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Sybille Bedford: Legacies

March 21, 2011 | by

Sybille Bedford in Rome, 1950. Photograph by Evelyn Gendel.

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.

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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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