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.