Beginning in the middle, as she announces at once she intends to do, Sybille Bedford starts her memoir in 1953, the middle, more or less, of her long life and of ‘our frightful century’ whose history is as much her subject as her own peculiar story. Her opening scene is a summer morning in Geneva, where she passed a few hours between trains, a woman in her early forties, ‘free to live where, if not how, I chose’, a neutral observer in a neutral country. It is a brief moment of calm before we plunge from the middle into the midst of events.
This is Bedford’s second overtly autobiographical book. The first was Jigsaw, a ‘biographical novel’ whose title, like Quicksands, might warn the reader not to expect too much by way of linear narrative or frank confession. Oblique, laconic, sometimes maddeningly discreet, Bedford’s memoir is infolded like a complicated puzzle. As it works itself out, shifting back and forth in time, a picture emerges of the world so often invoked in her fiction, the France, Italy and Germany of the long 20th century. Some essential facts are also disclosed.
Her ‘impending and unwelcome birth’ in May 1911 caused her parents – her English mother and German father – to travel from Spain, where she was conceived, to Charlottenburg, Berlin. If the fact of her arrival displeased her parents, its location in a ‘country of which I would have liked to know nothing – succeeding up to a point’ angered Bedford even more. Partly Jewish (‘I never learned how partly . . . Nobody cared much, or had to – happy days’), she was brought up as a Catholic in a small schloss, ‘a manor house, architecturally respectable’, in the south-west corner of Germany, between the Swiss and French borders. It was from the beginning a life of many middles and indeterminacies.
How Fraulein von Schoenebeck became Sybille Bedford, novelist, biographer and sometime crime correspondent for Vogue, is the subject of Quicksands. Famous for decades now for her writing, her knowledge of wine, her love affairs (mostly with women), and her friendships – with Aldous Huxley, Norman Douglas and others – Bedford writes with touching modesty of all of this, as she does of her ‘intermittent brushes with the catastrophic events of the century’. A narrator rather than a raconteur, the intersections of her own life with recorded history provide her with a setting and circumstances. The central theme, threaded through the book almost to the end, is the one she has returned to often in her novels: the lives of her parents and her own strange childhood.
Though she was born only just before the First World War, she understood, through her father, the ethos of an older, antebellum Europe. In his sixties in 1911, von Schoenebeck was a figure from Proust, a man who had spent his early middle age in the Paris and Monte Carlo of the 1890s: ‘Offenbach, expensive mistresses . . . roulette’. In a shorthand prose which skims the surface of events, hitting the facts at every relevant point, Bedford conjures him up in a paragraph or two. ‘One of several brothers, no primogeniture, parents dying early, family land . . . Brief spells in one or two cavalry regiments (not cheap).’ The solution for von Schoenebeck, who was no cynic, was to fall sincerely in love with an heiress. This he managed to do twice. The first wife died of consumption, leaving him with a daughter, Jacko, and an obligation to remain near his stolid German in-laws, ‘sunk in upholstery and their own corpulence’, who took their granddaughter, and their own sheets, to a succession of ‘sedate and pompous’ spas. Theirs is the world out of which Bedford’s novel A Legacy was developed.
The second wife was Bedford’s mother. A beauty, much younger than her husband and more intelligent. He was dazzled by her looks. She was on the rebound from an affair with a married man. There was no meeting of minds; merely, while it lasted, a collision of temperaments. When she went, at the end of the First World War, she left her daughter but took her money. Bedford and her father remained in the schloss in poverty that was not so much genteel as patrician. The cellar was full, but there was no cash for the lemonade Sybille craved. Father and daughter sat in the baronial hall, drinking fine wine, unable to pay the bills. Every so often von Schoenebeck would take one of his Gothic bibelots over the border in a Gladstone bag and come back with Swiss francs and gingerbread. Meanwhile, outside the schloss, the economy worked on even stranger lines. Inflation raged and those who were employed were paid by the hour and carried cash by the laundry basketful to buy bread.
Bedford’s father remains a remote, if poignant figure. ‘I am still trying to understand what he was like.’ He was too old and she too young perhaps to gather more about this ‘strange, defeated, formal’ man who treated her with courtesy rather than affection. He died suddenly, from appendicitis, just as his divorce came through. His death, the second crisis of Bedford’s young life, changed its trajectory once more. Her mother, who was now in Italy and about to be married again, sent for her. So Bedford left Germany, at a time when it could still be thought of ‘in terms of the Weimar Republic, Locarno and the League of Nations’. It was her mother who dominated the next stage of her life: an overpowering figure whom she came to know more intimately, to love up to a point, and of whom she was never entirely unafraid.
In the introduction to Jigsaw, Bedford wrote that in that book ‘my mother and I are a percentage of ourselves.’ They, and their uneasy, compelling relationship, have been a percentage of nearly all her fiction. Even in A Favourite of the Gods, which she describes as having ‘almost no autobiographical sources or associations’, the drama centres on mothers and daughters. A clever, beautiful woman, often in love, often on the move across Europe; a woman obsessively unable to forgive an infidelity; characters who decide haphazardly to get off a train at some remote station and then stay for years; a girl in whom her mother takes a sporadic, detached interest; a peculiarly intelligent, self-possessed and furba (‘cunning’) child: these are leitmotifs of Bedford’s novels. Among the many middles of her memoir, the dead centre would seem to be the real end of her mother’s story, left unconcluded in Jigsaw.
It was near Sanary in the South of France that Bedford’s mother, whose name she never reveals, got off the train on impulse; and it was there that she and her young Italian husband, Alessandro, settled. It was there that Bedford passed the end of her childhood and the first years of her adult life, ‘a time I stubbornly wanted to last and still long to live again’. In Sanary she met the Huxleys and Roy Campbell and discovered the happiness of place, as she calls it, amid thyme-scented olive terraces, the sea, ‘sun, cicada sounds at night, first amorous pursuits’. Like the Post-Impressionist landscape against which they were played out, the years at Sanary were defined as much by darkness as by light.
Her mother discovered Alessandro’s infidelity and despaired, was prescribed heroin by a local doctor and became addicted. Alessandro left and Bedford, who is remarkably sympathetic towards her young stepfather, spent years struggling to care for and cure her mother. ‘I shall not write about it any more, neither here nor elsewhere.’ The last time Bedford saw her mother was at Toulon station being carried onto a train on her way to another course of treatment. She died in hospital, ‘I fear, though I hope not, alone.’
By now the furba little girl, who had learned the qualities of a good hock before she could write, was turning into the ‘tough little person . . . always dressed as a motor racer’ whom Nancy Mitford later remarked. There had been only sporadic attempts to educate her, which had involved more train journeys, undertaken mostly alone, and the boat to England. This country, where she eventually made her home, felt at first like a mistake: ‘I was the explorer who had taken the wrong caravan.’ The food of course was terrible, as was the cold, but with the discovery of the National Gallery and the 2s 6d Soho lunch things looked up.
Wound tightly through Bedford’s account of her life is her sense of the impending ‘catastrophic’ events of the Second World War from which she feels she escaped so lightly, and their aftermath. Her escape did nothing to relieve her dismay at ‘man’s implacability to man’, and her view of humanity after nearly a century is not flattering. The lightly applied Catholicism of her childhood evaporated early and spontaneously, leaving her with the belief that ‘very little has changed in our nature’ although ‘much has changed about the means by which we are able physically and spiritually to torment and kill’.
In Sanary by the early 1930s it was impossible to be unaware of approaching menace. In the spring of 1933, the little town was all but overwhelmed by distinguished German refugees, Brecht, Alma Mahler, Thomas Mann and his family among them. This now famous episode, which turned a French fishing village briefly into the ‘capital of German literature’, is recorded by a thick smattering of blue plaques. At the time, feelings were more mixed. Bedford herself was not unduly overwhelmed by the ‘haute culture’ and their demands. She has not forgotten Frau Mann’s complaint that the villa which Bedford found for her had no potato ricer.
Before long, however, her own situation became untenable. Her small income from her father’s estate was cut off because of her Jewishness. Her passport, thanks to her parents’ thoughtlessness, was German. Maria Huxley, now in England, had the solution: British nationality (‘we must get one of our bugger friends to marry Sybille’). Like her father she would have to wed her way out of difficulty. But the friends were not keen, nor was the Huxleys’ window cleaner, whom they also approached. Eventually, ‘Terry’ Bedford, the ex-friend of a friend’s butler, agreed to fill the breach. In London, after a narrow brush with deportation, Sybille became Mrs Bedford, a most unlikely bride, whose reception was attended by a mixture of Quakers, ‘bruisers’, chorus girls and Virginia Woolf, who remarked that it was ‘a very queer party’.
Through all of this Bedford had clung to her childhood ambition to be a writer. The struggle to write was literal as well as intellectual. Nobody had taught her to read: she picked it up by herself. Writing was more complicated, and to this day she finds her own hand almost illegible. Then there was the question of language. To Mann’s annoyance she abandoned the ‘sprachboden’ of German and, after attempts in French, settled for English. Several false starts and much procrastination later she found her style and published her first book at the age of 42. Springy, allusive, using dialogue in a way that recalls her friend Ivy Compton-Burnett, her prose retains a certain foreignness, a distance. Phrases like the ‘small hours of the afternoon’, words like ‘estival’, her felicitous description of the Albany as ‘bisexual flats for distinguished people’ reveal that this is her chosen rather than her only language.
The last part of her life Bedford deals with in barely more than a paragraph. It is not that she has lost interest in the present, as the old often do. On the contrary, she comments on it often, feeling keenly, for example, the parallels between her own situation in the 1930s and today’s ‘ever growing number of men and women without the right papers or no papers at all’. But she has written elsewhere of her time in Mexico, in Europe after the war, and of her long friendship with the Huxleys. Of her years in England, her work for PEN, her literary success, enough to fill a smaller life with incident, she says only that it was ‘interesting . . . for a couple of decades. (As long as one could hop about.)’ She leaves it there, at a distance, an ‘omitted future’, she calls it, as seen from the middle, the tranquil day in Geneva with which she began.