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.
interview with Bedford:Tonight is our reading celebrating the centennial of Sybille Bedford. In 1993, The Paris Review ran an
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.
Elizabeth Bishop only published about one hundred poems during her lifetime, but these days, it’s possible to know more about Bishop than ever before. Last month saw the publication of a new book revealing her decades-long correspondence with The New Yorker’s poetry department. “What I think about The New Yorker,” she wrote to her friend and fellow poet Marianne Moore, “can only be expressed like this: *!@!!!@!*!!” A lengthy volume documenting her epistolary exchanges with Robert Lowell was published in 2008. It’s easy to forget that Bishop was a very private person, often refusing to talk publicly or artistically about her personal life. “How stunning,” wrote The New York Times, in 2002, of a Bishop biography, “to learn that the love of Bishop’s life was a swaggering Brazilian woman, the aristocratic self-trained architect Lota de Macedo Soares.” “Art just isn’t worth that much,” Bishop once wrote to Lowell, after he had published his wife’s letters in his work. But for admirers and diehards alike, sometimes an inquiry is.
And so I found myself at a gathering in a downtown apartment last week for an event called the Wilde Boys: a queer poetry salon, where Richard Howard, who knew Bishop, and his former student Gabrielle Calvocoressi, the author of Apocalyptic Swing, were invited to “queer” the writer by talking about the way she coded sexuality into her work.
Beforehand, there was heavy mingling. “We’re all poets and classmates, and graduated from different M.F.A. programs in New York around the same time,” said Alex Dimitrov, the well-groomed twenty-six-year-old who founded the group in 2009. Liam O’Rourke, an elementary-school teacher who was wearing a pin with a black-and-white photograph of Bishop on it, said he teaches Bishop to his third graders. “I mention that she had a partner, but I don’t teach her sexuality as a key to her work,” he added.
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.
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.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the British psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips delivered a talk at the Brooklyn Academy of Music titled “Acting Madness.” The event was being held in conjunction with BAM’s spring season, which features three plays about madness: David Holman’s adaptation of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”; Macbeth; and King Lear. In a row with plenty of other seats, a young man with a wispy beard and glasses took the place directly next to mine. He was wearing, I noticed at once, a Paris Review T-shirt. My mind leaped as though a starter pistol had been fired. It was all so obvious: The Paris Review had sent this person to check up on me.
In his essay “First Hates,” from On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, Phillips usefully glosses paranoia as the refusal to be left out. That is, much worse than the fear that everyone is talking about you is the fear that no one is talking about you. As the gentleman in question and I waited in silence, I performed a little Phillips-inspired self-analysis. Either The Paris Review had sent this man here to stalk me, and he was announcing his intentions with his T-shirt, or he was a Phillips enthusiast and also a reader of The Paris Review—even my paranoiac fantasy had to concede this as a likely demographic crossover. Embarrassed, I meditated, very briefly, on my own unimportance. The Paris Review would survive with or without my post. This unimportance was a fact I was going to have to live with, because living without it—believing that this man had donned an official T-shirt in order to more conspicuously surveil my blogging—was crazy.
In 1985, art historian and critic Marco Livingstone published one of the earliest monographs on American painter R. B. Kitaj. The volume appeared roughly midway through Kitaj’s career (he was born in 1932, and his very earliest works date from the late fifties) and offered significant documentation of a complex artist. Over the next two decades, Kitaj continued his prolific output of provocative and dense compositions—dramatic paintings informed both by a wealth of styles and by an engagement with politics, literature, contemporary poetry, and Jewish culture. Last fall brought the fourth and final edition of Livingstone’s study, updated to cover the full span of Kitaj’s half-decade of work (he died in 2007). Selections are accompanied here by passages from an essay, originally penned in 1981, by John Ashbery.
“Only connect,” urged E. M. Forster in Howards End; this exhortation was the theme of his novel. A decade later Yeats noted that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” while T. S. Eliot appears to be replying directly to Forster through the persona of a seduced stenographer in The Waste Land: “I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” By this time the dislocations tried out by other artists before the war had become real, as yet again life imitated art with disastrous results. The world itself, and not just a pictured mandolin and a bottle on a table, had become unglued.
Faced with an altered reality, Eliot reacted as though in a stupor. Despite all his craft and scholarship, The Waste Land achieves its effect as a collage of hallucinatory, random fragments, “shored against my ruin.” Their contiguity is all their meaning, and it is implied that from now on meaning will take into account the randomness and discontinuity of modern experience, that indeed meaning cannot be truthfully defined as anything else. Eliot’s succeeding poetry backs away from this unpleasant discovery, or at any rate it appears to, though Four Quarters may be just as purposefully chaotic beneath its skin of deliberateness. Yet the gulf had opened up, and art with any serious aspirations toward realism still has to take into account the fact that reality escapes laws of perspective and logic, and does not naturally take the form of a sonnet or a sonata.