September 8, 2011 | by Jonathan Gharraie
I first encountered Mervyn Peake, as most readers do, through his baroque Gormenghast trilogy. At the time, I was stuck in the purgatorial antechamber between adolescence and maturity, reluctant to abandon certain habits of mind but keen to develop the imaginative sophistication that I thought might come in handy in college. So the BBC’s television dramatization of what they promised would be a darker alternative to Tolkien had its appeal. As it turned out, the BBC only adapted the first two Gormenghast novels, and then only cartoonishly. But my curiosity was sufficiently stirred to seek out the trilogy.
Just over a decade later, the centenary of Peake’s birth presents us with the occasion to appreciate his abundant gifts as an illustrator (of, among other thing, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), novelist, poet, and writer of literary nonsense. On both sides of the Atlantic, there have been new illustrated editions of the Gormenghast novels and a new epilogue, Titus Awakes, has surfaced, written by Peake’s widow, Maeve Gilmore. In Britain, the celebrations have been understandably more elaborate. The British Library has mounted an exhibition to celebrate their recent acquisition of Peake’s archive, while the radio dramatist Brian Sibley has adapted the trilogy, with its new conclusion, for BBC Radio 4. Toward the end of July, I visited the exhibition and attended a panel discussion featuring a host of speakers, including Peake’s sons, Fabian and Sebastian. Read More »
May 23, 2011 | by Sylvia Brownrigg
There are writers who speak several languages proudly, ostentatiously. There are novelists who pen stories in loud, colorful italics about coming from one country and moving to another. There is a fetishizing, even in our globe-trotting culture—web-linked, multiscreened, and simultaneously translated though it is—of nationality, its hold and its reach.
Then there is the grace and subtlety of Sybille Bedford. To read Bedford’s work is to bask in the presence of someone at once German, French, and English—at the very least—who knew these countries from deep within herself and was able to enjoy their distinctions without ever belittling or simplifying them. If the word cosmopolitan had been coined with a particular literary figure in mind, it might have been Sybille Bedford.
In a piece included in a volume published to honor Sybille after her death, her French friend and literary executor Aliette Martin recalled lines from Sybille’s last book, Quicksands: “To remain monolingual reduces the mind to the confines of a tramline. The civilized mind needs alternatives for its expression.” Though Sybille chose to write in English, she routinely included quotations or phrases from other tongues, along with amiable translations—so that the reader could hear the music or humor of the original, but needn’t feel excluded if his or her mind happened to be more tramlined than the polyglot author’s.
Ms. Martin was among those sipping wine or soda water in the elegant offices of The Paris Review not so long ago, at a gathering to celebrate Sybille Bedford’s centenary with readings from various of her books.
March 24, 2011 | by Thessaly La Force
Oh, when I was about seven I was intensely shocked when the village people told me that my parents would be damned because they were divorcing. I was also worried about myself, realizing that we ate meat on Fridays and thinking about my first stolen cigarette. Then I told myself that it was all quite silly and unjust. That was the English idea that it “wasn’t fair.” On the other hand I liked Catholic ritual. Not for long though. By the time of my first communion, I had been taught God was everywhere—and I thought why bother to go to mass on Sunday? I thought the whole thing was invented by people, and that was it. But fear of hellfire stayed with me for a long time—into my thirties or forties. I became very anticlerical; that is, I’m acutely aware of the extreme menace of religious fundamentalism. On the other hand I was very impressed by the mystical element in the last years of Aldous Huxley’s life. Somehow he exuded sanctity; one felt the presence of something different. I have not had this feeling of otherness in the presence of any other human being, except possibly Yehudi Menuhin.
March 21, 2011 | by Brenda Wineapple
Many years ago, after I first moved to New York City, I visited a friend of a friend in a basement apartment that he was trying to sublet. He was off to California. Underground living in a dank studio was not for him, and though I too didn’t much like the apartment, I liked him. We talked about books for a while, and before I left I gratefully accepted a novel he pressed into my hands, a battered paperback, its pinkish cover soft with wear. I still have it. It's called A Legacy.
Mesmerized, I read it and then everything else by Sybille Bedford, never dreaming that soon, when researching my book on Janet Flanner, I’d be deciphering Sybille’s crabbed scrawl in the Library of Congress. I pored over her letters, all scratched onto thin, green typing paper, and I well remember my shock one day, many months later, when she answered a query of mine on those same green sheets, and I told her so. It made her feel a bit posthumous, she said.
That was Sybille Bedford’s wit: reflective, wry, and, as Bruce Chatwin once observed, without irony. She was too smart for that, too tender, too droll, and too much of a realist. I had planned to see her in March of 2006; it would have been her ninety-fifth birthday. Now’s she been gone five years, and it would be her hundredth. We will not see her like again. I miss her every day. I often reread her books.
When we first met, I was astonished that, to me, an aspiring writer, Sybille was always forthright about the struggle any writer, aspiring or no, faces day after day after day. Here was one of the finest stylists of the twentieth century, with a prose of incomparable grace and clarity, admitting that she daily battles sloth, discouragement, distraction, and self-doubt—just like the rest of us. It was as if she was welcoming me into a tribe, without question, without initiation, and with an offer of friendship that was as generous as it was startling. Suddenly, I felt much less alone.
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.