Exploring the memory of Sybille Bedford

Newsday
April 17, 2005
Lisa Cohen

A life of contrasts

'I think memory is immensely important," says Sybille Bedford. Speaking by telephone from her home in London, she adds, "I don't mean having a good memory - although that's useful for lines of poetry and telephone numbers." She means its power to clarify and distort, an understanding of the way the past and present impinge on one another.

In her new book, "Quicksands" (Counterpoint, $24), she investigates her own memory, and in so doing traverses the history of the 20th century in Europe and England. This is the story of the eccentricities, pleasures and traumas of her upbringing in Germany, Italy, England and France - "of the privileges and the precariousness of [an] existence" that brought her close to but spared her from the worst of the catastrophes of that "frightful century." And it is, not least, a tale of becoming a writer. Throughout her long life and career - she was born in 1911, and her first book, "A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale From Mexico" appeared in 1953 - she has been known equally for her novels, which draw on the rich history of her family, including "A Legacy" and "Jigsaw"; for books and essays in which travel and good food and wine play prominent parts; for her biography of Aldous Huxley; and for her writing about the law. Readers are fortunate that six of her books have been republished by Counterpoint Press.

Her work testifies to an expansive appreciation of quotidian joys; it also turns, invariably, on questions of personal and collective responsibility. "Survivors," she writes in "Quicksands," "pay with their conscience ... Those who have got off lightly paid perhaps too little (because there never can be enough?). I feel I am one of those." "As such," she insists, "I owe. To what, to whom?"

These big questions matter to her. "Who was I?" "What do any of us know about one another?" "Will we ever stop killing each other?" The smaller ones matter too - "What is for dinner?" "To have survived," she notes, "one has to have been alive." She has called herself "a sybarite with a political conscience."

"Quicksands" is "a book of the great contrasts which life throws at you," she says. It opens, pointedly, just after her first book has been published - "which God knows took a long time - before I wrote one which was acceptable, and which I could accept, too." Then, as through most of her life, she was not settled geographically; she was settled, at last, in her sense of herself as a writer. "I simply felt I had become myself, and I had such grandiose ideas of a writer. I would sit in a third-class railway carriage and think, 'If only they knew I've written a book!'"

For years she had clung to "my own very obstinate thing ... I didn't have any money, and people helped me, but others would say, 'Let her get a job at Macy's or something like that, she'll never write.' Many people. 'Let her do some real work.'"

This book is a way to acknowledge who and what she owes: her father's graciousness under duress, his ability to summon a world when he told a story, his belief in good food presented simply. The extraordinary friendship of Aldous and Maria Huxley. Literary influences as diverse as Evelyn Waugh, Mallarmé, and the sound of Martha Gellhorn's "racy, unrelentingly demotic verbal American" English. Her formal education was fragmentary. "I just picked it up en passant, but not enough. I make use of it, like wearing the same garments over decades."

Of her mother she says, "If I have any spark of talent it comes from her." This woman, to whose aesthetics and deep sense of social justice she is also indebted, and whose last years were scarred by excruciating morphine addiction, was "a writer manqué" with discursive gifts but no discipline. "I've got her sloth, too, but I vanquished that." She impressed her daughter with the enormity of the undertaking. "She would look at me and say, 'Do you know what it means to write?'"

She is, in conversation as in print, an intensely human, generous companion. The swooping, elated sentences that take us with her on a night drive around Rome in the late 1940s are a gift of the "exultation by environment" that she has known. As for people: "We're all complex.... Everybody is a strange mixture. But writers are supposed to think about it more than sculptors and musicians. You live in words - by words."

Which is not to say that it's easy: "There's always one time in a working day when you think it's good, and the next morning you wake up and think it's all rubbish." With this book there were the usual "sleepless nights," but the conditions of composition were more difficult than in the past. At age 94, her arthritis makes it impossible to type - her crabbed orthography is a story in itself and gets its due in "Quicksands" - and her eyesight is not good.

Connection is paramount: "I know that I'm grateful for and capable of great affection. To give it and to receive it. That always amazes me." Did her perspective change as she wrote this book? "I've never felt so pessimistic yet ... The 21st century is just announcing itself, but it just goes on, it gets worse every day. Literally every day." And today "there are more people who can suffer and are imprisoned and get hungry and can kill each other. The population explosion is appalling. We must reduce before we use up the whole universe. Don't let me run on about that."

She had wanted to include more - including "a great deal about the years in New York" - in this book, but one is left with so much: her acute sense of the absurd, her compassion and resilience, her great expressive gifts, the rigor and eccentricity of her prose. One is left with the unanswerable question: What makes it possible for some to rescue themselves, to make something of what they know and have lived through, where others sink? We make ourselves out of what we have come from and what we missed or lacked. "You can't shake off your past," she says. "It happened."