Issue 126, Spring 1993
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and spent most of her early childhood with her father, who was by then an elderly and eccentric aristocrat, and who had withdrawn into a small chateau in a remote rural comer of Baden.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.
In Jigsaw you speak about Jewish relatives. What is your religious background?
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.
How did you lose your faith? Gradually, or as a result of one incident?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.