In the summer of 1940, when she was twenty-nine years old, Sybille Bedford took on an unusual assignment: driving Thomas Mann’s poodle across the United States. Bedford had known Mann, nearly forty years her senior, since her adolescence, which she spent living among German expatriates in the South of France. An aspiring but so far unprolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, she had come of age under his shadow. Now both she and Mann were refugees in another country. Mann and his family, moving from Princeton to Pacific Palisades, took the train; the country was experiencing a heat wave, and the compartments were air-conditioned. Bedford drove the writer’s car with her girlfriend and Nico, the poodle, stopping every once in a while for a bottle of Coke, which she spiked with rum.
Bedford’s first novel did not appear until more than a decade after this transcontinental journey, and would be followed, in the course of her career, by similarly long stretches of silence—silences that may help explain why her books, though sharp and discerning, have often slipped out of public view. As the distinguished biographer Selina Hastings shows in “Sybille Bedford: A Life” (Knopf), dedication to work and to life were inseparable for Bedford, and the two were not always in harmony.
Like the writers she grew up with in the nineteen-thirties, Bedford led a life defined by rootlessness. Many of her books feature a scene in which a woman crosses a border; often, she is stymied by the question of where, exactly, she comes from. Bedford rarely settled in a particular place, and never settled on a particular reckoning of the events she had witnessed. Her novels and memoirs, jagged and patchworked, take on the questions engendered by the period between the two world wars—questions of heritage and national boundaries. When she began reporting, in middle age, Bedford often focussed on law and trials, and compared the consequential whims of different legal systems.
“I had come alive and physically intact through four decades of our frightful century, and I was conscious—intermittently—of the privileges and the precariousness of my existence,” Bedford wrote at the end of her life. The stops and starts of her career were sustained by a strong belief that she was a born writer, and yet writing was, for her, often torturous and slow. In her work, she was driven by an obsession with origins, and also by a conviction that people shouldn’t have to be defined by them.
Sybille von Schoenebeck was born in 1911 in Berlin, and her childhood was marked by wars fought globally and domestically. Her father, Maximilian, a Catholic baron, and her mother, Lisa, the daughter of a rich Jewish businessman, had a strained marriage. By the time Sybille was eleven years old, Lisa had abandoned the family, chasing lovers abroad. Left with her father, who had been pushed to the brink of poverty after the First World War, Sybille was isolated, her education neglected. She did not learn how to write until she was about eight years old, later developing handwriting that even she found difficult to read.
At fourteen, Sybille was summoned to Italy by her mother—the first invitation since Lisa’s departure. Just before Sybille left, her father contracted appendicitis and died. “This was indeed the point of no return,” she later wrote. As Sybille would recall in one of the many semi-fictionalized depictions of her childhood, Lisa greeted her daughter by asking which language she spoke. Sybille’s trip eventually led to a permanent relocation to Sanary-sur-Mer, in France. The expatriates in Sanary included Aldous and Maria Huxley, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, and Mann and his wife, Katia. Many of them—“promising, neurotic, vacillating between worship and rebellion,” as Sybille later wrote—would gather for Sunday luncheons and listen to Mann hold court. And they tangled romantically. Maria became a partner in Sybille’s sexual experimentation, Hastings surmises, around the same time that Lisa took up with Aldous. When Lisa, now remarried, discovered that her husband had a mistress, she became addicted to morphine and was known on the Riviera as Madame Morphesani.
The insular circle gave Sybille opportunities to write—and material to write about. In 1933, Mann’s son Klaus accepted her essay on one of Huxley’s books for his magazine. In it, Sybille mentioned, nearly in passing, the “bottomless stupidity” of Nazi Germany. After it was published, Klaus Mann was stripped of his citizenship. The German government, noting Sybille’s Jewish descent, cut her off from the inheritance that had supported her. “How swiftly lives are uprooted, the trappings of life dismantled,” she observed in a novel, more than fifty years later. “I found it terrifying.”
Mann’s daughter had married W. H. Auden in order to escape persecution, so the Huxleys went looking for a gay man who might offer Sybille a similar out. Sybille, now poor and essentially orphaned, found Walter Bedford, the ex-boyfriend of an acquaintance’s butler, who agreed to marry her, in London, for a hundred pounds. On the morning the wedding was to take place, Sybille’s passport was confiscated, and she feared deportation. Soon afterward, the issue resolved, Sybille von Schoenebeck became Sybille Bedford and never saw her husband again.
In 1940, she and a girlfriend, the author Allanah Harper, took a boat from Genoa to the United States—the last passenger ship to leave the port before war broke out in Italy. The fate of her writing career might not have seemed auspicious: she had drafted three novels by the end of her twenties, and received many rejections. (“Certainly not a professional writer and certainly not a novelist,” one agent wrote.) She spent the next decade writing little, mostly in New York and Europe, until she published her first book, a travelogue about Mexico, at the age of forty-two.
Bedford later wrote that English was “the rope to save me from drifting awash in the fluidities of multilingualism.” But her multilingualism also shaped her chosen language, giving it an expansive, variegated sound. Many of her books deal with her personal history, “the same subject taken in a different light and on another scale,” she wrote. As other readers have noted, she plays with form in a way that anticipates much of the fictional nonfiction that we’ve come to see as contemporary. Her work is loosely plotted, animated mostly by dialogue that can sound transcribed rather than written.
Bedford’s first and best novel, “A Legacy” (1956), combines scenes, observations, and newspaper excerpts, presented by a narrator who disappears for hundreds of pages. Sometimes she writes whole passages in German or in French; we hear bits of conversation with little indication of who is speaking or about what. The narrator, describing her family history, sees her forebears from the perspective of the only child at the grownups’ table. “Is everything only what we remember it to be?” Bedford wrote in a later novel. “Where, then, and when is truth?” The book is both cluttered and vividly, sometimes hilariously precise, giving it a lived-in quality—as if Bedford were presenting not a story to follow but a series of rooms to wander through.
“A Legacy” centers on two families, the Jewish Merzes and the Catholic von Feldens, who find themselves reluctantly intertwined at the turn of the twentieth century. Julius von Felden is an art-collecting dandy who lives in the South of France and insists on travelling with his three apes. When he meets Melanie Merz, his relatives consider her an unfortunate addition to the family and pressure her to convert. The Merzes regularly eat ham; they don’t pray. Yet they are horrified that their treasured daughter should be asked to change her religion. Melanie takes things into her own hands, paying a visit to a pastor and returning—triumphant—with a certificate of conversion. Her future sister-in-law Clara, examining it, “emitted a faint hissing sound”:
The Merz matriarch tries to diffuse the situation with a drink. She summons the butler: “Bring the poor lady an egg in port wine.” These disagreements over religion mean that the two families, though permanently linked, never fully mesh. When a scandal threatens the von Feldens, the press seizes on their connection with a Jewish family. One headline reads “Judo-Aristocrats Feast As Unemployment Soars.”
“Once you can say, and believe, We are right—They are wrong, is that not when wars break out?” Bedford wrote in her final novel, “Jigsaw” (1989). The ambivalent zone between those simple categories, “right” and “wrong,” defines many of Bedford’s novels. The books deal with similar material—her own autobiography—but play with the boundaries of fiction and fact. In an author’s note to “Jigsaw,” Bedford is elusive about how and why her characters deviate from reality. “My mother and I are a percentage of ourselves,” she writes. “Everyone and everything else, are what they seemed—at various times—to me.”
The melding doesn’t always work. In “A Favourite of the Gods” (1963) and “A Compass Error” (1968), Bedford has trouble finding a vantage point beyond her own. She returns to the resonant themes of “A Legacy,” yet her characters seem trapped by their real-life counterparts. Flavia, in “A Compass Error,” is meant to be a seventeen-year-old girl, but, like the fifty-seven-year-old Bedford who published the novel, she has a remarkable command of fine wines.
After the success of “A Legacy,” and with the encouragement of her editor Robert Gottlieb, Bedford began covering trials. Her journalism is rarely discussed anymore, especially compared with the work of her friend the writer Martha Gellhorn. It was Gellhorn, Bedford wrote, who “lashed my conscience into actual writing against the forces of self-doubt and sloth.” The resolute personality that sometimes hampered Bedford’s fiction made her a great nonfiction writer. In “The Last Trial of Lady Chatterley,” an account of the public prosecution of Penguin Books under the Obscene Publications Act, in 1960, Bedford keeps her gaze purposefully afar, watching as a procession of scholars and writers, including Rebecca West and E. M. Forster, are brought onto the stand to defend the merits of D. H. Lawrence’s fiction, despite its “four-letter words.” Bedford notes that the prosecutor read aloud the definition of “to deprave” and “to corrupt,” while “the chief witness, the book itself, was still unread.”
Talent, material, and a taste for risk: why, then, did Bedford not begin to publish until middle age? During the years when she was writing very little, Bedford was having fun: travelling, falling in love, drinking wine, going to parties. Before a trip in Italy, Bedford stayed up late and then kept herself awake during the next day’s drive by reciting poetry to herself. In “Jigsaw,” she tries to square this way of living with her dream of writing: “Is it part of the writer’s flaw, wanting to get across so much and shrinking, so painfully, from the execution?” Hastings quotes from a diary entry that Bedford made before the publication of her first book: “July 20th No work—no excuse. 21st Thinking Fiddling—Dawdling . . . 25th Thinking—Dawdling—Dreaming—Fiddling . . . 22 Aug Hungover.” The anxiety of wasted time comes through in her novels, too. “When one’s young,” Flavia says, in “A Compass Error,”
Bedford resisted any kind of work that she saw as beneath her. “Where were the bootstraps?” she once asked. She occasionally gave lessons and did translations, but said she didn’t want to interfere with her writing, even though there was often little to show for it. Throughout her life, she was supported by a variety of friends and ex-lovers, straining even her closest relationships. “The most unlikely people turn out wonderful when it counts. Others not,” she said, when Gellhorn sent a thousand-pound loan with a letter suggesting that Bedford start looking for a bootstrap or two.
Hastings’s view of these developments contains a bit of irony: “With almost a decade having passed since the publication of Sybille’s most recent book, she at last began to feel ready to return to work.” But even in Bedford’s less productive moments she was always looking for ways to deal with the history that she had lived. She started and abandoned many novels: one about a love triangle; another about a childhood acquaintance, a Baronessa, who was later married to a Nazi. Raised on literature, Bedford held herself to very high standards—standards that could often suffocate the desire, as she wrote in “Jigsaw,” to seek “the links between private and mass catastrophe.”
But her private world was enthralling and always expanding. No matter where she was, she seemed to find herself in a room with her most interesting contemporaries. For much of her life, these acquaintances were well-known writers, even when Bedford—stocky, bright-eyed, with a taste for men’s suits—had little career to speak of. And, from adolescence onward, she had love affairs with women. A young woman’s attraction to two older women forms much of the plot of “A Compass Error”; a teen-age crush appears in “Jigsaw.” In Hastings’s account, Bedford spent time in female-dominated salons in Paris, spaces that fomented some of the most interesting advances in modernism and art.
At the same time, her statements about women and being in love with women were often cold and cruel. “There IS something false about a relationship between two women. At least for me,” she told an ex-lover. She disdained feminism and spoke against the women’s movement. Hastings quotes Bedford’s letter to a girlfriend in which she declines a meeting with a lesbian literary agent in Paris: “I can’t bear this girlery and cliquerei. One’s tastes are private. It’s bad enough (in some ways) to be oneself.” When asked to speak to the Oxford Gay Society, she wrote back a simple “No.” In an interview with Country Life, the magazine of the British upper class, she said, “I do think that emancipation of women has gone far too far. It’s ludicrous.”
Bedford refused to be categorized by what we might call identity—in her sexuality, as a writer of novels or of journalism, or, for a long time, even as a resident of a particular country. But she relished the ways in which she could control her image. It’s striking to see how often she insisted on fine wine, even while relying on the handouts of ex-lovers. There was a limit to her roving eye; preoccupied by the happenings of cosmopolitan expatriates, she can seem, at times, trapped in the insularity of the demimonde. In her later years, Bedford continued to move, but with less frequency; her politics hardened. At one point, she began to support Margaret Thatcher, straining her friendship with Gellhorn, which soon ended. Her eyesight failing, Bedford wore a green visor to shield her eyes while working and managed to painfully scrawl only a few lines a day.
In “Quicksands,” the memoir she published in 2005, the year before she died, Bedford is sucked back into the same fragmented experiences that occupy her previous books. This circuitous format allows Bedford to reconcile the history she lived and her reaction to it; her inability to respond as decisively or as honorably as she might have wished to. Publishing her autobiographical account as nonfiction for the first time, she returns to a project that had preoccupied her decades earlier. She describes visiting Ischia with Gellhorn and meeting a Baronessa, the same woman whom she had once tried to characterize in a novel. Bedford recognizes the woman as an old family friend. Gellhorn recognizes her as a woman connected to the Nazis: “How dare she show her face? She must be one of the wickedest women in Europe.” Bedford doesn’t immediately inquire what the Baronessa did during the war. Instead, she notices the woman’s “white silk chemisier” and “perfectly cut pleated skirt, polished Greek sandals.” Bedford is not so put together. “You look a bit shabby,” the Baronessa says. “I suppose that comes from having been on the winning side.”
It sounds like a cop-out—narrated by the Bedford whose interest in the superficial world kept her from writing as much or as ethically as she wanted to. But it might, in fact, be the opposite, a moment in which Bedford is seeing herself, fully, from the outside. She has managed to capture her ambivalence on the page: a profound repulsion at what the Baronessa represents, and also a petty reaction to how she appears. Bedford has finally allowed her works to encompass not only her thoughts but also her life—the morality she strove for and the mottled nature of its actuality. After all, as she writes, “to have survived, one has to have been alive.” ♦