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.
The astonishing thing about this reading, in which I was lucky enough to take part, was that, unrehearsed and without any prior communication with one another—though we all ran our choices by the evening’s suave and discerning “curator,” Lisa Cohen—we managed to select passages each quite distinct from the rest, yet each in its way representative of the oeuvre. Thus the evening’s offerings were by turns witty, sly, erudite, carefully observed, and—at points—poignant.
The stifling summer heat of postwar New York, crowded with hosts and socialites; a stern German military academy, in the early years of the last century; sensual pleasures and uncertainties in Sanary, in the south of France; a rigid English courtroom, where the judge humorlessly chastised Chatterley and its author; cocktails and confidences with Martha Gellhorn in Sicily; and finally a solo writerly stroll through Geneva: that evening, we travelled light, but we travelled widely, taking in objects of love and dismay, admiration and absurdity. And because of the deep humanism that animated each selection, the audience could laugh, and did, without a sense of mockery or superiority. Rather, I would say, with pleasure.
Through my friendship with Lisa Cohen, who writes on figures that intersected with Sybille Bedford’s life, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a different Bedford-related pleasure in London once, in the nineties: I shared a glass of claret with her. (I had written a piece in relation to the reissuing of some of her works, including Jigsaw, and she had liked what I wrote.) Meeting Sybille Bedford was an honor, an inducement to shyness—and an opportunity to feel, for a dense half hour, cosmopolitan myself.
Reading her brings on that feeling too. Sybille Bedford’s is a prose, and sensibility, that betters and broadens those who encounter it. You can feel her languages tripping over your own tongue, sense the gradations of light in various climates, and try on for yourself some of the many geographies she wore, like so many coats.
Sylvia Brownrigg is a novelist and author, most recently, of The Delivery Room, which won the 2009 Northern California Book Award in fiction.