Author Features / Features

Sybille Bedford: Resilience and Grace

by Amy Weldon

1.
In our modern global world, more of us know people who move among many cultures: citizens of one country by birth, they might work in another and go to school in a third. Some are artists, some are businesspeople, some are refugees. Although they may still think of themselves as being “from” somewhere, their real allegiance is to the whole wide world. They’re concerned with border-transcending issues of human rights and the environment, because they know firsthand what oil spills in the Gulf might do to the migratory patterns of sea turtles in Tioman. 14-hour plane flights are familiar. “People are surprisingly similar, underneath it all” is not an abstraction. They’ve learned to find portable sources of meaning: curiosity, deep delight in place, and connections with loved ones across geography and time. You’ll never hear them say, “I don’t care much about politics;” they know that global and local politics are intertwined, along with the lives of all individuals, for good and ill. Their experience has made them practiced at sorting the essential from the non-, and holding onto what is essential, carrying it on their backs and in their heads. Traveling the world by necessity and choice has bred in them a particular type of resilience, capacity for survival, and grace.

The writer Sybille Bedford (1911-2006), who published her first book, the travelogue A Sudden View, at age 42, exemplifies the best effects of world-culture life on a person’s imagination and resilience. Born in Charlottenburg, Germany to a minor-German-aristocrat father—who “preferred to speak French in family conversation [because] he considered German vulgar”—and a part-Jewish, British-born, English-speaking mother twenty years younger, Bedford, in the words of her friend Brenda Wineapple, “grew up multilingual and torn.” Her parents divorced, and her mother moved to Italy and remarried, leaving young Sybille living in rural semi-poverty with her father in his big old house. “What was best about it for me,” she wrote in her memoir Quicksands (2005),

were the stables, the vista of lawn and old trees, the grape vine on the south wall of the guest wing from which we vinified a small barrel each year . . . the apple orchard with a score of varieties for eating and strong cider, the kitchen garden growing strawberries and asparagus on sandy soil, sent off in the early morning, horse-drawn, to the markets of Breisach, Freiburg and Basel.

Yet when her mother brought her to live with her in the Cote-d’Azur village of Sanary-sur-Mer, then sent her to school in London, she left that country home for what she couldn’t know was the last time; her father died in 1925 before she saw him, or Germany, again.

War disrupted Bedford’s writerly self-apprenticeship in Sanary, where she had befriended Aldous and Maria Huxley, read voraciously, and suffered the increasingly dismal morphine addiction that claimed her mother’s life in 1937. The worsening political situation in Germany—against which Bedford spoke bravely in an anti-Nazi article in Die Sammlung—caused her funds to be confiscated and made it difficult to renew her German passport. With the help of the Huxleys, she married an “obliging gay Englishman,” Walter Bedford, to secure British national status, then fled to America on what was the last ship from Genoa to Boston. “I later learned that the ship was carrying half the gold reserve of the Bank of Italy,” she told The Paris Review in 1993. “It was held and searched in Gibraltar. If we had been torpedoed, the gold would have gone to the bottom of the ocean!” After the war, she was able to settle in London, where she lived until her death. Quicksands gives a vivid sense of the volatility of those days. “To have survived,” she writes,

one has to have been alive. For many of us in the shrinking West the 20s and 30s were hard times, restricting times, beginning with much hope, moving on to loss of work, inflations here, financial crashes there, covert, soon open, fears . . . Meanwhile for a few—always only a few: the lot of men, the lot of life itself, human and animal, is to live below their par, misfortune always lurking, to kill, be killed—for a few though the years between the wars were good and in some enclaves talent and pleasures flourished. (Let us think of France.) . . . By September 1939 all existences snapped in two.

Even though the end of the war brought “soaring relief, the lifting of that consciousness of pain and death sustained at all hours on that monstrous scale,” it brought home also realization of the “unimaginable nature and immensity of the suffering willfully enacted.” As she wrote these words in Quicksands in 1999—“in London, England, on another summer day”—the radio continued to chatter news of chaos in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and Congress, where “the White House rejects gun laws.” “[W]ould it ever have a stop, the abomination practised by men on men?” Bedford wrote. “Has it ever stopped?”

Yet mixed with her deep knowledge of suffering is also deep delight, such as the “delirious sense of freedom and renewal” of her return to Europe in 1947.

The Europe so long held down in agony and chaos, feared lost to itself, possibly for ever, was still there. Not intact, far from it, yet its heart, France and Italy, les patries de nos coeurs, were essentially, triumphantly themselves. Paris. Chartres. Venice. Rome. . . .  A shattered nave, a fractured bridge here and there brought home the miracle.

Even a winter in an unheated Italian hotel could not dim her delight. “The euphoria,” she wrote, “the daily intoxication of that year and indeed much of the decade which followed has become part of my actual being, my substance, not just a memory to be played with or left fallow. Joy, like grief, can enter the bones.”

Bedford’s essays (collected in Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller’s Tales from Europe, 2003) are full of bright glimpses of places and people that, like the “shattered nave” or “fractured bridge,” throw into relief the scene around them, coloring it with that moment’s emotion. On re-encountering her friend the famous war correspondent Martha Gellhorn in 1948: “Meeting Martha Gellhorn, being addressed, being taken notice of by her, was like being exposed to a fifteen-hundred-watt chandelier: she radiated vitality, certainty, total courage.” A “back-street place” in Florence “had two bare tables in a sort of hallway to a smoke-filled kitchen into which one squeezed, first come, first served,” yet “the food was superb. The best of its kind in Europe.” Venice lures the new arrival out of the hotel to walk until she comes “out onto a minute widening by a canal. One stands alone. The water lap-laps against the sides of a small, pink-washed palazzo. The barley-sugar columns framing the windows are exquisite; washing is hanging out. There is one tree.” Describing a beautiful but decrepit old French hotel, she’s philosophical: “One cannot have everything. Old houses such as these can only be lived in as they are or destroyed; to do them over at impossible expense would put an end to them as 12-roomed hotels. A matter of choice.” Over and over again, we find Bedford making this choice: no matter the circumstance, you can open yourself to the world, moved and surprised by what you find.

2.
Accumulating so much varied experience out in the world—and riding the waves of accompanying emotion—strengthens a person’s spirit for her art. It also helps her place into perspective the first “culture” into which she is born: her family. Bedford’s best-known novel, A Legacy—published in 1956 when she was 45, and recently reissued by NYRB Classics with an introduction by Wineapple—flirts with the boundary between fiction and memoir. “The sources of A Legacy,” Bedford wrote in Quicksands, “were the indiscretions of tutors and servants, the censure of nannies, the dinner-table talk of elderly members of a step-family-in-law, my own father’s tales, polished and visual; my mother’s talent for presenting private events in the light of literary and historical interpretation.” All of this material, she writes, “had remained unheeded throughout my youth and early middle age, until [it] surfaced—possessive, persistent, clear—as the instinctive material for my coming work.”

The novel’s stories of intertwined German families—the wealthy, bourgeois Merzes and the landed, vaguely impoverished Feldens—are narrated by a wide-eyed, clear-sighted girl first described as a child “liv[ing] with my nanny, my toys, and very much with myself, as a guest on the upper floor of the Merz’s house.” The girl’s father’s first wife, the Merzes’ daughter Melanie, died young, yet “the widower’s continued position as a son of the house, even after his marriage to my mother some ten years later, was not looked on as anomalous by anyone concerned; his octogenarian hosts had formed the habit of seeing him as a member of the family.” They do so to the extent of allowing his second wife and his child, who refers to them as “Grandmama” and “Grandpapa,” to live with them. From some unspecified point of future adulthood, that child narrates with an amused and unjudging eye, illuminating the way any moment in a family’s life can spiral into tragedy, humor, and weirdness, all at once.

Consider this brilliant set piece from early in the novel, which indelibly establishes the texture of life in the Merz household. We’ve already learned these people are rich but dull—not “dining to the sounds of Schubert and Haydn, endowing research and adding Corot landscapes to their Bouchers and the Delacroix,” but rather “adding bell-pulls and thickening the upholstery.” Yet old Grandpapa Merz “kept up the diversions of his youth and middle-age to the extent of looking in at his club and of brightening his afternoons by the company of a shapely leg.” Keep your eye on that phrase—it’s the anchor for a scene that whirls around it, spinning subtly out of control as the whole family anxiously confers over fresh sources of “shapely legs” (in long skirts, of course) for Grandpapa from among “the Prussian aristocracy” (“Long, well-turned legs were natural to the ladies of that caste, and as a caste they were not well off”). Even Gottlieb, the shrewd butler, assists:

“Five sisters, sir,” said Gottlieb. “Two of them grown-up. We might try the eldest.”

“What’s that?” said Grandmamma.

It was explained to her.

“Isn’t Fraulein What’s-her-name coming today?”

“Fraulein von Kalkenrath has chosen to leave us, ma’am,” said Gottlieb, sounding every syllable.

“Very inconsiderate,” said Grandmamma, her face on her plate.

“A change may not always be unwelcome, ma’am.”

“I don’t want a change,” she said on a higher note.

“Did you say the elder sister?” said her husband, who had been following.

“I understand the younger has a limp, sir.”

“All the same to us,” said Grandmama.

“If I may be permitted to point out, ma’am,” said Gottlieb in his ringing voice, “a lady steady in the leg would be of more use to Herr Geheimrat on his outings.”

“That will do, Gottlieb,” said Friedrich.

“I was only explaining our problem to Frau Geheimrat, sir.”

My father raised his head with an expression of controlled despair. He was at once delicate and worldly, and much affected by lapses that were neither. He picked up his fork, stared at it, and put it down almost at once, reminded that he did not like the design and that Gottlieb, in his opinion, overdid the silver.

The bizarre, highly domestic charm of the Merz household is contrasted with the Feldens, the narrator’s father’s family—country gentry whose world shines with the brilliant wildness of legend:

I did not learn the name of my father’s mother, nor what the tutors had been supposed to teach; 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 [my father] and his brothers rode any old how but were kept to be most particular about their dress when driving, that the boys were always given brandy and 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.

The narrator’s uncle Johannes becomes a figure of legend for her, “part of the secret reality of my own past,” when she learns of his escape from a brutal military school; his long fugitive trek home, hiding in hedges, “exhausted his heart” and left him unable to speak. His vividly rendered story threads through the novel as a reminder of the casual brutality this world can contain, as well as beauty—a mingled thread the novel never drops.

A Legacy immerses readers fully into two vanished German social worlds: “the Jewish upper-bourgeoisie of Berlin” exemplified by the Merzes and by the Catholic country-gentry Feldens, whose forests and wildlife and hunting and skating parties seem to glow with the dark beauty of a Brothers Grimm tale. World War I would shatter both these worlds, while leaving traces of them to linger in survivors’ minds. Thus in fictional form, memory and reality can merge, blending into imperfect, sometimes lovely, and sometimes “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.” And that apparently distant and abstract thing, history, becomes human. As the narrator meditates on the prewar European world which shaped her family, and herself, readers are invited to see that to someone who travels and reads widely (like Bedford herself), the two layers of stories, the historical and the personal, illuminate each other: one’s imagining of the past can be as vivid as one’s own memories, and beneath the received, vaguely impersonal images and names that pass to later generations as “history,” one can still see living people, if one knows how to look. This wonderful passage beginning Part Three of the novel gently reminds us that grand narratives of history and art might not tell the full story of ordinary life:

In the year 1891, Manet and Seurat were already dead; Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir were at their height of powers; Cezanne had opened yet another world. Sunday at La Grande Jatte and le Dejeuner dans le Bois, la Musique aux Tuileries, les Dames dans un Jardin, the ocher farms and tawny hills of Aix were there, on canvas, hung, looked at—to be seen by anybody who would learn to see. And so were the shimmering trees, the sun-speckled paths, the fluffy fields, the light, the dancing air, the water—But were they seen? Were they walked, were they lived in? Did ladies come out into the garden in the morning holding a silver tea-pot? Did flesh-and-blood governesses advance towards one waist-high in corn and poppies, clutching a bunch of blossoms? Did young men dip their hands into the pool and young women laugh in swings? Did gentlemen really put their top-hats on the grass?

For the age of the Impressionists was also still the age of decorum and pomposity, of mahogany and the basement kitchen, the over-stuffed interior and the stucco villa; an age that venerated old, rich, malicious women and the clever banker; when places of public entertainment were large, pilastered and vulgar, and anyone who was neither a sportsman, poor, nor very young, sat down on a stiff-backed chair three times a day eating an endless meal indoors.

History, here, operates on the same human scale as the lives of the Felden and Merz families—sitting down to their endless dinners, hunting and harvesting in the season’s rhythm. And only the novelist can weave both stories together, showing their interdependence, in quite this way.

3.
Shaped by her rich and varied life, Bedford’s fiction and nonfiction invite readers to reflect on human variety, tragedy, and continuity from past to present. Her prose is wide-eyed and clear, never jaded but never surprised by human folly and variety. Moving from the small, quiet observation to its larger consequence, her tone stays curious yet candid. From her essay “The Quality of Travel:”

If we are not going to blow up our planet, we are going to ruin it by our numbers and our wheels. Everywhere there is galloping up on us the same new story, before we have been able to grasp, before we have learnt how, or even decided to cope: overpopulation. Too many sheep in the pen. And with it, decline in the quality of living, frustration of spontaneity, universal dullness.

Sounds like 2015? Yes. It was written in 1961.

Even when her observations can be pinned to a particular time—Rome in 1961, above, or Europe in 1890, or Germany on the eve of World War I—some quality of Bedford’s voice always feels universal, curious, and worldly in the best and truest sense. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” she writes in A Legacy, “Life, in the neat sad dry little French phrase that bundles it all into its place, Life is never as bad nor as good as one thinks . . . Never as bad, never as good . . .  Is [this phrase] consoling? Is it the whole truth? Is it inevitable?” The implicit answer is, both yes and no. But in writing, we can learn to look at life, past and present, as clearly as we can—and that consoles both Bedford and us.

A moment in Quicksands lingers in my mind as an example of the quiet resilience that fuels Bedford’s life and art. A family friend, Issa, and her boyfriend are playing in a lake, tossing the child Sybille back and forth between them and leaving her to flail in the water until she figures out how to keep herself afloat. “When it was over, I felt radiant and smug.” Yet Issa is unimpressed. “‘Don’t think I gave you a swimming lesson, little girl,’ she said. ‘The lesson was—if you want to survive, you must swim, not sink.’”

Bloom Post End

A native Alabamian, Amy Weldon is currently associate professor of English at Luther College.  Her short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Best Travel Writing 2012 (Solas Press), Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing (UNC Press), Shenandoah, Keats-Shelley Journal,The Carolina Quarterly, and many others.  She blogs on sustainability, spirit, and self-reliance at http://cheapskateintellectual.wordpress.com.

Amy Weldon’s previous features: The Spinning Self: On Pottery and the Rest of My LifePrivate Lives, Artful Truths: Joan Chase’s Midwestern EdenCollateral Gifts: The Poetry and Journey of Spencer ReeceDiana Athill: The Sufficient SelfGrowing Into Compassion: On Anna Sewell and Black BeautyAbigail Thomas: Accidentally Deliberate

Homepage photo credit: Ancient Greece via photopin (license)

3 thoughts on “Sybille Bedford: Resilience and Grace

  1. Thank you for introducing me to Sybille Bedford. I appreciated your comparing her life initially to today’s world of multinational people, born in one country, growing up in another, off again to yet another to work. As we see from Sybille, it’s not that new a phenomenom and hers, too, was marred by the status of refugee, as is now the fateof too many.
    I, too, am from one place but have lived and worked in another all my adult life. It does make you more aware of the world’s problems and less likely to bury your head in the sand.
    And now I’m off to see if I can get a hold of one of SB’s works….

  2. Reblogged this on dchubbardwrites and commented:
    Thanks to Amy Wheldon on the Bloom blog for introducing me to Sybille bedford. I’m just disappearing off in search of a book by this fine writer who was so modern in every way and seems to have had an eye for the universal.

  3. Interesting survey – thanks. I came across SB’s work fairly recently, so it’s good to see her work discussed in a wide context. If you care to you could take a look at my two-part discussion of A Legacy here:

    Pt 1 bit.ly/UQ9TkR
    Pt 2 bit.ly/1uTz7Q4

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