Interviews

Sybille Bedford, An Interview

Interviewed by Shusha Guppy

Sybille Bedford's latest novel, Jigsaw, was published in 1989 to great acclaim. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and prepublication extracts of it appeared in The New Yorker. It was her first novel in fifteen years, during which she had written the biography of her lifelong friend and mentor Aldous Huxley and produced two volumes of travel and law reporting. She was bom in Germany before the First World War and spent most of her early childhood with her father, who was by then an elderly and eccentric aristocrat, and who had withdrawn into a small chateau in a remote rural comer of Baden. Her mother soon bolted. After her father's death in the 1920s, Bedford split her time between England, where she stayed with Bohemian friends, and Italy and France, where she lived with her mother and Italian stepfather.

During the war Bedford lived in Los Angeles and New York and spent one year in Mexico. Her first published book, A Visit to Don Otavio (1933), is an amusing yet highly serious interpretation of Mexico. Her first novel, A Legacy, published three years later, was based on the lives of three German families and has become a classic. It was followed by two nonfiction books: The Best We Can Do, an account of the trial of Dr. Bodkin Adams, who was accused of murdering his wealthy female patients, and The Faces of Justice, a ''not quite straight-faced'' reporting of legal practice in the law courts ofFngland, France, Germany and Switzerland.

Sybille Bedford is a vice president of the English PEN Club and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and she was awarded the OBE in 1981.

She now lives in a flat, with a small garden and a large plane tree, in London's Chelsea district. Despite her age and precarious health, Sybille Bedford's joie de vivre remains as remarkable as it is infectious. Her deep blue eyes are undimmed, and her fine complexion unblemished; she speaks with a tiny foreign intonation, now rushing through a torrent of words, now pondering and hesitating. As Valery said, and she quotes, "la betise n'est pas mon fort" (''idiocy is not my strong point"). Her knowledge, experience and sense of humor made the occasion of interviewing her instructive as well as enjoyable.


INTERVIEWER

In Jigsaw you speak about Jewish relatives. What is your religious background?

SYBILLE BEDFORD

My maternal grandfather was Jewish; I never knew him, as he died before I was born. Apparently there was a little more Jewish blood on either side of my family. I was born a Catholic like my father, but I wasn't very conscious of that. When we were living in our small chateau in the South, the village was entirely Catholic, and I was terrified bv a naive kind of Catholic dogma: "You will go to hell if you miss mass on Sunday," and so on... But my Catholic phase didn't last very long.

INTERVIEWER

How did you lose your faith? Gradually, or as a result of one incident?

BEDFORD

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.

INTERVIEWER

Many people feel as you do about institutionalized religion, but the spiritual, mystical longing is very deep-rooted and looks for an outlet, as with Huxley.

BEDFORD

I know. I often talked with Rosamond Lehmann, who desperately needed to believe in an afterlife where she would be united with her beloved daughter. I simply don't have it in me to lift the curtain. I think constantly about death; what happens afterwards I don't know. When you come round after you have had general anesthesia, you can't believe that several hours have passed. Death may be something like that. When I say that I think about death, I mean I love life and regret I have so little of it left. I love the world --the Mediterranean, the countryside, friends, wine and food, architecture, art, the riches of life. Why else does one write or paint, except to try to hold a little of that?

INTERVIEWER

In all your books you indicate that as human beings we are free and therefore responsible for our destinies. Yet at some point we take the wrong turn, and everything degringolades. It seems to me that all your novels are about this crucial point and its consequences.

BEDFORD

We could also take a right turn, or let's say a better turn, yet there certainly are important moments when making the right or the wrong choice changes the course. This is the intellectual constant, and a device with which to sharpen in narrative what is diffuse in life. Why do artists appear to copy life? To bring it into focus and condense it. A novel is made of so many strands one doesn't know about at the time of writing. Then perhaps a reader points out something, and you realize he may be right.

INTERVIEWER

In Jigsaw you say, "The Aldous Huxleys and the Kislings are utterly themselves, the others—the German-Jewish sisters, for example—are a part of themselves: my mother and myself are a percentage of ourselves, and all are seen by myself at a certain time." How does it work? What is the proportion between memory and imagination?

BEDFORD

Most novelists write from experience, a few do not. Perhaps Melville did not in Moby Dick, but the Brontes did. In Jigsaw I say that my grandfather's brother committed suicide, and my mother became a morphine addict. One would not invent such melodramatic incidents if they had not happened, unless of course one were writing a crime novel.

INTERVIEWER

And the brother's suicide also occurs in A Legacy. But after you work out the jigsaw of your life, you come to realize how it was shaped by your relationship with your parents. Your mother seems a monster, yet you loved her and bore the brunt of her selfishness.

BEDFORD

She was not a monster at all. I did not love her as a child. It was only when she fell in love with a very young and beautiful man and spoke of her foreboding that I began to love her. She said, "I know it cannot end well. One day you will understand the feeling that there is only one single human being in the world, and nothing can be done about it."

INTERVIEWER

One of those "choices" you mentioned earlier that determine the course of one's life.

BEDFORD

Exactly. She was remarkable: she taught me everything about reading and people and telling stories about people. She was very amusing and, of course, a writer manque. That was a result of laziness and living for the day. She was not maternal, which I did not resent even then, but, alas, she had a fearful temper. She wasted many of her talents in talk and romantic love affairs. She died young.

INTERVIEWER

You depict beautifully the artistic milieu between the wars, saying that the artists who lived in the south of France "took the wise decision of remaining in transit." Apart from the painter, Kisling, and his wife, Renee, who else lived there, in Sanary-sur-Mer?

BEDFORD

Aldous Huxley and his wife, Maria, built a house there in 1930. I had fallen for Aldous's novels long before I met him. He was a literary idol for me then, and Maria was one ofthe most extraordinary and most selfless human beings I have ever met. As things turned out, I was long on the fringe of their lives—when in London, I used to stay in their maid's room.

INTERVIEWER

Later in the thirties, there was also a German colony with Thomas Mann at its center. Did you mix with them too?

BEDFORD

After Hitler came to power Sanary-sur-Mer became a center of what my mother called la haute culture. Fortunately Thomas Mann was lecturing in Sweden when Hitler engineered the Reichstag fire; his elder children implored him not to go back. Because had he gone back to Germany, the Nazis would have had him in their hands. The two eldest children, Klaus and Erika, knew the French coast well because of their friendship with Jean Cocteau in Toulon. So naturally they directed their parents to the nearby village of Sanary. Immediately, droves of other German refugee writers arrived and settled in Sanary and Bandol for the few remaining years of peace. Around the Thomas Manns were his brother, Heinrich, and his wife—the model for The Blue Angel—Rene Schickele, and the Zweigs, Arnold and Stefan. They were the highbrows and had weekly readings of their works. Then there was another group, best-selling writers who made huge money: Lion Feuchtwanger, Bertolt Brecht, Bruno Frank, the great art critic Julius Meier-Graefe... Feuchtwanger's The Oppermanns was one of the first books on Nazism. It won the Pulitzer, but had to be shortened. He told me, "The publishers are giving me ten dollars for every word I cut!" He had to cut five or six thousand. Arnold Zweig was a very left-wing socialist and a great friend of Bertolt Brecht's. Stefan was far more smooth. Meier-Graefe was the art critic who discovered El Greco and van Gogh. The German art establishment hated him because he was not academic, but he wrote beautifully. His famous books are Vincent van Gogh and The Spanish Journey, about El Greco.

INTERVIEWER

What was Mrs. Mann like? Was Thomas Mann really a homosexual?

BEDFORD

Yes—it's supposed to be in his diaries. By the way, he once proposed to my mother, who always referred to him as "poor Tommy." He had six children. The eldest, Klaus, became a great friend of mine; he was completely homosexual. His sister, Erika, was also a declared homosexual and for many years lived with a talented actress in Munich. Later she married the homosexual actor Grundich, who became Goring's protege and was made director ofthe German Theater. So she divorced him and eventually married Auden—who was of course completely homosexual—just to get a British passport. Klaus enlisted in the U.S. Army, had a very brave war and, disillusioned by the post-War world, committed suicide in 1949.

INTERVIEWER

Grundich's story is told in Szabo's marvelous film Mephisto.

BEDFORD

Yes indeed. But at one point Erika discovered that she really liked men, became involved with them and never looked at another woman. Mann's two middle children, Golo and Monika, were also close in age. Golo became an eminent scholar and academic. Monika married a Hungarian musician and tried to become a pianist. In 1942 the Thomas Manns thought that England was becoming too dangerous and persuaded them to come to America. Their boat was torpedoed and sank and Monika's husband drowned, but she survived. When the news came, Katja (Mrs. Mann) said, "We mustn't tell the Magician (her husband). It would interrupt his day's work!" She constantly protected him and referred to his "glory"—Weltruhm. You see she was from a family of eminent Jewish musicians and mathematicians. She and her twin brother are supposed to have had an incestuous love affair, which, in the summer of 1905, Thomas Mann put into his novella The Blood ofthe Walsungs. The Pringsheim family had it withdrawn at the last minute from the journal Neue Rundshau, in which it was to appear. The story, all Wagner and bearskin rugs, was finally published as a book in 1921. Katja had great stamina. The last time I saw her in Zurich, she had just returned from Japan where she had been to celebrate her twin brother's ninetieth birthday. It was in the late sixties, and she died three or four years later. The two youngest Mann children were Bibi and Madi—of Early Sorrow fame. Bibi married a Swiss girl, and Madi, the Italian philosopher Giuseppe Borgese. I think she is still alive and writes books with a feminist angle.

INTERVIEWER

How do you rank Mann as a novelist?

BEDFORD

Buddenbrooks is a very fine novel by any standards, and The Magic Mountain is an intellectual mountain. And there is Death in Venice and the stories. I don't have a great affinity with later books. I think his brother Heinrich had a neglected talent; I was once very taken by his trilogy Der Untertan, which was about the horrors of pre-World War I German militarism and bureaucracy. Heinrich Mann was possibly prophetic in the Orwellian sense.

INTERVIEWER

What happened when the war broke out?

BEDFORD

Many of the German emigres were interned by the French at first. A horrible mistake. Later when the Germans were actually occupying France, most of them managed to escape via Spain and Portugal and eventually reached Hollywood, where Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was doling out contracts. I too managed to reach America by way of Italy, a few days before Mussolini entered the war. I even saw Chamberlain's effigy being burnt in Genoa. We managed to get on an American boat to Boston. I later learned that the ship was carrying half the gold reserve of the Bank of Italy. It was held and searched in Gibraltar. If we had been torpedoed, the gold would have gone to the bottom of the ocean!

INTERVIEWER

How did you earn a living in America?

BEDFORD

Well, I scraped through with journalism, secretarial work, a bit of translating. But we were jolly hard up. We reached Philadelphia on the day ofthe Democratic National Convention, and Roosevelt was nominated.

INTERVIEWER

In the 1940s you began to be published. Had you written books before that time?

BEDFORD

Three full-length novels, all of which were eventually turned down by diverse publishers. They were not very good, over-intellectualized and much influenced by Aldous Huxley's ideas and style. I had not found a voice of my own. Then I wrote A Visit to Don Otavio, which was a very different kettle indeed. I wrote it several years after returning from Mexico in the mid-forties. It is a travel book written by a novelist. I wanted to get across the extraordinary beauty of Mexico, the allegro quality of its climate, with the underlying panic and violence inherited from a long and bloody history. The book was an immediate critical success, which made a great difference to me. It meant that I had reached the identity I wanted—that of a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Then came A Legacy. A novel that is now considered a classic. Was it well received at the time?

BEDFORD

Oh no! At first it was almost a flop. The Times critic said he couldn't make head or tail of it. My American publisher said it was one of the dullest books he'd ever read! And the Atlantic Review asked for more research—indeed I did no research for that book whatsoever. It all came from memory and instinct retrieved. Memory acquired in my first eight years. Eventually Evelyn Waugh reviewed A Legacy for the Spectator, and things began to turn around for the book. In the United States it even became a bestseller, the only one of my books that ever did. Evelyn Waugh supposed my name was a pseudonym. In some of his letters he wrote that his guess was that I was a middle-aged diplomat, "...say Cultural Secretary in Belgrade, who knows about European society and is rather short on Catholic dogma." Then publishers began to court me—for a short time they sent roses and smoked salmon. Collins offered a fairly substantial advance over three years to write another novel. I didn't. I wrote The Best We Can Do, which is a rational, unsensational report of a sensational murder case.

INTERVIEWER

Then you wrote another book on law: The Faces of Justice. When did you become interested in law?

BEDFORD

When I was twelve and lived in London with a family who let me do pretty well as I wished, I used to go to the law courts in the Strand instead of going to films or matinees. For awhile I toyed with the idea of becoming a barrister. I didn't have the education, and anyway women at the time were considered to have the wrong voice for it. However, going to law courts is a good education for a novelist. It provides you with the most extravagant material, and it teaches the near impossibility of reaching the truth.

INTERVIEWER

You reported on some very famous cases. Which do you remember best?

BEDFORD

The most hilarious one was the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

INTERVIEWER

You also covered the Jack Ruby trial—what did you thmk of him?

BEDFORD

A poor little neurotic fellow who looked everyday more like a dying chicken. The trial itself was a travesty. I can never bring myself to believe in the conspiracy theory. Jack Ruby did what thousands of other Americans would have done had thev owned a gun and been there at the time. Ruby happened to walk in at the worst moment. But it is hard for us to accept that we are all at the mercy of chance.

INTERVIEWER

Then you wrote A Favourite of the Gods. How was that received?

BEDFORD

Mixed. I had been praised by "the wrong people," such as Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, and some critics blamed me for not writing a different novel. The same happened more or less with my next book, A Compass Error.

INTERVIEWER

You then took six years to research and write the biography of Aldous Huxley. You said it was "a labor of love," and he seems to have been a key figure in your life, a father figure and mentor.

BEDFORD

Aldous was not a father to anyone, certainly not to his own son, Matthew. He was an intellectual and moral idol. He was born with an immense intellectual capacity linked to unlimited curiosity in every field—science, nature and, indeed, mankind. His memory was encyclopedic. He intended to become a scientist, but his very defective eyesight made this impossible. He was, like Erasmus, a universal genius. He had little concern for himself. His concern was for the human condition. When he was very young he was appalled by the First World War, by the cynicism of generals and politicians. He always said that two-thirds of all our sorrows are man-made and not necessary as far as the universe is concerned. He constantly asked what we can do to make men and women better, happier, less aggressive, more loving. Most of his later work deals with this question. As a man, his first reaction was benevolent. His temper was even, though I think he often suflfered from depression. He also had a certain emotional dryness and found it difficult to communicate with people, though this became easier in his later American years. His marriage to Maria was his emotional education; she made him "human," as he himself would say. Aldous and Maria were people ofthe most extraordinary quality. I never met anyone who did not like him—artists, intellectuals, scientists, cooks, car washers... They were all devoted to him.

INTERVIEWER

Yet he is not widely read now.

BEDFORD

People do read him again. And most of his books are in print. The environmentalist party, the Greens, ought to take him up—perhaps they have.

INTERVIEWER

Did he talk to you about his interest in mysticism?

BEDFORD

No. He wrote about it, notably in The Perennial Philosophy and The Doors of Perception. When he spoke, he sometimes took oflF the way a cadenza does in a conceno, but you didn't ask Aldous what he thought about the atom bomb.

INTERVIEWER

Island, his last book, was not well understood—the novel form did not help. I remember Juliette Huxley saying that it was his testament in a way, and that the cool reception was a disappointment to him.

BEDFORD

Yet it is the novel that the Greens are discovering, which will probably last. As you say, it was his testament.

INTERVIEWER

You are read in various languages. Which "foreign" books influenced you most in the early days?

BEDFORD

My earliest serious influences were French: Stendhal, Flauben, the Symbolist poets: Mallarme, Rimbaud, Baudelaire... We all were of course bowled over by Proust, but was he an influence? As for English writers, Evelyn Waugh above all. Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave still moves me—I used to travel with it. I mind very much about the quality of writing --its edge, its elegance—Cyril had that. We also shared a feeling for food, good wine, landscape, animals, classical literature... He is still very important to me. I used to admire Ivy Compton-Burnett for her originality and ruthlessness.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever think of becoming a French writer?

BEDFORD

I did. When I was very young and living in the south of France. Evelyn Waugh wrote, "Mrs. Bedford has a flrm belief that French is spoken at home." That beautiful language has very strict rules, and I like taking certain liberties and shortcuts, which one can get away with in English.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that you have succeeded in creating your own personal style in the language you finally chose?

BEDFORD

That is going a bit too far! Every writer worth his or her salt eventually develops a voice. I aim at brevity, fluency and lucidity. I also try for a certain lyrical element. I would like to be able to put across what I have seen and lived, with a certain grace. Whether I succeed...

INTERVIEWER

What about today's writers? You are in the tradition of European realism, but what about modernism, postmodernism and magical realism?

BEDFORD

I don't hold with that son of jargon. If the gods have given you a talent, you try to use it in a way that suits it. Compartmentalizing is an enemy of literature and art and of good sense as well. I write because I'm a writer. It is rather like cooking: to make something out of the raw material at hand. Today's writers? I love Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh-Fermor, those two travel writers. I also immensely admire Elizabeth Jane Howard, who is a first-rate novelist. The first two volumes of her quadrilogy. The Light Years and Marking Time have just been published in the United States. Other novelists I admire are Nicholas Mosley and Tom Stacy—the latter's recent novel. Decline, is profoundly disturbing and superbly written. His words sing.

INTERVIEWER

English is a wonderful tool, strong, rich and malleable. Foreign writers have adopted it—one thinks of Conrad, Nabokov, Isak Dinesen, yourself... Beckett, of course, preferred French. I think foreign writers have enriched English literature and language by bringing something of their own cultures to it, by the ways they have used the language. Today there are all the Indians and Africans and Afro-Caribbeans as well...

BEDFORD

Some are very good, but others seem to me to be messing up the English language to too great an extent. Isak Dinesen was a very fine writer. She used English, but I don't think she took it a step further. I think the difference is that one can take liberties with one's own language—I do all the time, rightly or wrongly. German I find uncongenial—the grammar is so restricting. I'm barely able to speak it now, so perhaps I'm not a proper judge.

INTERVIEWER

Don't you have any feeling for Germany as your country of origin?

BEDFORD

No. That is due to what happened in the Nazi years. I think I've gotten over it, as far as one ever can. I even returned to Germany a few times—always as a reporter, first in 1964 to cover the Auschwitz trial in Frankfun. I respect the new Germany and some of its democratic institutions, but I have no lmks or German connections.

INTERVIEWER

Do you lack a sense of belonging?

BEDFORD

In so far as I have a sense of belonging, it is to Europe. I lived in the United States for a few years and enjoyed some of it—more than half of my greatest friends have been Americans. I'm deeply, intrinsically attached to France and to the French way of living. My ties with England are language, profession, institutions and, once more, friends.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read American authors when you lived in the United States?

BEDFORD

Yes, naturally. I had before—Hemingway, Katherine Porter, Edmund Wilson, Dorothy Parker, Louis Auchincloss... The American writers I always read are Henry James and Edith Wharton. After the war I got to know some American writers in Paris: Jane Bowles, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty...

INTERVIEWER

I would like to ask you about a rather delicate aspect of your life, because it relates to your work. In Jigsaw you describe how as a young girl you allowed yourself to be seduced by a young Frenchman and then fell head over heels in love with a woman. You have been discreet about your sexual life but, at the same time, candid regarding your predilections. In so far as a writer's sexuality informs his or her work and outlook, would you like to say something about that?

BEDFORD

I have always been candid about my private life and shall continue to be so. Whatever happened in Jigsaw happened to the narrator who is a character in the novel. If readers want to draw conclusions, it is up to them. I might point out that almost all the human relationships treated in my fiction are marriages. Apart from young Flavia and the narrator in Jigsaw, who are both very young and whose future inclinations remain uncertain, I've never introduced a single homosexual character in my books.

INTERVIEWER

The late Marguerite Yourcenar maintained that female homosexuality differed radically from the male variety. Do you agree?

BEDFORD

Madame Yourcenar was right on the whole. Women homosexuals seek emotions, whereas for men the chief attraction is sexual promiscuity. I think most people are a bit ambidexterous—it's all a question of degree.

INTERVIEWER

Attitudes change. For example, Colette and other women homosexuals of her time seemed to celebrate their sexuality. They did not create a ghetto, nor did they proselytize, or have what you call an "elite complex." It all seems a bit too earnest now.

BEDFORD

Colette was a law unto herself. She simply had affairs with whomever she chose. Some of these affairs were rather public. In those days—I'm talking of France, though others might think of Berlin—it was quite grand and fashionable to be queer. At least artists and writers were more naturally open... At the same time we were discreet. One didn't necessarily shock one's friends or the passersby. I find today's sexual militancy appalling. Private life is private life, which means private.

INTERVIEWER

What about feminism? Have you been involved in the women's movement of the past two decades?

BEDFORD

I have not! I believe that men and women have different natures and different needs. Naturally some women have more masculine talents and aspirations, just as some men lack the protective or aggressive instinct. I'm not talking about legal and political rights, which women have more or less got by now—at least in the West. What I object to is the aggression and self-pity of some militant feminists.

INTERVIEWER

What are your plans for the future? Are you working on a novel?

BEDFORD

I am. Trying to. I never talk about my work in progress. All I can tell you is that the action once more takes place in the past.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write everyday?

BEDFORD

One should. It is not always easy. I seem to be doing so many other things beside working, such as serving on committees and book juries.

INTERVIEWER

It appears that you are hugely interested in wine and know a great deal about it.

BEDFORD

I love wine. I can call it a lifetime passion, and I know a certain amount about it—one can never end learning about wine. Wine is produced by cooperation between nature, climate and man. No two men, even with neighboring vineyards, ever produce the same wine. And now we have the modern techniques, many of them coming from California. One could say that we live in a golden age of wine.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose some of the power and the charms of wine are expressed in the following passage from A Compass Error: "[She] had loved wine from childhood on. She loved the shapes of bottles, and of course the romantic names and the pictures  of the pretty manor houses on the labels, and she loved the link with rivers and hillsides and climates and hot years, and the range of learning and experiment afforded by wine's infinite variety; but what she loved more than these was the taste—of peach and earth and honeysuckle and raspberries and spice and cedarwood and pebbles and truffles and tobacco leaf; and the happiness, the quiet ecstasy that spread through heart and limbs and mind". You are obviously a gourmet as well, because your description of food in Jigsaw is marvelously evocative—one could almost taste it.

BEDFORD

I hate the word gourmet. I love food, good food, simple, authentic. Taking food with friends has a sacramental dimension for me. It is part of the love of life.