May 2013

Greer Mansfield


Sybille Bedford Goes to Court

The first line of Sybille Bedford's novel A Compass Error: "The clarity of those mornings of spring and early summer, the second year at St-Jean, the sense of peace, slow time, the long day to come, the summer, the year; the years."

Compressed into this lilting sentence are a serene sunlit atmosphere, a hyper-awareness of place, a nod to Keats's Grecian urn ("foster-child of silence and slow time"), and a particular kind of psychological weather, namely that feeling of infinity and promise in youth, the spacious sense of "the long day to come."

Sybille Bedford was (along with Colette and Albert Camus, both of whom she sometimes resembles) the twentieth century's great celebrant of epicurean sanity. In Bedford's case this meant food, wine, Mediterranean and tropical scenes, "the sane and sunlit side of life." Her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale from Mexico, is one of the greatest "travel books," a work on par with Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana, Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and the assorted rambles of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin (upon whom she had a strong influence).

There is a light poetry to her writing, not in the "light verse" sense (nothing is further from her cast of mind and her style than complacent Larkinism) but in the way her sentences leap from image to image with a dancer-like grace and evoke an entire world in just a few lucid words. Reading her travel writings and her autobiographical novels are a cleansing of perception just as thorough as Blakean vision. As Bruce Chatwin wrote, Bedford was "resolutely blind to the commonplace."

Part dark comedies of manners, part wonder voyages through a doomed lost world, and part chronicles of passion and folly among the young and old, her novels -- A Legacy, A Favourite of the Gods, A Compass Error, and Jigsaw -- are all based on her experiences growing up as a child of cosmopolitan, multilingual European aristocracy. The wealthy sybarites in these novels all have peculiar and varied relationships to Nazism and the war it brought on. They all, no matter how wryly portrayed, run into inescapable guilt or terror.

Though perhaps "inescapable" is the wrong word, as Bedford herself escaped (she was part Jewish and an early anti-Nazi) from Europe and spent the war years in New York City. New York is where A Visit to Don Otavio begins. The wartime exile is experienced not as liberation but as a form of entrapment:

Summer in the large American cities is an evil thing. It is negative, relentless and dead. It is very hot. The heat, radiated by concrete and steel, is synthetic, involuntarily man-made, another unplanned by-product of the industrial revolution. This urban heat grows nothing; it does not warm, it only torments. It hardly seems to come from the sky. It has none of the charm and strength of the sun in a hot country. It is neither part of nature nor of life, and life is not adapted to it and nature recedes. In spirit and in fact, in architecture and in habits, the eastern seaboard of the United States remains harshly northern, a cold country scourged by heat.

As she goes on to say, "this kind of suffering is quite pointless," so she runs off to Mexico: "I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food... Surely there was scope in the Americas, the New World that had touched the imagination of the Elizabethans."

Summarizing A Visit to Don Otavio would be literal-minded and ultimately futile. To give a sense of the book's charms -- in the sense of both charisma and magic -- it should suffice to quote just a part of this one-sentence reverie:

Here it is then, the heartland of Mexico, the oldest country in the New World, where Montezuma lived in flowered splendor among the lily-ponds and volcanoes of Tenochtitlan; where an arbitrary, finicking and inhuman set of concepts was frozen into some of the world's most terrifying piles of stone; where Cortes walked a year into the unknown, the blank unmeasured ranges of no return, with a bravery inconceivable in an age of doubt; where the silver was discovered that built the Armada, and the Spanish viceroys and judges sat stiff with gold and dignities, wifeless, among the wealth and waste and procrastination of New Spain; where the law's delay meant four years' wait for a letter from Madrid, where the plaster images of saints wore Aztec feathers, where bishops burnt mathematical data in public places and priests started a Boston Tea Party because they might not breed silkworms; where highwaymen shared their spoils with cabinet ministers, where a Stendhalian Indian second-lieutenant had himself crowned Emperor at the age of twenty-four, and Creole ladies went to Mass covered in diamonds leading pet leopards...

It goes on for a good while longer.

Alongside her novels and travel writings, Bedford spent much of her writing career going to court cases in England, France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and reporting on what she saw. A law-minded publishing house, Quid Pro Books, has recently reissued her collection of courtroom pieces The Faces of Justice. Bedford's judicial reportage belongs to that roster of mid-century courtroom classics, alongside Rebecca West's A Train of Powder and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem.

At first glance The Faces of Justice seems worlds away from a poetic romp like A Visit to Don Otavio. But it actually shares one of that book's central concerns, something Chatwin noticed in Bedford's writing and described as "millions and millions of people being tossed up and down the earth, trying vainly to connect but somehow being prevented from doing so." The lack of trust and goodwill between human beings -- manifested in A Visit to Don Otavio as taciturn customs agents and border guards -- is the recurring feature of the individual cases in The Faces of Justice, whether it's a petty theft or a café shoot-up or settling of the estates of people murdered in the Holocaust. It's something more precise than man's inhumanity to man; it's a betrayal of our most elemental bonds to one another.

Bedford, thank goodness, isn't one for bludgeoning her readers with obvious and earnest messages. But her attention to luminous details (in cities and landscapes, in people's emotional states, in food and wine, in court cases) opens up not only a world of wonders but also a set of devastating perceptions about the nature of our amnesiac civilization.

The Faces of Justice doesn't confine itself to the courtroom; it actually features some excellent travel writing, classic Bedfordian appraisal of the genus loci. A view of Munich's most beloved attractions:

The Beer Halls are hideous. The Beer Halls have to be seen to be believed. They are the Corner Houses of a different world. Bavarian beer as we all know is very good indeed. A difference in degree makes a difference in kind. Here it becomes something vile. At the Hofbrau, at the Lowenbrill, the Salvator, the Augustiner, hundreds upon hundreds of men and women sit with a two-pint pot of beer before them, and down the aisles there open, flight on flights, ample, Roman, marbled, loud with gushing water, the urinals and the vomitoria.

Bedford spoke English, French, and German, so she could follow all of these cases -- and understand the legal systems they embodied -- naturally and easily. Her knowledge of different legal systems -- their customs and procedures, their harshness or fairness, their courthouses' architecture and decor -- was of a piece with her multilingual devotion to literature and the good life, to varied "pleasures and landscapes." As she wrote in her 2005 memoir Quicksands (her final book):

To remain monolingual is to reduce the mind to the confines of a tramline. The civilized mind needs alternatives for its expression. The civilized mind by individual limitations and by the aping of the media has seen better days. Any language acquired opens song-lines.

True. It is also true that in all of her writings, Sybille Bedford's uncommon mind and style open up a set of marvelous and idiosyncratic song-lines, very much worth following, even if only for the detours and pauses at café terraces along the way.