Sybille Bedford at One Hundred
March 16, 2011 | by Lisa Cohen
This is Sybille Bedford’s centennial year—she would have been one hundred years old today—and The Paris Review is marking it with a reading on Thursday, March 24. To learn more, click here. If you are interested in attending, please e-mail us.
I have been reading and rereading Sybille Bedford’s work for the past twenty-five years, and I was lucky to get to know her fierce, vulnerable, inimitably vibrant self late in her life. I am writing from London, where I’ve come to attend a birthday dinner in her honor, tonight, in the cellars of the wine merchants Berry Bros. and Rudd. The evening, planned by her friend and literary executor, Aliette Martin, opens with Sybille’s favorite champagne, Pol Roger, and the five-course menu pairs excellent wines with elegant but unfussy food, beginning with a 1998 Gewurztraminer (Hommage à Jean Hugel, Maison Hugel) and foie gras mi-cuit, toasted brioche, and onion confit.
Sybille—she disliked the epithet “Bedford”—was born in Germany and spent much of her life in Europe, but she chose to write in English and was one of the language’s great twentieth-century stylists. Much of her work, including her best-known novel, A Legacy, moves freely between fiction and memoir, exploring the pleasures and traumas of her upbringing between the wars in Germany, Italy, England, and the south of France. She is known, too, for her sensual writing on travel and as a connoisseur of food and wine. She had “a genius for living,” an admiring ex-lover told her; she called herself “a sybarite with a political conscience.” Her legal reporting bears out that mixture: covering the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in London, of Jack Ruby in Dallas, of the Auschwitz guards in Frankfurt, and more, she produced crystallized essays about character, justice, and the rituals of law. She has been dubbed a modernist and a traditionalist; her cool, staccato dialogue has been compared to Quentin Tarantino’s. She published her last book, Quicksands, in 2005.
Why a celebration of her work in The Paris Review’s New York offices? She lived in the city during World War II, having escaped France, via Italy, in 1940, with her friend Allanah Harper, and although these were difficult years, she thought of New York fondly and it had a formative influence on her. She was barely thirty when she arrived. She had produced drafts of several novels, but nothing she or others deemed worth publishing. She was drifting a bit, feeling guilty about sitting out the war in the United States while friends were in danger in England and Europe. She found sporadic work teaching English to other refugees and doing translations for the art critic Clement Greenberg. She spent time with Greenberg, Mary McCarthy, and others in the Partisan Review circle. Margaret Marshall, then the literary editor of The Nation, became a friend, as did Peggy Guggenheim and Jane Bowles (with whom Harper was having an affair).
It was in New York that Sybille met and fell in love with Esther Murphy Arthur, the person she calls “E.” in her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio, the witty, dark blend of travelogue, history, and invention that was the result of their long trip to Mexico. “E.’s life is history and politics,” Sybille writes there; “she used to appear on Radio Forums described as Traveller and Commentator.” Esther was, in fact, not a traveler: “She detests traveling, or rather she has neither aptitude nor tolerance for the mechanism of actual travel in progress.” Instead, she was a “super-erudite” public intellectual and great talker, a native New Yorker steeped in European and American history and literature who counted Edmund Wilson, Janet Flanner, and Scott Fitzgerald among her closest friends. Her traces are mostly lost today, because she was a true eccentric who was never able to write the books she was expected to publish. She was also incapacitated by much of daily life and had “no aptitude whatsoever” for domesticity, as Sybille writes in Quicksands. Esther was, however, a way back to an intellectual seriousness Sybille had been missing during those nonwriting New York years, as well as a connection to Europe. She was also a kind of legacy from Sybille’s mother, herself a writer manqué who had “talked feelingly, unstoppably,” brilliantly.
Sybille’s own gift for improvising something like domesticity kept her going through much of her peripatetic life, an instinct that was at least in part an inheritance from her childhood years spent more or less camping out in impoverished splendor with her “strange, defeated, formal father,” after her parents’ separation. In New York, she spent a great deal of time keeping house for herself and Harper. Visiting Sybille over the years in her flat in Chelsea, or out at one of her favorite restaurants, I was often asking her about Esther Murphy, about whom I was writing, but I also wanted to know everything about Sybille herself. She talked brilliantly, sometimes almost feverishly, about her life, and I loved hearing even the most quotidian details about how she had made her way in New York in the forties —as in her habit of shopping in the Italian fruit and vegetable markets that then lined Second Avenue.
When the war ended, she wanted to travel before returning to Europe, and Esther wanted to stay with her (and not rejoin her estranged husband in California). But booking passage across the Atlantic, or even getting train reservations across the United States, was close to impossible, since servicemen had priority. So when a travel agency suddenly offered seats on a train to Mexico City, they took them. They left New York on the St. Louis Express of the Great Eastern and Missouri Railroad. There is a trace of those East Side markets in the opening pages of Don Otavio. She had packed a meal for the train ride west:
That first night we had fresh food. A chicken, roasted that afternoon at a friend’s house, still gently warm; a few slices of that American wonder, Virginia ham; marble-sized, dark red tomatoes from the market stands on Second Avenue; watercress, a flute of bread, a square of cream cheese, a bag of cherries and a bottle of pink wine.
One of the first things she did in Mexico City was shop for fruit, food, and spirits and flowers for her hotel room.
But Don Otavio begins in New York, memorably comparing Grand Central Station to the Baths of Carracalla and going on to describe the viscous oppressiveness of summer in the city:
This urban heat grows nothing; it does not warm, it only torments. It hardly seems to come from the sky. It has none of the charm and strength of the sun in a hot country … At sunset there is no respite. Night is an airless shaft; in the dark the temperature still rises; heat is emanating invisible from everywhere, from underfoot, from above, from the dull furnaces of saturated stone and metal.
Sybille later regretted her years in New York as fallow, unproductive ones, but she also knew that time was part of what had liberated her to write “in a voice unlike the one I had assumed before”—which is to say, to write Don Otavio. Her earlier, unpublished work had been overly influenced, she believed, by the style of her friend and mentor Aldous Huxley. Making a home on her own in America, being under Esther’s intellectual and rhetorical spell, spending time in the company of other literary New Yorkers, and later, when she moved to Italy and began work on Don Otavio in earnest, being under the influence of her friend Martha Gellhorn’s “racy, unrelentingly demotic verbal American” English—all of these freed her to produce her distinctive rhythms: the unmistakable clipped dialogue, the lush yet spare descriptions of landscape, the wit, the withholding, and the questioning that make her prose her own.
Tonight’s celebration in London is fondly conceived—and she would have loved it. If only she were here for it.
Lisa Cohen’s book, All We Know—portraits of the neglected modernist figures Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2012. She teaches at Wesleyan University. Check back for more essays and archival finds about Bedford over the next week.