Mar 2, 2006

Sybille Bedford dies at age 94

Bedford is the author of a number of works, including a biography of Aldous Huxley and a travel guide to Mexico; but her extraordinary life was her chief subject.

Bedford spent her early years in southern Germany where the half-Jewish Bedford was raised as a Catholic. After World War I, her parents' marriage fell apart and Bedford began to be shuttled back and forth between Germany, England and wherever her mother happened to be living with her current lover.
Her father, “a man who has lost his nerve,” “protects himself by limiting his grasp.” Decades older than his wife, he has retreated into himself. After a few years, Sybille is sent to visit her mother in Florence. A few months later, her father comes down with appendicitis and dies.


The ten-year-old Sybille did not make it to Florence on that first trip; she got off the train in the Austrian Trentino to meet her mother who was on her way to rendezvous with “O.,” “a painter of some reputation” whom she was planning to marry. Sybille is left at the hotel in the care of a teenaged girl while her mother pursues the affair. There are other suitors, chiefly Alessandro, an aspiring architect twenty years younger than Sybille’s mother. At first, life is unsettled: Capri, Sicily, Palermo, Taormina, Syracuse.


Eventually, Alessandro wins out and a pattern is established. Sybille is sent to England to stay with friends while Alessandro and mummy depart for Africa. Life in England is punctuated with long visits to Italy.

Bedford's masterpiece is A Legacy, a novel loosely based on the life of her family in Germany in the early 20th Century. It is a milieu as foreign to the modern reader as the world of the ancient Etruscans. Germany was more an agglomeration of minor principalities than a nation state. That world was torn apart in World War I and utterly destroyed in World War II. And the book is both an elegy to and an indictment of the world of its characters. It is also extremely funny.

A Legacy details the lives of two aristocratic, Catholic families in Southern Germany and the Merzes, a wealthy Jewish bourgeois family in Berlin. Marriage brings the families together.

Roger Kimball describes them best:
There are the von Feldens: the Baron Augustus and his four sons, Gustavus, Julius, Johannes, and Gabriel. They are “old, landed, agreeably off without being in the least rich.” They speak French at home, except to their Frenchless priest, with whom they get by in imperfect Latin. They are the opposite of forward-looking. “The French Revolution was still alive with them as a calamity, and of the Industrial one they were not aware.” There are the von Bernins, a neighboring Catholic family, richer, worldlier, and considerably more zealous than the von Feldens.


And then there are the Merzes: an old, very rich bourgeois Jewish family ensconced in a Berlin mansion. Intensely inward-looking, they “had no friends, a word they seldom used; they saw no-one besides the family, the doctor, and an occasional, usually slightly seedy, guest asked to occupy the fourteenth place at the table.” Grandpapa Merz had a partial exception to this rule: he liked to brighten his afternoons with “the company of a shapely leg,” “this being literally the one perfection” he insisted on. Alas, none of his female companions—recruited from proper Prussian society—lasted long: “The old gentleman had tried to push a bank note under the garter of Fräulein zu der Hardeneck, and has called Frau von Kummer his little mouse.” Gottlieb, the family butler, “saw to the successors.” Grandmama Merz, short, plump, “with features that escaped attention,” looked on without comment. The Merz household also included two daughters, Flora and Melanie, both of whom were destined to die young from consumption, the second son, Friedrich, and Eduard, the eldest, “a Clubman, a rake, a gambler, and at sixty a bankrupt.” In the Eighties and Nineties, Eduard’s debts had been paid eleven times by his father, three times by his wife, Sarah, a “worldly, clear-brained woman” who buys Monets and is an heiress to an aniline fortune.

I loved A Legacy so much that I am loath to read Jigsaw, a "biographical novel" that picks up where the first book left off and tells the story of Sybille Bedford's childhood and adolescence. It's been sitting by my bedside for years. I'm too afraid the latter book won't live up to its predecessor. But maybe, on the occasion of the author's death, the time has come to read it. And to reread A Legacy.

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