- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 9, 2005


By Sybille Bedford

Counterpoint, $24.95, 370 pages


In our age of global economics and global culture, that fine old word cosmopolitan is not much heard anymore, but if anyone could be said to be its epitome, it is the English writer Sybille Bedford. Born to a German father and an English mother in 1911, Mrs. Bedford grew up in her native Germany and also in Italy and England. So we don’t have a Nancy Mitford — an Englishwoman living in France and adopting that country as her own — but rather a genuine cosmopolitan by heritage, upbringing, residence, and — crucially — temperament.

British by nationality (thanks to a Nazi-era marriage of convenience) as well by maternal heritage and, more importantly, by affinity and predilection, Mrs. Bedford has always chosen to do her writing in English, much to the dismay of the august Thomas Mann who deplored the abandonment of her Germanic Muttersprache. But in her flawless, colloquial, nuanced prose, Sybille Bedford has chosen to evoke, in her fiction and nonfiction alike, worlds to be found at various spots on the European continent and even as far afield as Mexico, the subject of her celebrated travel book “A Visit to Don Otavio.”

Perhaps one of the secrets of Mrs. Bedford’s lifelong succes d’estime is the parsimony with which she has doled out her literary efforts. (Of course there are the innumerable articles on travel and on celebrated trials, these latter ranging from one in a German court in Frankfurt trying officials from Auschwitz to that of Jack Ruby in Dallas, Tex. There is even a book about the trial of the celebrated British physician Bodkin Adams convicted in the 1950s of murdering many of his patients.)

But when it comes to what this self-consciously literary writer deems the true products of her heart and soul, there are only that Mexico book, a two-volume biography of her friend and mentor, Aldous Huxley, and a quartet of novels stretched out over decades of life. The youthful and adolescent peregrinations with an old-world father, a capricious, promiscuous, morphine-addicted mother, and a glamorous, adventurous, ill-fated half-sister were mined to produce those works of fiction; and they are revealed and explored, pored over and rethought, once more in this syncopated, elaborately-structured memoir aptly entitled “Quicksands.”

Don’t think for a moment, though, that this is just a rehash of that old grist that has already been through the mill of her novels. Fans of those works of fiction will find further explorations and explanations here; those who come to Mrs. Bedford for the first time will sense immediately the quality of this singular writer.

And unusual she is indeed. It has become a truism of fiction that a fine writer can make great fiction out of the humblest material; as Nadine Gordimer once told me, if a writer is good enough, he can make a tragedy out of the death of a canary. Sybille Bedford, of course, was blessed as a writer of fiction even if burdened in real life by the odd circumstances of her upbringing and the odder cast of characters who surrounded her then and later. But she never settles for the cheap thrill or obvious thrust: If her raw material is rich, what she does with it is richer still.

As “Quicksands” opens, Mrs. Bedford finds herself in postwar Ischia in the company of the American journalist Martha Gellhorn. Soon they run into a notorious collaborator with the Nazis who once had been a close friend of the author and her mother. Always on the side of the angels politically, Mrs. Bedford recoils from fraternizing with one who has become the enemy, but relents when the hardheaded Martha Gellhorn tells her to go and get the woman’s story. But the collaborator’s first words to her, far from being penitent, reverberate with defiant, astringent irony: “She took me in with one amused glance. ‘You look a bit shabby,’ she said. Another mocking smile. ‘I suppose that comes from having been on the winning side.’”

This is the world of “Quicksands” as it segues between post-World War II Europe and Mexico and the Wilhelmian Germany of Mrs. Bedford’s childhood, France, Italy and England between the world wars, and even wartime America. Circumstances change, alliances shift, but always there is that searing honesty and a sure moral compass. This is an author who knows the value and the cost of every gesture, every decision, large and small. And in the background there is always that terrible shadow of totalitarianism which causes you to flee if you are lucky and something much worse if you are not. It is a world where innocents are unjustly interned and where a character who seems anything but heroic pays for his perfectly reasonable, moderate views with the guillotine wielded by — prewar — Nazi power.

There is a wonderful description of the parlous existence led by the author’s father after her much richer mother had bolted when her daughter was not yet a teenager. She details just how difficult it was for them to live almost by barter alone. There are still things, she tells us, for which cash is essential: postage stamps, for instance, and even more seriously, taxes. Then comes that terrible curse for the German people, hyperinflation, which Mrs. Bedford summons up with admirable clarity and economy: “… the loaf that could be bought for a mark coming to cost ten marks within months, rising to a hundred next week, to a thousand, a hundred thousand, eventually rushing on like a hurricane gaining speed to a million, a hundred millions, to milliards… . What had bought a house the year before, a piano last month, a pound of butter last week, bought a newspaper in the morning but no longer on that afternoon.”

Even those whose lives are organized around barter find their existence complicated by this dreadful state of affairs, although the parlousness of such existence is not perhaps as strange to them as it is to others more rooted in the conventional economy. But then the ill-wind of inflation is finally the spur for the reluctant father to part with some of the ancestral treasures of his schloss, and the Swiss francs these objects are sold for at auction across the border can buy all sorts of luxuries hitherto undreamed of. Such crosscurrents with their odd mixture of disaster and rescue are a leitmotiv in the course of this gripping memoir and no one does this better than Mrs. Bedford.

When a writer has produced so small an oeuvre and is yet so esteemed as Sybille Bedford is, the question inevitably arises: Just how good is she? Well, as always, compared to what? Not only is she no Proust or Mann or Joyce, she probably is no Mary McCarthy or Ian McEwan. And, amid all the admirable personality traits displayed in this book, there are some irritating ones.

Certainly, “Quicksands” is, to some degree at least, diminished by the authorial mannerism of telling you all the things she isn’t going to be able to tell you — and not only, as she is fond of pointing out, because at 94, there will probably be no more books from Sybille Bedford. There is repeated obfuscation about names that seems self-important, fussy, and unnecessary after all these years.

A lifetime of reading memoirs and letter collections has left me able to guess with varying degrees of confidence some of these omitted names, but if I am stumped by the identity of so many, I can only conclude that many readers will be still more frustrated. And we are not talking about genuinely ludic art on the order of a writer like Vladimir Nabokov; no, this strikes one as an author deliberately toying with her readers from on high. Such glimpses into these aspects of Sybille Bedford’s character seem to suggest that she may have been less pleasant to know than to read.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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