Sunday, July 15, 2012

Quicksands: A Memoir, by Sybille Bedford

I had never heard of Sybille Bedford until recently, when I stumbled across a glowing review of her life's works, the critic insisting that they were essential reading, that she is the ultimate "writer's writer". That turn of phrase has always puzzled me. Does it mean that an author is only accessible to elite corps of fellow wordsmiths? Maybe she has nothing to say to readers who don't dwell in literary circles themselves.

Undeterred, I bought Quicksands, the memoir she published in 2005, the year before her death at age 95. She wrote a half dozen or so highly autobiographical novels during her life, but this is pure memoir, written with the dignity and calm of a literary nonagenarian. As for her writing style, a Guardian article says of Sybille Bedford:  "English was not her first language, and she treated it with respect, writing harmoniously, with great care and precision, plus a disturbing undertow of otherness... There will always be people for whom her books are part of their mind's life, and people who are discovering her for the first time as if entering a lighted room."

Born in Germany to cultured but not entirely stable or compatible parents, Sybille bounced between Germany, France and Italy as her parents drifted about. As a young child almost entirely unschooled, she voiced the desire to become a writer, and her mother seized upon the opportunity to dispatch her to England to acquire the language in which she'd decided she wanted to write. In the 1920s, children were less pampered and sheltered; she boarded a train in Italy with a placard around her neck by which her caretakers in England would recognise her.  Her father died suddenly in Germany; she chronicles her mother's slow and painful deterioration as a morphine addict, cared for til the end by Aldous and Maria Huxley. I suppose it's the mark of a highly civilised couple that their most violent disagreements flared up over food, especially when aspects of German and French culinary culture clashed.
Now my mother, if she liked good things -- she too, if much later learned how to put hand to pot -- often disagreed with the way my father held they must be done. She was apt to be distraite at table and did not take too seriously his axiom that two items, flour and water, ought to be rationed in a decent kitchen. While my mother was with us, we had a full complement of servants. All but one vanished when she left (leaving bricks and mortar but no money). The cook of the old regime was female and north German. Our chief manservant was French. Flour, like sugar and animal fats, never seems to be rationed in the north of anywhere. The cook, unlike the Frenchman, was on the mistress's side. There were sides. And so food, the one thing my parents had counted on for pleasant daily safety, turned out to be what they quarrelled about tenaciously and often. I can still hear the altercations about my mother's having ordered cauliflower covered in white sauce. 
Although she was very close to the Huxleys, and befriended Klaus and Erika Mann (children of Thomas), Martha Gellhorn and other luminaries, Ms. Bedford never drops names ostentatiously, and she certainly never indulges in salacious gossip. The years between the two world wars happened to be a time when writers drifted across Europe, forming cliques and salons here and there. 
One source of diversions (incurious) was a nest of young American writers, some already in limelight, some not at all, squatting at another small hotel off the other side of the boulevard in rue de l'Universite: Jane Bowles, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers with companions and one elder and better, Eudora Welty. Allanah [a friend] and I spent many of our evenings in their lair. We called them the nail-biters, because this was what they did, sitting in a row in one of their hotel bedrooms when we had assembled, clutching a glass or a toothmug, for a session, always too long, of pre-dinner drinking, biting their fingernails in despair over world affairs. How right they were. Allanah and I shared many of their views if not their habits, were captivated by their writings, deplored their drinking -- bad stuff mostly, and too much of it -- Allanah on principle, I for the delay of dinner. 
I love this particular passage. Although I'm familiar with all these American writers, I'd never have pictured them in one scene as Sybille has worked it. And she is obviously not their sycophant although much younger and still unpublished. At 95, she obviously knows of the stature they achieved yet still remembers her impatience to get to the table.

The 1950s found Ms. Bedford living in Rome again and in one gorgeously crafted paragraph she portrays two new friends and the allure of her new city.
Among my more recent local acquaintance were two Americans, two very brave, very difficult men, who had spent the war in Italy underground. One of them, Peter Tompkins, a young, newly married US Army officer who had been parachuted after the Anzio landing beyond the American lines where he led a perilous existence as a wanted man contriving daily, hourly, against the odds to pass himself off as an Italian inhabitant for what turned out to be month after month until the liberation of Rome by the Allies. His survival had left him farouche, both resourceful and immature, thin-nerved, contemptuously unreliable about money, affectionately protective to women, obstinately inclined toward esoteric pursuits. His compatriot, Donald Downes, middle-aged, full of knowledge, given to rages, an Epicurean, very good company when he chose to, had no less dangerously spent his Italian war as an agent of an American organization less open than the Army. Both men spoke Italian like Italians; both had chosen to stay on and live in Rome. Rome had gone into their blood. As it was beginning to get into mine. 
Distraite. Farouche. There are no precise English synonyms for either of these, and the casual way in which Ms. Bedford employs them to perfect effect does not reflect years of formal education. In fact, she had virtually none. She simply grew up polyglot by virtue of her nomadic life. She learnt to write late in her childhood, and her handwriting was never legible. An eye disorder meant that glare caused her to wear an eye-shade whilst reading and to write on green paper. This woman had a lot of obstacles on the way to a writing career, especially one in English, her chosen but not her native tongue. She was adamant, however, that being multilingual was the best means of expanding one's consciousness.
To remain monolingual reduces the mind to the confines of a tramline. The civilized mind needs alternatives for its expression. ... Any language acquired opens song-lines. How I repent not to have learned a little Greek and Russian, not to have attempted at least one Oriental path to thought.
She did learn to type and carried a series of portable manual typewriters with her. When staying with the Huxleys in the French Midi in the 1930s,  Ms. Bedford discovered the perfect writing room.
Soon after ten, Aldous got up without a murmur and went to his room; the door shut behind him. It was a good-sized room, square, with well-shuttered windows on two sides and book cases up to the ceiling. the floor was red-tiled and bare. There was a roll-top desk with a swivel-chair, a very long chaise-longue and one deep armchair. Here, on a small typewriter, he wrote Brave New World, Music at Night -- perhaps the most serene of his books -- Beyond the Mexique Bay, and large parts of the far from serene Eyeless in Gaza. It was a good room, with its easy privacy and pacing space; it had all a writer needed, including the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Once during some winter months when the Huxleys were away, I was allowed to work in that room myself, and I have never known a better. 

farouche (adjective): 1. sullen or shy. 2. socially inept.
[C18: from French, from Old French faroche, from Late Latin forasticus (from without), from Latin foras (out of doors).

distraite (adjective): (of a woman) inattentive because of distracting worries, fears, etc.; absent-minded.

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