A Life of Purpose and Pleasure
Sybille Bedford: An Appetite for Life, Selina Hastings, Chatto & Windus, 2020, pp. 432, £25.00 (hardcover)
Asylum Road, Olivia Sudjic, Bloomsbury, 2021, pp. 272, £14.99 (hardcover)
Born in 1911 in Berlin to a ‘hopelessly incompatible’ couple – a withdrawn, eccentric Bavarian baron and a vivacious, intelligent beauty – Sybilla von Schoenebeck would live to ninety-four, dying in London in 2006 under another name. Writer, bon viveur, lover, friend, she would be subject to the vicissitudes of twentieth-century politics, her writing shaped by her knack for survival. She endured abandonment, loss, exile, fascism and war – yet through it all, she never lost her appetite for life.
Selina Hastings’ new biography offers a captivating portrait of Sybille Bedford and the impact of history on individual lives. Researching her nomadic trajectory, peopled with figures such as Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Elizabeth Jane Howard, was surely a Herculean task, yet Hastings guides us through with poise. Her previous biographies, of Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Rosamond Lehmann, Somerset Maugham and her father, rightly established her reputation for elegant prose and erudition lightly worn. The reader comes away certain that if ever a life was lived openly, hungrily, facing fear, it’s Bedford’s.
A revival is gently brewing. Her first novel, A Legacy, is a Penguin Modern Classic, and Penguin also publish her memoir, Quicksands. Her final novel, Jigsaw – the most overtly autobiographical, although they all draw on her eventful youth – is published by Eland Books; likewise, the travel book that launched her career, A Visit to Don Otavio. Daunt Books have reissued her second and third novels, her travel essays and her account of the Lady Chatterley trial. The media has periodically celebrated her, notably Brenda Wineapple’s 2015 tribute in the New York Times. Yet she has been neglected. Arriving at a time when our collective joie de vivre is being tested, Sybille Bedford will stoke interest in an author who overcame early trauma to build a life of purpose and pleasure.
Her work is already resonating with a new generation of writers. Reading Asylum Road, Olivia Sudjic’s second novel, I was struck by the inspiration the narrator, Anya, draws from Bedford, when devouring her books on holiday in Sanary-sur-Mer – the Provençal fishing port where Bedford spent fifteen halcyon years, and which surfaces repeatedly in her writing. In Asylum Road, Anya, raised in Glasgow after escaping war-torn Sarajevo, craves ‘the institution of marriage. To change my surname to Luke’s and be shielded by it’. Bedford too sought asylum in marriage. For a part-Jewish German living in 1930s France, identity was a matter of survival, so in 1935 a strategic match was arranged. Walter Bedford, a gay Englishman, would receive £100 in exchange for his name. A Home Office inspection might have scuppered the plan, if not for the intervention of Maria Huxley – wife of Aldous (the couple’s long friendship with Bedford was formed in Sanary). The bride’s deportation order was rescinded; the show could go on.
After the civil ceremony in London, the Huxleys hosted a cocktail party attended by a bemused Virginia Woolf, who took Bedford’s hand, commenting: ‘this is a very queer party. I can’t understand anything about it: one day you must come and tell me.’ Bedford never saw her husband again. But his name allowed her to shrug off the identity that was both dangerous and shameful to her and provided the British passport she needed. In June 1940 this passport would secure her safe passage on the last boat to leave Genoa for the United States, where she lived out the war, returning to France seven years later.
In Asylum Road, Anya wishes ‘to be like her. Bedford. Hedonistic. Denying my own hunger for security’. Bedford had an unstable childhood and later suffered anxiety and depression, yet was, observes Olivia Sudjic, ‘adventurous, free-spirited, taking long journeys into the unknown’. Bedford drove all over Europe, as documented in her idiosyncratic travel essays, Pleasures and Landscapes. Yet when Anya, a former Bosnian child- refugee, reads Bedford’s impression of Sarajevo in these essays – ‘nothing ever, perhaps, quite safe, quite clean, quite straight’ – she shivers with uneasy recognition, ‘sensing,’ says Sudjic, ‘that Bosnia, in the European or Western gaze at least, is associated with the opposite of European civilisation – barbarism’.
Anya’s reaction echoes Bedford’s antipathy to her homeland. Following her father’s death in 1925, the fourteen-year-old ‘Billi’ left her childhood home – a schloss in the south-western village of Feldkirch – and didn’t return to Germany until she was twenty-one, when she was filled with foreboding witnessing Hitler Youth marching through Berlin. She was not to return for over thirty years: ‘My German beginnings I discounted, sought to obliterate … the fact that I had any connection with this terrible country became a cause of guilt, and for some time I tried desperately to anglicise myself.’
Raised a ‘polyglot parrot’ by a highly cultured mother, Lisa, whose literary aspirations never came to fruition, Bedford’s own ambitions took root at a young age. She chose English as her literary language and, with this in mind, Lisa sent her teenage daughter to England: ‘From early on I had the absolute if shadowy conviction that I would become a writer and nothing else; I held on to the English language as the rope to save me from drifting awash in the fluidities of multilingualism that surrounded me.’
A spirited beauty who thrived on male attention, Lisa had constant affairs and was resolutely unmaternal, informing her little daughter she’d been unwanted, having trapped her mother in a marriage she was desperate to leave, and eventually did. Lisa divorced von Schoenebeck in 1922 and married the Italian architect Norberto ‘Nori’ Marchesani in 1925. Bedford met them in Italy after her father’s death, but as Mussolini strengthened his grip, the socialist-leaning Marchesanis departed, settling in Sanary in 1926. Its Mediterranean ease instilled in Bedford a lifelong love of France, where the ‘manière de vivre gave one a large sense of living rationally, sensuously, well, of pleasure on many levels … the illusion of freedom’. The expat population included the Huxleys, Cyril Connolly, Edward Sackville West and Raymond Mortimer. Edith Wharton’s château overlooked nearby Hyères, and the grande dame, ‘rotund, corseted, flushed and beautifully dressed’, graced one of the Huxleys’ whimsical picnics.
The German mass exodus triggered by rising Nazism sealed Sanary’s reputation as the ‘secret capital of German literature’, with Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Bertolt Brecht taking up residence. Like most colonisations, it was not without friction, Aldous Huxley declaring the new influx ‘a dismal crew’. Yet the snake was already in Eden. Lisa’s neuroses had spiralled when Nori began an affair, and she’d fallen prey to morphine addiction. Increasingly erratic, ‘Madame Morphesani’ became the talk of Sanary. Her daughter and husband shared the burden of sourcing and administering the drug on which Lisa depended, while watching it ravage her. In 1937 she died, aged fifty-three. Despite this tragic end, Bedford, who confessed to admiring rather than loving her self-centred mother, always acknowledged her influence. ‘I suppose I always had a passion for writing, but being brought up to talk about Dostoevsky at breakfast was a great advantage.’
Yet make no mistake: although she never doubted her vocation, writing did not come easily to Bedford. Her restless spirit and action- packed love life repeatedly intervened, causing a cycle of procrastination and guilt. In her twenties she completed three novels, none published. Crushed, it was years before she found her ‘clear, distinctive voice’, and she’d reached forty-two when her first book was published. The glowing reception of A Sudden View (retitled A Visit to Don Otavio), an account of the months Bedford spent in Mexico after the war, conferred on her the writer’s identity she’d always longed for.
Bedford met her writing companion Martha Gellhorn in 1948 while living in Rome. Although bruised from her failed marriage to Ernest Hemingway, the effervescent American was like ‘a fifteen-hundred-watt chandelier: she radiated vitality, certainty, total courage’. Bedford drove her to Capri for a journalism assignment, immortalised as ‘A Homecoming’ in Pleasures and Landscapes. Although their friendship became fractious, Gellhorn was a vital cog in Bedford’s career, offering encouragement, critiques and introductions.
After much toiling, Bedford’s first novel, A Legacy, was published in 1956. Drawing extensively on childhood memories, it represents ‘an extraordinary feat of recollection and reconstruction’. However, its unsparing portrait of the Herzes – von Schoenebeck’s first wife’s family – betrays an authorial carelessness. Only changing the first letter of their name to ‘Merz’, she depicts them as insular, indulgent: ‘they had no interests, tastes or thoughts beyond their family and the comfort of their persons.’ Called to account, Bedford admitted she simply hadn’t thought, and was forgiven.
Reviews were lacklustre, until Nancy Mitford sent a copy to Evelyn Waugh, whose warm write-up in the Spectator – ‘cool, witty, elegant’ – changed the novel’s fortunes. Its American publication by an energetic young editor, Robert Gottlieb, later to helm the New Yorker, was an unexpected success, selling 20,000 copies and landing on the New York Times bestseller list: ‘proof,’ Gottlieb wrote to Bedford, ‘that we can publish books we really love and MAKE MONEY.’
Yet for most of her life Bedford failed to do just that, relying on generous handouts from friends, including the Huxleys, Martha Gellhorn, Allanah Harper and Esther Murphy, both erstwhile lovers and lifelong friends. Bedford maintained good terms with old flames, who were numerous, for she was almost constantly in love (always, except once, with women). It was all very distracting, as she later complained: ‘I wish I’d written more books and spent less time being in love. It’s very difficult doing both at the same time’.
Self-discipline coming late, in maturity her focus on writing took its toll on her partners. She was guiltily conscious of this with Evelyn Gendel, an American editor who left her husband to live with Bedford in Rome. Bearing the brunt of domestic duties and expenses, Gendel spent six years devoted to Bedford – who frequently vanished to Provence or Paris – until they moved to London in 1956, where Bedford left her for the writer Eda Lord. In England, Bedford pursued her fascination with legal process. Having published a book on the trial of Eastbourne murderer Dr. Bodkin Adams in 1958, she was commissioned by magazines such as Life to cover the era’s highest-profile cases: Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960; Stephen Ward, the osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler and John Profumo, in 1963; Jack Ruby, murderer of Lee Harvey Oswald, President Kennedy’s killer, in 1964; and the gruelling eighteen-month prosecution of twenty- two former Auschwitz guards from 1963–5. She published The Faces of Justice, a book comparing European court systems, and also completed a biography of her late friend Aldous Huxley.
Published in 1989, Jigsaw was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Subtle and assured, it traces ‘Billi’s’ childhood in Germany, her father’s death, her young life in England and Sanary – including, in excoriating detail, her mother’s drug addiction. Afterwards, Bedford felt ready to lay down her pen, although in fact she went on to write a memoir, Quicksands, published nine months before her death.
In old age she found contentment – and, inevitably, more romance – modestly housed in Chelsea’s Old Church Street, appetites undimmed to the last. She was an active member of PEN and the Royal Society of Literature. Her obsessive epicureanism and oenophilia – her father’s legacy – also prevailed, a cornerstone of many relationships, not least those with M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child and Elizabeth David. Lisa was the first to mock her daughter’s insistence on a formally laid table, even alone; Sybille Bedford did not do casual dining. She had a gift for living well, for seizing and savouring pleasure, no matter the circumstances. Perhaps that’s why she seems so exhilarating in this age of earnest self-optimisation.
For Olivia Sudjic, Bedford’s work also strikes a chord when considering ‘what it means to be European these days,’ and ‘the problematic nature of defining ourselves that way against non-Europeans, especially those who are refugees’. Born into a time of division and dislocation, Bedford rejected her national identity, selecting English as her professional tongue and leading a richly peripatetic existence between Paris, Rome and Provence, before making London her home. Although she found greater recognition in the States, championed by Bob Gottlieb, she is a European writer to her core. Shaped by her century and continent, her books evince, in Selina Hastings’ words, a ‘profoundly European sensibility, the worlds she creates elusive yet concise, familiar yet intriguingly different’. There’s no better time to explore them.
Madeleine Feeny is a freelance critic and editor who has worked in publishing in London and Barcelona. She is the founder of a literary events platform, A Moveable Feast.
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