point of Law or politics. “The proper study of mankind…? Food?” she muses in Jigsaw. “I might have done worse. 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?” In A Compass Error (1968), Bedford describes a young woman’s evolving passion for wine:
She loved the shapes of bottles and of course the romantic names… on the labels, and she loved the link with rivers and hillsides and climates and hot years, and the rage of learning and experiment afforded by wine’s infinite variety; but what she loved more than these was the taste – of peach and earth and honeysuckle and raspberries and spice and cedar wood and pebbles and truffles and tobacco leaf; and the happiness, the quiet ecstasy that spreads through heart and limbs and mind.
Bedford is that rarity – a true, quatrilingual mondaine – yet there lingers behind the veneer of sophistication the spirit of the child constantly uprooted only to be abandoned in a new culture, a new language – pensiones in Italy, houses in France, where she was essentially thrown onto her own resources. “One autumn in the late nineteen-twenties for no particular reason at all, as it would seem, we began to live in France.” This sentence constitutes, in its entirety, the opening section of A Favourite of the Gods, and captures perfectly the spirit of random abandon and movement which characterized Bedford’s early life. Yet she is non sentimentalist: her heroines suffer as much as they benefit from this life of displacement.
It was because of her mother that the young Sybille (called Billi by her family) was forced to move around so much. Bedford’s mother was a woman of great beauty (photographed by Man Ray), fierce intelligence, impetuousness, and passion, so driven when in love that “nothing, not six children in a lost property office let alone one child in a comfortable hotel, could have held her back.” Jigsaw opens with one of Sybille’s earliest memories – being left lying in a pram outside an apartment door in Copenhagen while inside her mother makes love to a man who is not her husband: “an appeal to reason and accompliceship” from mother to infant daughter which would set the standard for their future relationship.
In A Legacy Sybille’s mother is transformed into Caroline, a wild young English woman who marries into the claustrophobic and self-absorbed Jewish Berlin family of Julius von Felden just at the moment that family is thrown into a personal crisis which is also a political scandal, foreshadowing the anti-Semitism which would erupt so violently two decades later. (Here, once again, the private – the “accidental” shooting of Julius’s brother, driven mad years earlier by his inhuman treatment at a German military school – is inseparable from the public response it generates.) In A Favourite of the Gods and its sequel A Compass Error, she is Constanza, daughter of a rigidly puritanical American heiress and a handsome, ne’er-do-well Italian prince, part of a three-generation history of displacement – the displacement of Anna, the heiress, from America to Italy, of Constanza herself from Italy to England, and of Constanza’s daughter, Flavia, from England to France – which mirrors Bedford’s own journey in Jigsaw. Bedford is constantly playing variations on her own ancestry, imagining herself vividly into what she calls in A Favourite of the Gods “the muddling consequences of our family history.”
Early divorced from her much older first husband, Sybille’s mother more or less abandoned her daughter for the early part of her life, leaving her at first in the care of her father’s wealthy in-laws from a previous marriage, in a house in Berlin which Bedford describes at the beginning of A Legacy as “outrageously large and ugly”. Sybille then lived for a number of years with her father in an austere Alsace farming village before being sent for by her mother, who planned to marry a well-known painter and settle with her daughter in Florence. But her mother fell in love with Alessandro, an Italian 20 years her junior, and left her to the care of a series of hotels and pensiones so that she could be with him. Sybille spent her adolescence moving between Italy, Sanary (where her mother and Alessandro eventually settled), and London, where she gave herself a makeshift education, endlessly postponing, for her mother’s sake, the dream of Oxford.
Not surprisingly, throughout the body of Bedford’s fiction, the appeal of a mother “to reason and accompliceship” from her daughter is reiterated, perhaps most lucidly in the harrowing final pages of Jigsaw, where Sybille, now a teenager, returns from England to find that her mother has become addicted to morphine. Refused by the local pharmacist, Sybille is forced to become her mother’s purveyor, crisscrossing the south of France in search of more and more pharmacies willing to provide the craved ampoules, unable to share with anyone her increasing sense of desperation. In what is perhaps the novel’s most frightening scene, Sybille’s mother urges Sybille herself to try the drug, and when she refuses, answers by saying, “Not enough courage?” And while it’s impossible to read this section of the novel without being consumed with rage that a mother could do such a thing to a daughter still in her teens, it’s also impossible not to be impressed by the young Sybille’s utter lack of self-pity, her resignation to her fate, and her determination not to show weakness or behave childishly, which makes her mother’s use of her that much more monstrous.
In Bedford’s fiction, relations between mothers and daughters are rarely sweet. Her women are too strong and single-minded to get along easily; they love each other, but their love is counter-balanced by intense self-interest, or a staunch sense of moral rectitude which cannot forgive. This is most acutely the case in A Favourite of the Gods, where the interactions of three very different mothers and daughters – the American Anna, the Italian Constanza, and the English Flavia – mirror the historical entanglement in which their different nationalities force them to participate, and which Flavia and Constanza (like Sybille and her own mother) have a habit of ruthlessly analysing. “Hate is nothing, even in politics,” Constanza observes, “hate is only temper and unhappiness; it is an accident. It is stupid and unkind to let it overtake one. I don’t hate men who wear black shirts, I sometimes hate what they do – can you see the distinction?” Flavia does, though she responds with a more personal example: “I rather hate nonna,” she says of her puritanical grandmother, “when she talks, you know… in that way when she’s angry; but I do love her.” In Bedford’s universe, love is always caught in the crossfire of need and opinion, the politics of the family and of the world.
When I speak about Bedford’s work with people who, like me, are enthralled by it, they almost always spring to A Legacy, her first and, in most critics’ estimation, her best novel. (Nancy Mitford called it “one of the very best novels I have ever read.”) I read Bedford backwards, beginning with Jigsaw, which bears the same relation to her earlier fiction that Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind bears to the Berlin stories. The rewriting of a previously “fictionalized” life is always a fascinating enterprise, but it is made even more interesting when the notion of “biography” is toyed with as playfully as it is in Jigsaw. In the author’s note Bedford asserts that she and her mother are, in the book, “a percentage of ourselves.” “To say that Jules, the Julius von Felden of the novel A Legacy was my father would be as misleading as to say that he was not,” she observes cryptically, adding a paragraph later, “Are the facts I am now trying to recall much more reliable than the fiction? My sources are the same – hearsay: elders overheard, Voss Strasse gossip, stories my father told me when we were living alone together after the war at Feldkirch.” The real answer to this puzzle might lie in the “Prologues” to A Compass Error, in which Flavia, now a noted writer on the eve of her 50th birthday, is read a question from the self-help quiz by a friendly interviewer. “The man from the newspaper read out, ‘The life of what person, real or fictional, did I try to lead between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one?’”
“’Easy,’ Flavia said, ‘the first answer, the bad answer: My own.’”
During those years – 1927 through 1932 – it was an extraordinary life to try to lead. Sanary-sur-Mer, where Sybille’s mother lived with Alessandro, had become the haven of a new breed of Parisian intellectuals whose liberal attitude towards sexuality constituted a distinctly French version of what was going on simultaneously in Weimar Germany and Bloomsbury. Yet, as the older Flavia observes to her interviewer in A Compass Error, it was “an illusion of freedom… And there was one thing one didn’t think about then in that corner of the shrinking West – who called it that ? – we never thought that life as we knew it could change at such a rate, that the quality of life would change.”
The shadow, certainly, is there. In a key scene in A Compass Error, the magnificently powerful Therese confronts a dinner guest who is arguing that Fascism is “like it or not… where the future lies.” The action of the scene is conveyed with a degree of subtlety and compression characteristic of Bedford’s prose, and suggestive of the influence of Compton-Burnett.
“It is a dynamic movement”, the man says of Fascism, “something we don’t seem to be capable of anymore, and all you can think about is that a few Jews will get rubbed out.” The actual word he used was Youpins.
Therese rose.
In a smaller voice he said, “You can’t make an omelette –“
“No. Not here! Not in my house!” In one fluid movement Therese strode round the table, was by his chair (his face had turned red, now he picked up his spoon), seized that big man by the scruff of his neck – literally, lifted him clear, propelled him onto the path, down the drive into the dark. That swift ejection completed she returned, sat down. Nobody spoke a word…
From below came a tiny sound, a tinkle as though a thimble had struck pebbles.
“My spoon,” said Therese.

Therese, like Renée Kisling, her real-life counter-part in Jigsaw, is a literal force of conscience as well as intense sexual power. “Medusa, the statue in Don Giovanni!” Bedford writes of Renée, who is physically huge, “a tremendous swimmer, diver, sailor, she ran her own fishing-boat… The sea – la mer: salt, water, waves – was her natural habitat; perhaps she was what she sometimes looked, a sea-monster.” In Jigsaw, Renée Kisling, while clearly the object of some erotic idealization, remains mostly a maternal presence in Sybille’s life; in A Compass Error, Therese, Renée’s fictional counterpart, takes Flavia as a temporary and casual lover during a period when her husband is away. Renée personifies a new sexual ethic according to which “when she wanted to go to bed with someone – man or woman (far more men than women), friend’s husband, student, sailor – she made it clear.” Like Simon Wilmot, the fictional version of W.H. Auden in Stephen Spender’s novel The Temple, Terese/Renée preaches the idea of sexuality as an expression of friendly love, rather than the exclusive terrain of coupled partners; as for homosexual love, it is merely one ray in the spectrum of erotic possibility.
Because her mother has fallen in love with a French sociologist-philosopher and fled with her lover to Spain, Flavia, now a teenager, has in classic Bedfordesque fashion become her own guardian, and thrown herself into a life divided between study (for the Oxford entrance examinations), swimming in the Mediterranean, the pleasures of Therese’s table and of her bed. At first, it’s a life which suit her beautifully: “In mid-Gibbon, Flavia looked up and giggled: The sensual life is in the bag.” But as she begins requiring definitions, Flavia also begins to understand the extent to which her needs diverge from Therese’s version of the world. Therese disposes of “the problem, if to her problem it was, of bisexuality” by casually remarking, “Oh well, you know, it doesn’t really matter very much which of one’s friends one goes to bed with.” For Flavia, more convinced of her own lesbianism than she is persuaded by Therese’s ethic of friendly sex, the problem remains. “Aren’t some… preferences more usual than others?” she asks, later asserting, “I think I am pretty sure about mine.” Her gutsy self-assurance is a gratifying surprise, given Bedford’s generally circumspect attitude towards sexuality (she never once uses the word “lesbian”), not to mention the homophobic constraints imposed by her time and world.
Like Constanza, Flavia is brave in love, and when she meets Andrée, a beautiful and mysterious new comer, to her town she boldly proclaims her adoration. At first Andrée teases Flavia, while holding back, manipulating the young girl for her own purposes. To divulge the exact details of Andrée’s betrayal would be to spoil the novel’s terrifying last third; suffice it to say that it is close to blackmail. As in the last part of Jigsaw, where the young Sybille must travel the countryside searching for morphine, Flavia is put by Andrée on treacherous ground, isolated and obliged to maneuver the ever-changing landscape of Andrée’s mind, a mind as ferocious in its intelligence as it is utterly cruel. Andrée is such an old-fashioned villain that at first I was inclined to distrust her presence. Yet she herself chillingly rebuked my hesitation. “Smile and smile and be a villain?” she asks rhetorically. “Am I too bad to be true? That’s what we’re being taught by modern literature.” Andrée is an emotional fascist, a personal Nazi, and as such, no more “unbelievable” than the forces simultaneously gathering strength in Bavaria. Her cruelty doesn’t so much represent a metaphor for Nazism as point out the extent to which the personal once again mirrors and magnifies the political. What happened in the Reichstag, Bedford seems to be saying, happened also in people’s bedrooms. On both levels, she spares us nothing.
With the conclusion of A Compass Error, the Second World War arrives and the lives of the characters are suddenly and violently disrupted. Some die, some escape; the surprise is Andrée. I expected (or perhaps I hoped) that she’d meet a violent end, or, by aligning herself with the Fascist cause, reveal herself for what she really was. But Bedford is too truthful to be so easy on us: Andrée becomes a part of the resistance, unmasks a German agent, humiliates some prominent Nazi sympathizers, and at the end of the war is “decorated both by the French and the British.” There is no formula, Bedford suggests, for relating the public and the private; the magnifying glass of literature must pass over every small event, and the writer must analyse each in its course. The result is the sort of history which can be told only through fiction.
Bedford has not written many novels, comparatively speaking; those she has written, however, are rare both for their utter, absorptive pleasure, and for the largeness of the impression they leave behind – the sense of having encountered, in about a thousand pages, the whole history of Europe in the first half of this century. I won’t easily forget the portraits, in A Legacy, of both Jewish and non-Jewish turn-of-the-century Roman aristocracy. There is much to be said about her technique as well – the way she conveys action through dialogue, or the way a single, suggestive phrase, passed over the first time, can upon rereading suggest whole realms of meaning not previously fathomed. Or her descriptions of food, or cars, or swimming in the Mediterranean. Her work pleases as often as it disturbs, edifies as often as it shocks. Like Proust, she has made an epic of her early life.