How not?

February 17, 2010

The particular made sublime; a portrait of a society both utterly recognisable yet intensely Mandarin, its unique atmosphere created by one writer. The apparently limited palette produces not a merely personal memoir, but an unavoidable critique of contemporary morés, a profound meditation on the writer’s world, on the nature of life itself. This could be a description of Proust, of course, but here I’m thinking of Sybille Bedford.

It takes a moment to get the measure of her first published book, A Visit to Don Otavio, the most bizarre of travelogues, with its idiosyncratically elegant prose, the wild occurrences recounted with such deadpan hysteria. She can always startle the reader; abandoned in a broken down car in the South American rainforest she is ‘frantically bored’. Resignation is her usual traveller’s response to brigandage, murder, train delays of days, loss of manuscript – all tend to be greeted with ‘How not?’. The only thing that really annoys her is when the restaurant won’t bring the courses in the right order (in fact, bring everything all at once…).

Bedford’s own life gave her the raw material for the books that followed; A Legacy, Children of the Gods, A Compass Error, Jigsaw, are all versions of her own or her families’ stories. But her real subject was not autobiography as such, but the human condition, the paradox of life’s extremes of pleasure and pain, the perceived obligation to live it well. She was a great exemplar of the transformation of experience into art. Her last book, Quicksands, a memoir written in old age, was published just before her death in 2006; she was born in 1911.

A voice from a vanished world, telling of an immensely old Europe of a subtlety and sophistication which makes this century seem crass indeed – if this were all, it would still be worth reading. But in fact Bedford’s achievement is far greater. Her worldliness, courtliness, cosmopolitan knowledge of wines and foods, literatures and languages, her pose of almost exaggerated urbanity and bone-dry wit, are all combined with a strong political awareness of her own position (as a woman, a lesbian, an anti-Fascist, with a complex inheritance of intellectual Jewish, Italian Catholic and Alsatian aristocratic blood) in the maelstrom of mid-20thC Europe.

There’s no self-pity here. Bedford’s books celebrate the pleasures of life, while observing its horrors and ironies unblinking. Her brother-in-law was executed by the Nazis, she was disinherited by them and then, when she sought asylum in England as a dispossessed refugee, very nearly deported as an undesirable alien. (It is very bitter, as she observed, to be mistaken for the thing you are fighting.) To gain citizenship, she made a marriage of convenience with a gay bouncer or chorus boy – Mr Bedford – which perhaps explains the ineradicable outsider mentality which seems to have co-existed with her later extreme respectability as OBE, President of PEN etc.

Certain images remain, apart from memorable descriptions of food, wine, reading, physical pleasures. It’s hard to forget the description of her in Rome in the 1950’s, dropping out of her lover’s window onto the pavement below and strolling home in the dawn with all the other returning night-stayers, or driving, as a learner, her 1920’s car helter-skelter down a mountain track in the gathering dark while her drug-addicted mother beside her screamed ever-louder for morphia. But, of course, the famous exhilaration and perception is all in the writing; it’s the way she tells ’em.

The much-praised ‘radiant prose’ of a ‘consummate stylist’ seems to move, amuse or enlighten the reader effortlessly, through sheer force of personality. (How not?) But this highly-wrought medium was, of course, the result of a painstaking and slow work process. Using this supreme stylistic vehicle, she ‘confronts dispossession, displacement and loss’ with great panache, meditates on time and memory with unforced profundity, faces her own mortality with gallantry and undiminished wit.

The last sentence of Quicksands (a work of art to the end) sums up the writer’s only regrets about the approach of death, poignantly yet without self-pity. ‘Wish I could tell the half of it… But, I repeat, there seems to be no time.’

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