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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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