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Sybille Bedford at One Hundred

March 16, 2011 | by

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.

Sybille Bedford, 2004. Photograph by Luciana Arrighi.

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.

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