Le passé est une partie de nous-même, la plus essentielle peut-être.
Beware of being sheep.
For more than four decades, the German-born English writer Sybille Bedford has been something more than a name one has heard, something rather less than a literary celebrity. Those who know her work tend to be keenly enthusiastic; not enough people do know it. Hers is a many-sided talent. She is first of all a novelist: there have been four novels to date, A Legacy (1956), A Favourite of the Gods (1963), A Compass Error (1968), and Jigsaw (1989). Almost by accident, she is also a biographer. Her two-volume biography of Aldous Huxley—which she undertook after his death at the behest of his family—appeared in 1973-74. It is a work of hommage. She had met Huxley and his first wife, Maria, in the spring of 1930 when she was living with her mother in the South of France; the Huxleys did them many kindnesses and became close friends. Even before that, Huxley had been a prime intellectual inspiration for Mrs. Bedford. She speaks somewhere of his being a “moral idol,” a “universal genius.” His novels, which she discovered in the mid-1920s, were an “overwhelming revelation.” In the event, Sybille Bedford produced a widely praised biography that managed to be admiring without being hagiographic. It was an enormous labor, made especially difficult by the fact that Huxley’s library and all his papers perished when his house in Los Angeles burned down in 1961, two years before his death.
Like Elizabeth David or M. F. K. Fisher, Mrs. Bedford is also a food and wine writer who is more than a food and wine writer. Like Rebecca West, she has produced sharply observed legal reportage as well as fiction. The Trial of Dr. Adams (1958)—published in England as The Best We Can Do—is a riveting day-by-day account of the trial of Dr. John Bodkin Adams—a cause célèbre in its day—who was accused of murdering several elderly patients in order to obtain promised legacies. Another book, The Faces of Justice (1961), is a collection of trial reports and anecdotes about the workings of the English, German, Swiss, French, and Austrian legal systems in the 1950s. Written partly tongue in cheek—acquaintance with courts of law encourages an appreciation of the varieties of human extravagance—it has nonetheless been used at some law schools to introduce students to the—niceties? complexities? impossibilities?—of comparative law. Seeking “the best we can do” when it comes to justice—she deliberately stayed away from places like Spain, Portugal, and countries behind the Iron Curtain—Mrs. Bedford discovered that even at its best humanly administered justice is often blind in more than the desired sense of being impartial.
Her curiosity about the law is part of a larger curiosity, an appetite for the human panoply.
Her curiosity about the law is part of a larger curiosity, an appetite for the human panoply. Like Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, Mrs. Bedford is a novelist who is also an inveterate traveler and travel writer; unlike them her passion has not been pinched by bitterness or blunted by accidia. Her first published book, The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey (titled A Visit to Don Otavio in England), is a travelogue born of restlessness. She had been a few years in the United States; it was time to return to England; the prospect of Mexico beckoned and seduced her. (How many important travel books Mexico has inspired this century!) “I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, to eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible.” The Sudden View is the record of a cultivated twentieth-century European’s year in the existential detour that was Mexico after the war. Most of it takes place at a ramshackle eighteenth-century hacienda near Guadalajara that was inhabited by “Don Otavio de X y X y X,” their host and son of the former Governor of the province. It is an antique world, full of antique prerogatives. Don Otavio, we learn, “has been ruined these thirty years. He has seventeen servants to look after him.”
The story of The Sudden View was recollected in tranquility and written several years after the fact. It was, Mrs. Bedford recently commented in an interview with Shusha Guppy, “a travel book written by a novelist. I wanted to get across the extraordinary beauty of Mexico, the allegro quality of its climate, with the underlying panic and violence inherited from a long and bloody history.” The Sudden View does that, and more. It is funny, affectionate, and, like other good travel books from the period, ruthlessly alive to idiosyncrasy:
I bought a Manual of Conversation. In the section headed Useful Words and Phrases, I find on page one:
“Are you interested in death, Count?”
“Yes, very much, your Excellency.”
The Sudden View appeared in 1953. It was not an early debut. Mrs. Bedford, forty-two when the book appeared, had for some years been eking out a living by miscellaneous journalism, secretarial work, and a spot of translating. A peripatetic childhood spent shuttling between Italy, the South of France, and London had afforded little opportunity for school but had left her comfortably multilingual if orthographically challenged. By the late Forties, she had found time to complete three novels. All had made the rounds with publishers; none had seen (or was to see) the light of day. Her latest novel, Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education, is called “A biographical novel.” Like all her novels, it is really more an autobiographical one. In Jigsaw, Mrs. Bedford mentions that she titled her first novelistic effort An Expense of Spirit. She tells us: “an unkind friend added, In a waste of time.” “Not unexpectedly, it was diluted Aldous Huxley—Aldous Huxley and plain water.” Apparently, Huxley concurred, offering pages of detailed criticism from which she quotes in her biography; his strictures were “good advice,” Mrs. Bedford admits, but “pretty shattering at the time.”
The Sudden View brought Sybille Bedford critical recognition. Her next book, A Legacy—a novel, at last—won her a measure of popular acclaim as well. But its success was neither immediate nor total. The London Times dismissed it as opaque; her American publisher helpfully pronounced it one of the dullest books he’d ever read. Today it is generally regarded as a masterpiece, albeit one that goes largely unread. The happy peripeteia came when Evelyn Waugh reviewed A Legacy for The Spectator. He registered a handful of problems—could the nine-year-old narrator really have comprehended this or that bit of information? Did events always unfold with sufficient clarity?—that kept the book from “extreme excellence.” But his endorsement was unequivocal: A Legacy was a “remarkable achievement” in which “everything is new, cool, witty, elegant.” In time the book caught on, especially in the United States, where it became a best seller. Though other of her books have been honored—Jigsaw was short-listed for the Booker Prize—A Legacy remains her only commericial triumph.
It was Nancy Mitford who had sent A Legacy to Waugh. Clearly, the book had taken him by surprise. “We know nothing of the author’s age, nationality or religion,” he wrote in his review. “But we gratefully salute a new artist.” To Mitford he wrote that “I wondered for a time who this brilliant ‘Mrs. Bedford’ could be. A cosmopolitan military man, plainly, with a knowledge of parliamentary government and popular journalism, a dislike for Prussians, a liking for Jews, a belief that everyone speaks French in the home.” He concludes by announcing that “Mrs. Bedford” must be the nom de guerre of Nancy Mitford’s lover, “the Colonel,” Gaston Palewski. Mitford replied that, in fact, Mrs. Bedford was “a small, fair, intensely shy woman . . . . There is something very sweet about her.”
“Sweet”? Well, sweet as Nancy Mitford was sweet, perhaps. “Shy” may be closer to the mark, or “reticent.” It is curious how little, even now, is directly known about Sybille Bedford. Perhaps no one will any longer pretend to mistake the author of A Legacy for “a cosmopolitan military man.” But she remains a somewhat shadowy figure. One recent article, from the 1980s, states that “Sybille Bedford was born 16 March 1911, daughter of Maximillian van Schoenebeck and Elizabeth Bernard. She married Walter Bedford in 1935. That is absolutely all the personal information she has supplied to the usual biographical sources.” From book jackets, encyclopedia articles, and so on we glean also that she was awarded an OBE in 1981, that she is a vice president of PEN, and that she grew up largely in England, France, Italy. We know that she was born in Charlottenberg, Germany (a suburb of Berlin), that her mother was part Jewish, that she was brought up Catholic, that she early on lost whatever faith she had.
But what of Walter Bedford, for example, whom the young Miss Schoenebeck married in 1935?
But what of Walter Bedford, for example, whom the young Miss Schoenebeck married in 1935? He seems to have disappeared without trace—or at least without mention. One fan of Sybille Bedford’s suggested to me that it was a bit like the champagne Veuve Cliquot, “widow Cliquot”: one hardly pauses to contemplate the fate of Monsieur Cliquot when such delicious effervescence is at hand. Perhaps A Compass Error, Mrs. Bedford’s third novel, contains a clue. Near the end of the novel, we are told that Flavia, this novel’s version of the author, “contracted what was looked on as a wasteful if not scandalous marriage to a man twice her age, a homosexual, of undoubted brilliance and initial talent, who drank too much and was then already an established failure.” It seems clear, at any rate, that the marriage was a desperate alliance—neither Flavia nor the narrator of Jigsaw is interested in men as sexual partners—though it is characteristic of Sybille Bedford that she has exercised complete discretion about the fate of this union.
If Mrs. Bedford is sparing about direct statements, however, indirectly she has been consistently more revealing. Sybille Bedford is not a novelist—like Dickens, say—who conjures new worlds out of whole cloth and populates them with creatures of her own imagining. Rather, her novels are imaginative reorderings of the past—of her own past—efforts to extract some human truth from the specific dramas that life has presented her. She has taken to heart Victor Hugo’s observation that “the past may be the most essential part of ourselves” and elevated it into the organizing principle of her fiction. (The sentence from Hugo stands as one of the epigraphs to A Compass Error.) To some extent—to a larger extent than one might have supposed—she and her family and friends compose the dramatis personae of her fiction. Are the portraits true to life? the narrator asks at the beginning of Jigsaw. “I think so, give and take a novelist’s margins.” In essentials, it seems, the margins have tended to be quite narrow. This does not mean that her novels are uniformly compelling. Nancy Mitford was right when she complained (in another letter to Evelyn Waugh) that Mrs. Bedford’s second novel, A Favourite of the Gods, though it contained “excellent things,” betrayed “a certain naïveté” and left the reader feeling that “the characters are of wood.” The characters are perhaps less wooden in the sequel, A Compass Error, but a feeling of unreality—of a past incompletely revisited—persists.
Mrs. Bedford’s most vividly realized novels to date are A Legacy, an autobiography in the form of a novel, and Jigsaw, a novel in the form of an autobiography. A Legacy takes place primarily in Berlin and Baden around the turn of the century. It is a story of collisions: between the decaying Catholic aristocracy of Southern Germany and the rich Jewish mercantile establishment of Berlin; between Bismarck’s militantly nationalistic Prussia and the Francophilic culture of the South; between the old world in which duty and social position define one’s compass and the fast, new society that seemed bent on dissolving everything. Atmospherically, the world of A Legacy is a cross between Buddenbrooks and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities: over-ripe, brittle, ironic, pregnant with cataclysm; stylistically, it has learned a lot from the pyrotechnics of the early Evelyn Waugh.
The complex plot of A Legacy unfolds around three families. 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. The beautiful Clara von Bernin, “who was so unbending, who when sent by her father to a dance would not dance but prayed, almost audibly, for those present,” is eventually prevailed upon to marry the eldest von Felden, Gustavus. “She spoke of what together they might do: . . . for salvation, for the poor. Purpose. Elevation. Infinity. It was magnifying, it was heady; it was new. And it was also clear that it was brought about because Clara von Bernin Sigmundshofen found him irresistible as a man.”
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.
And then there are the Merzes: an old, very rich bourgeois Jewish family ensconced in a Berlin mansion.
At the center of A Legacy is the domestic career of Julius von Felden, a high-strung, self-absorbed aesthete who travels with pet chimpanzees and has mastered the art of keeping reality at arm’s length. He works briefly in the diplomatic service, finds that he doesn’t much like Germany, and doesn’t understand why he cannot be given another country to represent. Julius is damaged goods, clearly, but he is also unflaggingly amiable and attractive to women. It emerges that Sarah Merz is in love with him. And yet it is she who connives to marry him off—twice: first to the delicate Melanie Merz, who is twenty years his junior and (it may be Melanie’s chief attraction for him) whose parents provide him with a handsome allowance to live on. Melanie produces a daughter and then conveniently sickens and dies. The Merzes continue Julius’s allowance, however, and even increase it ten years later when Sarah helps him procure her friend Caroline Trafford—an “English gentleman,” beautiful, predatory, bored—as his second wife. The marriage cannot, does not last; but it, too, produces a daughter, the book’s narrator. I believe it is on page 344 that we first learn that her name is Francesca; anyone familiar with the lineaments of Mrs. Bedford’s life has all along known that the hitherto nameless Francesca is she, that the story she tells is the story of young Sybille Schoenebeck.
Of course there are other stories, as well. A Legacy is an intricately wrought group portrait full of period touches and interlocking fates, generally unhappy. Much of the plot turns on the personal tragedy of Julius’s younger brother, Johannes, a decent, gentle boy who is brutalized at a Prussian-style military academy, escapes, and tries to kill himself by eating a handful of sulpher matches rather than be sent back. Johannes goes mad, but this does not prevent bureaucratic incompetence from giving him a commission and setting him up with an army career in an out-of-the-way post. His private disaster reverberates throughout the book, indirectly causing the death of Gabriel von Felden, the suicide of his brother Gustavus, and precipitating a national scandal that ruins dozens of careers and comes close to bringing down the government.
Mrs. Bedford handles the twistings and turnings of her story with remarkable deftness and charm. Indeed, it is one of her major achievements to have related this harrowing tale in a manner that leaves the reader as much seduced by the rich, sensuous world in which her characters perform as he is chastened by their folly. She does it partly with food. Here are the Merzes enjoying their mid-morning snack:
They were at second breakfast. Second breakfast was laid every morning at eleven-fifteen on a long table in the middle of the Herren- zimmer, a dark, fully furnished room with heavily draped windows that led from an antechamber to an antechamber. The meal was chiefly for the gentlemen. They ate cold Venison with red-currant jelly, potted meats, tongue and fowl accompanied by pumpernickel toast and rye-bread, and they drank port wine. Grandmama sat with them. She had a newly-laid egg done in cream, and nibbled at some soft rolls with Spickgans, smoked breast of goose spread on butter and chopped fine. Grandpapa had a hot poussin-chicken baked for him every day in a small dish with a lid; and Cousin Markwald who had a stomach ailment ate cream of wheat, stewed sweetbreads and a special kind of rusks.
It is a good idea to read A Legacy within easy reach of the larder.
Victuals also play a background role in some of the book’s wittiest episodes. Here is Sarah—it’s a little unclear whether she’s at lunch or dinner—preparing to tell the Merzes that Julius will require their daughter to convert to Catholicism before the marriage can take place.
[S]he sat almost silent through the cream of chicken, the crayfish in aspic, the vol-au-vent, the calf’s tongue and currants in Madeira, the chartreuse of pigeon and the mousseline of artichokes, and it was only after the Nesselrode pudding and Melanie [was] sent upstairs that she disclosed that Jules Felden appeared to think it necessary for his wife to share his religion.
“He wants her to get baptized.”
“The young man with the monkeys wants our daughter baptized.”
Part of the comedy is that although Julius demands a Catholic bride and the Merzes won’t hear of it, neither has any religious stake in the matter. Sarah sums it up well: “theological dead-lock between non-practising members of two religions”: in other words, the way of the world.
In the end, it is poor Melanie who breaks the deadlock. One evening, she slips out with her maid and “a small purse of gold” to obtain the required sacrament; her maid directs her to a church; a Pastor Völler performs the ritual sprinkling; Melanie returns home in a state of high excitement and bursts in on the assembled company:
“Not Pastor, dear, Father. We call our priests Father.”
“Father Völler,” said Melanie.
“Do I know him?”
Melanie tendered the certificate she carried in her dress.
Clara, already a little far-sighted, held it at arm’s length. She looked, frowned, shifted the distance again, looked, her lips moving—Then she emitted a faint hissing sound, and swayed. Gottlieb was in time with the chair.
Grandmama proffered her sal volatile. Clara stirred. “A Protestant,” she groaned, and to everyone’s consternation slipped from the chair to the floor. “On our knees, my child! and may He have mercy on us.”
Grandmama signed to Gottlieb. “Bring the poor lady an egg in port wine.”
But Clara, who had taken nothing since the previous day, waved sustenance aside. She rose and said in a strong voice, “It is His Will that you should pass through this abominable trial. I may have been sent to lead you out of it. We must not allow heresy to take root in you, we must send for a priest at once. This is an emergency and I believe you will be received. Instruction can come later.”
The gasp this time came from the arm-chair. “They want to baptize her twice!” cried Grandmama and sank back into the cushions.
Gottlieb turned and presented the egg-nog on the tray. Grandmama took it.
In a sense, all of Mrs. Bedford’s novels tell the same story: they are so many portraits of Sybille Bedford as a girl or young woman. Much of what seems most extravagant turns out to be closest to what really happened. In Jigsaw, a novelist’s attempt to arrange the pieces of life’s puzzle into emotional order, she writes that “To say that Jules, the Julius von Felden of the novel, was my father would be as misleading as to say that he was not.” Well, yes. But we learn that her father, like Julius von Felden, spoke French and kept chimps as pets; that he had three brothers; that one committed suicide; that one was sent to a military academy, escaped, and swallowed a handful of sulphur matches (he did not, however, go mad). As with Julius, after her father’s first wife died he continued to be supported by his first wife’s parents: “it had not occured to them not to go on treating him as their son-in-law.” Even those fabulous Merz dinners were true to life: the inhabitants of the great Berlin mansion, Mrs. Bedford writes, “never stopped eating.”
In A Legacy, the narrator’s eyes are primarily on her family. In Jigsaw, a mirror is introduced: now young Sybille not only directs the action but also has a leading role in the story. Jigsaw takes her from early childhood through her mid-twenties. The story opens with a few fragmentary memories of being bundled hither and yon with her mother. Then there is the war. Then armistice. The family fortunes are ruined and so is her parents’ marriage. Sybille is left with her father and an elderly retainer at a delapidated Schloss at Feldkirch in Baden. They are very poor. 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.
Now the story begins in earnest. It is a tale of life with—and very much without—mother.
Now the story begins in earnest. It is a tale of life with—and very much without—mother. In a prefatory note to the book, Mrs. Bedford says that she and her mother are “a percentage” of themselves. This much is clear: her mother was clever, literary, and strikingly beautiful; she was also a study in eccentric irresponsibility. 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.
“Are we on the run, mummy?”
“You might call it that.”
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.
As the Twenties progressed, Mussolini prospered and Italy became distinctly less hospitable for free spirits. By 1926, Sybille’s mother has established herself in Sanary-sur-Mer, a small Mediterranean village between Marseilles and Toulon. The England—Italy pattern gives way to England—France. When in London, Sybille is officially looked after by two German-Jewish sisters, Toni and Rosie Falkenheim. Toni is married to a bookseller called Jamie Nairn, Rosie is carrying on a comically clandestine affair with a judge. Sybille is pretty much left to her own devices. By the time she is sixteen, she has her own bedsitter in Upper Gloucester Place. There’s a bit of schooling. But mostly she is “privately educated,” which meant self-taught. She absorbed Flaubert and Stendhal; she read through volumes of Balzac and Maupassant; a little Zola, some Alfred de Vigny, Chateaubriand, and George Sand; she also read Huxley, Waugh, and Ivy Compton-Burnett. There are domestic tragedies: Toni precipitously divorces Jamie after he admits to having had an affair; the judge, for all his discretion, turns out to be a compulsive gambler. He gets in over his head once too often and commits suicide. All this, or something very like it, happened. But while Sybille and her mother appear in propriis personis, most of the other characters appear pseudonymously. Mrs. Bedford’s sense of delicacy in this matter is as laudable as it is rare. “I shall not name names,” she writes.
The Nairns were not called Nairn, nor were the Falkenheims [called Falkenheim] . . . . Why, might one ask, after all those years and in our tell-all age? Chiefly because they are people seen only through my eyes: it would be impertinent and in some cases hurtful to publish my, necessarily one-sided, view of people who though they themselves be dead may still be held in affection and esteem, let alone be seen in different lights, by their descendants, friends and colleagues.
London was one half—or a third—of Sybille’s life in the late Twenties and early Thirties. The other, larger part was Sanary: sleepy, unfashionable Sanary. In the late Thirties, the village became an enclave for German Jews escaping from Hitler. (Thomas Mann was among their number; he is said to have proposed marriage to Sybille’s mother, who refused “poor Tommy.”) It was in Sanary that Sybille Bedford really grew up, that her adolescent ambitions of being a writer began to take shape. It was not easy going. There were endless daydreams, especially when out swimming. But “when I sat down before a sheet of paper, it was gone. I never wrote in my youth. I was not one of those novelists who filled note-books lying on the hearth-rug when they were tots.” Among the pseudonymous personages who populated Sanary were Philippe and Oriane Desmirail, a beautifully exotic French couple. They were part of the “highly educated, upper-class, post-war young, who had lost ideals and aims but retained their manners.” Sybille became friends with them both; with Oriane, she became hopelessly infatuated. There were also the Aldous Huxleys, who appear as themselves in the book: gentle, generous, otherworldly. “One’s mood, and behaviour, always lifted to a better plane in the Huxleys’ presence.”
The book’s central drama concerns Sybille’s mother.
The book’s central drama concerns Sybille’s mother. High-strung, insomniac, she always had a penchant for Veronal and other sleeping potions. When Alessandro started having an affair with a younger woman, she graduated to steadily more powerful sedatives. In the end, a lugubrious Docteur named Joyeu prescribed morphine. The last quarter of the book is taken up with the story of her descent into addiction. It is a true saison en enfer. At first, Alessandro was enlisted to inject the drug; then Sybille; finally, she learned to inject it herself: three, four, five times daily in ever increasing dosages sanctioned by the perfidious Docteur Joyeu. Near collapse, she finally agrees to enter a sanatarium outside Nice for detoxification. When she is released, it is only a matter of weeks before she begins secretly consuming vast quantities of gin. Soon thereafter, the smell of ether in the house alerted Sybille to the fact that she had returned to the morphine. Perhaps the most horrifying moment in this horrifying tale comes near the end of the book when her mother offers Sybille an ampoule of morphine and enthusiastically encourages her to try it. (“Just once.”) When Sybille refuses and returns the ampoule to her, she says cuttingly, “Not enough courage?”
One of the most remarkable things about this tale of woe is the good humor that Sybille Bedford maintains (or remembers maintaining) in the midst of the exasperations and terrors visited upon everyone by her mother. She seems entirely without rancor. In the course of a recent interview with Mrs. Bedford, Shusha Guppy remarks in passing that “Your mother seems a monster.” It is difficult not to agree. In Jigsaw, she appears as flamboyantly amusing but also selfish, cruel, irresponsible, destructive of herself and everyone around her. But Mrs. Bedford demurs: “She was not a monster at all. . . . She was remarkable: she taught me everything about reading and people and telling stories about people.” Such generosity is a conspicuous and very winning feature of Sybille Bedford’s work. It is not blindness, for she faces up squarely to the horrid things people do to themselves and each other. But it does bespeak an attitude toward humanity and its foibles. Musing on Toni Nairn’s determination to divorce her husband, thus bringing great unhappiness on both of them and her sister, Mrs. Bedford reflects on “the unreasonableness of people and their capacity to hurt each other—if relatively civilized and well-meaning individuals could do so much violence to their loved ones, what about the vast ignorant mass of humanity?” Of course, we know about the vast ignorant mass of humanity. In its deepest aspect, Sybille Bedford’s campaign against rancor is also a plea to resist becoming part of that mass. At the end of “The Worst that Ever Happened,” her account of the 1963 trial of twenty-two former guards at Auschwitz, she puts it thus:
We, too, should hear and not forget. This story is a part of our lives and time. It is irreversible for those to whom it happened, the unfortunate men and women who were plucked from home, from family, from cares and habits, from the entire normal context of human expectations. What was done cannot be undone. What we can do is to honour them by memory, to mourn them, to think of them in sorrow and in awe. And we can learn. The SS man’s words, “At last we have the means,” are true now more than ever. Final solutions are within many a reach. We can remember Auschwitz and beware of listening to the siren song of expediency, beware of abrogating mercy, of setting aside the law. Beware of being sheep.
Good novelists are not in the habit of dispensing advice; but if one were to attempt to cull some from the writings of Sybille Bedford, perhaps it would be just that: Beware of being sheep.
- Huxley was more than stoical in the face of this devastating conflagration. In a letter to Robert Hutchins, he remarked that “I am evidently intended to learn a little in advance of the final denudation, that you can’t take it with you.” Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 8, on page 11
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com