Sybille Bedford: Legacies


Arts & Culture

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.

Writing about her now is hard to do, for I feel her loss quite deeply. After September 2001, she and I spoke by telephone fairly often, so I was not surprised to read in her last book, Quicksands, how a disaster like September 11, can “be a bonding fraternity of loss and fear,” or cause her to remember the last lines of Arnold’s “Dover Beach”—“here we are as on a darkling plain”—and then lead her backwards in time into 1914–1918, her early youth and the reality, as she said, that she saw on trains and railway platforms: “wounded soldiers, stained bandages, missing limbs, sights made indelible in my future consciousness by a couple of dreams in their terror.” The past touches the present, and that, as she explained, “in a nutshell, was an early pattern of what the phases of my future life were going to be—intermittent brushes with the catastrophic events of the century and a largely unharmed continuance of my existence as individual, freer than many. By the grace of chance.” She was ninety years old—arthritic, her eyesight failing—when she wrote this.

Sybille’s singular talent is to crack open the past and show how its fragments, real and imagined, make us who or what we are, for better and often for worse, without explanation sometimes, without cause, and with only a hint of the absolution we yearn for. Her narrator in A Legacy pieces together the story of her antecedents, because that story, and all of Sybille’s work, is about accountability. “The worst we can do towards the past is to let it go by default,” she writes in A Compass Error.

We account, we explain, we interpret; we tell stories, and stories are remembrances, judgments, expectations. They also register astonishment and delight at the physical world. Sybille and her friend and lover Esther Murphy Arthur arrive in Mexico, as she writes in A Visit to Don Otavio, her first book: “Here a vertical sun aims at one’s head like a dagger—how well the Aztecs read its nature—while the layers of air remain inviolate, like mountain streams, cool, fine, flowing, as though refreshed by some bubbling spring … In a minor, comfortable, loop-holed, mitigated way, one faces what Cortez faced in the absolute five hundred years ago: the unknown.” Sybille is a brave writer.

I could go on and on—and won’t, not now. But I think it’s important to mention that Sybille is a writer’s writer; any of her books teach us about the clarity of a sentence and about the importance of getting one sentence right. She’s also a reader’s writer, though she doesn’t seem to have the audience in America, at least, that she deserves. What I mean is that she is a writer who teaches us how to live. This sounds tendentious, but it’s true. Life consists not just in catastrophic events but in sensuous details or what she called “the deep-grooved pleasures”: in a good paella in Avila, its rice dry and grainy; in the the silver-toned olive trees in Sanary-sur-Mer, in the south of France, and the sweet smell of mimosa; in the dead, relentless heat of an urban American summer or in good manners, daylight, sunlight, and the hiatus between arrivals and departures—in all these things, we experience the beauties of a fallen world—and through her characters, too, and her understated fondness for them and her disappointment in them or herself. Frequently these are the people she cherished, like Aldous Huxley, who appears in her memoirs and is the subject of her biography of him—a labor of love, she remarked. This book is written, as are all her books, with lucidity, humor, level-headedness, and care.

In them, Sybille comes back to me, as the character she created, one who’s querulous, inquisitive, deft, dry, lucky, gifted, sometimes mistaken, forever clear-eyed. Finding her again, over and over, in her work, I miss her less, for she is always there, very much alive. Then again, she’s not, and I miss her more.

See also: “Sybille Bedford at One Hundred.”

Brenda Wineapple’s prize-winning books include, most recently, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which is dedicated to Sybille Bedford. She is at work on a book about America, 1848–77.