Sybille Bedford, ‘A Legacy’: Part 1

Sybille Bedford:  A Legacy. Ist publ 1956. Penguin Classics 2005. 368 pp

This is the other book I bought at the ‘name your own price’ bookshop in Exeter, along with the Nooteboom stories that I wrote about in my last post.

I wonder if your recent reading influences – or even taints – your impression of the novel you’ve just finished? Having just read Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose sequence – all five volumes of exquisitely expressed suffering and its cast of grotesques, monsters and victims –  and Nooteboom’s melancholy stories of middle-aged angst (reviewed here last time), I found my reading of A Legacy impaired by the mood instilled by those books. The eccentric cast of characters seemed on first reading a little tedious, and I found it difficult to sympathise with yet another set of the etiolated rich (Melrose) and their varying degrees of world-weariness (Nooteboom).

When I started making notes for this post, however, and dipped back into the novel, I found myself absorbed and delighted by Bedford’s crafted prose. As I marked passages to quote the list just grew: there’s so much to please the reader here, despite the drawbacks of operatic plotting and characterisation in yet another book full of wittily charming (or just plain weird) privileged gentry.

So let’s start what I think is going to be a lengthy piece…In fact I think this will have to be part 1 of two.

Bedford’s own introduction is a good place to start, and I shall make this the basis of Sybille Bedford, A Legacythis first instalment, but shall incorporate some quotations from the novel itself to illustrate what I mean about her prose style, and encourage you to read the novel if you haven’t already .

She begins by acknowledging her admiration for the fiction of Ivy Compton-Burnett and the ‘witty acerbities’ of her dialogue. I’ve never got past the opening pages of any of her novels, but would agree that the speeches she gives her characters fizz along. This quality is found on almost every page of A Legacy.

Another clear influence is Nancy Mitford, another purveyor of dazzling drawing-room repartee in a vanished world; it was Mitford who lent a copy of the novel to Evelyn Waugh  – whose novels can also be seen as an influence on Bedford, including the Catholic elements – and whose review in the Spectator, which he modestly called a ‘tiny warm notice’, thrilled the author and boosted sales. In his review he drew attention to yet another influence: the early and middle period Henry James (‘too large a dose’ of him, he suggested, a little unfairly: Bedford’s range of types of character and geographical/political/spiritual interests are very different from his; but one can see what Waugh means – there’s that crystalline dialogue and eye for social detail and the similar fascination with the clashes in sensibilities between characters (innocent v. jadedly knowing) of varying, mostly sybaritic backgrounds).

The plot is one of the least satisfying parts of the novel. It relates the intertwined stories of three German families in the period roughly between the Franco-Prussian War, around 1870, and 1914. They are ‘somewhat unfortunately linked by marriages’ but ‘wholly unlike each other in habits, values and religions’. They are also ‘divided by their ignorance or pursuit of politics, by geography and by money. All had a lop-sided perception of their time, taking their position as a norm, unaware that they could be seen…as eccentric, even anachronistic members of their respective milieus.’

The Merzes live in ‘solid, upholstered, Jewish Berlin, the city of the disciplines, drives and deceits of the Protestant Prussian North’. They are immensely rich, but little trace survives in them of their cultured, energetic ancestors (here I need to give my first extract from the novel itself):

They had no interests, tastes or thoughts beyond their family and the comfort of their persons…They never travelled. They never went to the country. They never went anywhere, except to take a cure, and then they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets…The Merz’s had no friends, a word they seldom used; they saw no-one besides the family, the doctor, and an occasional, usually slightly seedy, guest asked to occupy the fourteenth place at the table.

The family business has long since been of no interest to the patriarch of Voss Strasse, Grandpapa Merz; he occasionally signs papers when required to and allows his butler – a marvellous creation called Gottlieb, a sort of Addams Family Jeeves who’s been with the family for half a century – to keep them supplied with new banknotes (‘Money, like animals, was unhygienic’ – the narrative is full of throwaway gems like this!)

I wonder whether Bedford chose this name because of its associations with the avant-garde German expressionist-Dadaist-collagist artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), perhaps best known for his ‘Merz’ projects, a title he took from a found text: ‘Commerz und Privatbank’. He edited a journal by that name in the 20s and early 30s, and converted his houses into ‘Merzbau’ installations, the last being in Cumbria, England. The title is an ironically critical allusion to the corrosive nature of capitalist systems. Although he flourished immediately after the end of the First World War, and is therefore associated with the period following the events in A Legacy, his is an apt and provocative name to use for the atrophied family of entrepreneurs in Voss Strasse. Maybe the tendency towards a collage structure in the novel is in part a homage to him. (She may never have known of him, of course, but I find it hard to believe that she wouldn’t be aware of this highly influential and innovative figure in the art world.)

The other two families (back to the Introduction) ‘belonged to the discrepant realities of the Catholic South’ (Baden). The Bernins are ‘obsessed by ecumenical dreams of European dimensions’. They are interested in power and pursue it with dangerous determination – which largely precipitates the more tragic part of the plot:

Count Bernin Sigmundshofen…was an extremely active man, the leader of a powerful Catholic clique, the head of one of the great South German families, and a public figure…He was one of those men who are supposed to have a friend in every chancellery, and he certainly had a relative in many; not only Baron Felden accused him of ambition. He now seems to have been something else: a disinterested man with a cause. He was also a meddler by conviction, had immense experience of  motives and affairs, and…considerable charm.

The von Feldens are more affectionately portrayed as ‘Augustans’ from the ‘retarded eighteenth century’; they are from the conservative Catholic aristocracy, and disinclined to indulge in casuistic plotting like Bernin, as shown in this piece of Bedford’s charming descriptive-historical description from ch. 1 of Part 2 of the novel:

The family was old, landed, agreeably off without being in the least rich and of no particular distinction…[F]or the last four centuries Feldens had looked after their land, diminishing rather than otherwise, filled diplomatic posts of a more decorative than political character and discharged functions at provincial courts. Yet they were neither backwoodsmen nor courtiers, but country gentlemen of cultured, if not general, interests. They drank hock and claret, but they also drank and knew how to make their own wine. They dabbled in the natural sciences; they enjoyed and contributed to those branches of the arts that increase the amenities of living – domestic architecture, instrument-making, horticulture. They were bored by the abstract, bored by letters, and their acceptance of thought was confined to thought about things…They played music like craftsmen, and made objects like artists.

I particularly like the chiasmic symmetry of that last sentence. This light-hearted passage ends, more ominously, despite the comic coda, with a characteristic change of tone by Bedford:

They ignored, despised, and later dreaded, Prussia; and they were strangers to the sea.

They are clearly doomed.  Being skilled in bee-keeping and stag-driving, training geese and keeping unusual pets, and understanding ‘the ruses employed by peacocks’ does not equip such an unworldly family to face and survive the onslaught of the decades after 1900.

The old Baron’s second son, Julius, we realise as the narrative progresses, is the father of the young woman who narrates the novel so obliquely and with so many lacunae and shifts of perspective ; only late on does she disclose that her name is Francesca.  In many ways this novel is technically modernist, despite its ostensibly traditional realist surface, which has more in common with the Thomas Mann novels Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain(who is, anyway, neither a full-on realist or modernist?) One could also make out a case for some post-modern features, such as the demanding collage or fragmentary narrative structure already mentioned (Merz again), which reminds me of other recently read authors: Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick.

Each of these last two southern German families, Bedford suggests in her Introduction, ‘stood confident of being able to go on with what was theirs, while in fact they were playthings, often victims, of the now united Germany, and of what was brewing therein.’

And it is this aspect of the novel, I believe, which raises it above the level of those social comedians I mentioned earlier (except, perhaps, James): the ‘legacy’ of the title is World War I and subsequently the Holocaust.

Bedford’s Introduction goes on to comment on this perspective and on the relatively autobiographical nature of the novel:

Much of what was allowed to happen in these decades [ie 1870-1914] was ill-conceived, cruel, bad (in simple terms); there was also a German dottiness, devoid of humour…Is some of this a foundation of the vast and monstrous thing that followed? Did the private events I lightly draw upon leave some legacy? Writing about them made me think so. Hence the title.

She did no research. She was born in Charlottenburg in family circumstances similar to Francesca’s. She left Germany as a child, however, and when the Nazis rose to power and discovered her Jewish ancestry, impounded her passport. In 1935 she was obliged to enter into a marriage of convenience with the gay English officer, Walter Bedford. This marriage was brief, but she kept the surname for the rest of her life. She felt such an antipathy for Germany, in fact, that she barely visited again.

Most of what she says, therefore, about people and places in the novel is derived from

what I saw and above all heard and over-heard as a child at the age of roughly three to ten, much of which I managed to absorb, retain and decades after, to re-shape in an adult mode. The rest is invention and surmise…metamorphosed by imagination, turned into distillations of a past – expressed by rumours, innuendos, half-truths, vengeful tales as well as pastoral set-pieces and fond recalls.

This gives a pretty accurate picture of the content of the narrative, which I shall return to in more detail next time. It’s intriguing to think of this little girl, sitting at table with these clever, literary adults, being expected to follow their sophisticated conversation, and even to take an intelligent part. Neither is it difficult to see from where she gets the scintillating dialogue and repartee, with its ellipses and ambiguities.

How much of it then was autobiographical? ‘Up to a point, quite a lot – privately and publicly. All the same that legacy is not my story; most of it happened before I was born.’

She goes on to give more of the circumstantial details which she experienced and put into the narrative: the evil schools, the family scandal, the shootings.

The novel was written 1952-55 – ‘years of forebodings and fears: the Bomb, the Cold War’. There is something of that ‘legacy’ that permeates the novel that enables it to transcend what some commentators have accused the novel of: being too sepia-tinted, nostalgic for ‘things past’ in a sort of Proustian haze. This is I think to misread it. The legacy of the title is what happened after 1914, and as we commemorate the centenary of that terrible first War we can see in these pages much of what brought about the disasters of the years that followed in terms of the social disintegration and upheaval that these three families adumbrate through their own private catastrophes, which are narrated against the backdrop of the society of middle Europe across two generations in the half-century leading up to the assassination in Sarajevo.

I began by indicating how my guarded response to this novel had been influenced by my prior reading. I now see that A Legacy resembles Nooteboom’s Foxes in that both books are about memory, a melancholy sense of loss and mutability, but where Bedford has the advantage is that she’s also less inclined to want to forget, or else in re-telling and reshaping true stories she’s more interested in arriving at a clearer truth. Unlike St Aubyn she’s prepared to show some tolerance as she paints her portrait of decadent and flawed high society as it plunges inexorably into an abyss at least partly of its own making. She doesn’t want to preserve that vanished world, as perhaps Mitford and the others she was influenced by (maybe secretly) wanted; neither did she want to see it smashed. She’s able instead to indicate through intelligent, subtle, fragmentary and indirect narrative strategies the mysterious forces that determine the trajectories of people’s lives.

Next time I shall turn my attention more closely to the ways in which she achieved that admirable outcome, with more on the skill with which she manipulates fragments of time and place in the narrative, how she creates memorable characters who are more than social-comical caricatures, and how she writes some of the most interestingly varied and satisfying dialogue I’ve read: she even outshines the brilliant St Aubyn in this respect.

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17 thoughts on “Sybille Bedford, ‘A Legacy’: Part 1

  1. Will have to return to reread this piece with more time to digest, but now off to the dictionary to look up “chiasmic” and “etiolated”….what a vocabulary you have, Simon!

    Enjoy your weekend,

    Maureen M.

  2. Postscript: What a coincidence. Currently finishing writing project and one “project step” is to do some more study of dialog (or, in the UK, “dialogue”). Off to read Miss. Bedford I go! 🙂

    • This blog post grew much larger than I’d expected, so in Part 1 I concentrated on the background, context, and portrait of the three main families in the story. In Part 2 I mean to go on to look in more detail at the writer’s style and technique. Her dialog(ue) is clever, funny and technically original and innovative, I think. Hope to demonstrate this and how she does it. It occurs to me that this first part failed to say anything about how outrageously funny she can be. I laughed out loud at one point – something I don’t often do when reading ‘humorous’ novels. But of course there’s a deeply serious element, too. Enjoy your weekend, too. Here our sun has been replaced by cloud and rain.

  3. Tremendous review Simon. I had to look up chiasmic myself I have to admit. Interesting what you say at the opening about how one book can influence one’s reading of another, of course that’s true and it’s interesting to see how your perceptions of this one changed.

    I’ve had my eye on this for a while, but I’m not sure. It sounds plot heavy for a book where the plot isn’t so interesting. I’ll read your second post and take a view.

    • Thanks, Max. Sorry about ‘chiasmic’; I might have invented the adj form. I’m familiar with the rhetorical term ‘chiasmus’ from my English teaching: as you probably knew, it’s the device used by JFK in his inaugural speech (Ask not..etc) Must admit I’ve never seen it as an adjective. I did find ‘A Legacy’ pretty heavy going, but it gradually grew on me as my reading of it progressed, and I became accustomed to the narrative voice and tone. It’s got some quite interesting innovative touches in an otherwise conventional narrative. Some pretty odious characters, though.

  4. Re: Chiasmic. I think the Dr. Johnson would be happy to give his blessings to this word, particularly if you plied him with some sort of exotic ointment to tend to his gout…!

  5. I’m reading “A Legacy” more than forty years after a teacher at college recommended it in class. It’s a great novel and I’m thankful for your review. It’s hard not to feel sorry for some of Bedford’s characters. When Johannes von Felden is hazed at the military school. he tries to fight off his attackers by calling them a bunch of “mal-eleves.” (Badly brought up people?) This worked about as well with bullies as it would today. I keep wondering what happened to some of these people after the novel ends in 1913. Sarah, I think, would be a survivor.

    • Howard: thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the novel, and my review. I agree with your assessment about the characters – they are quite emotionally bruised. Johannes is heartbreaking, isn’t he; one of the most striking literary representations I can recall of a victim of bullying turning in on himself catastrophically. Maybe Edward St Aubyn’s protagonist in the Melrose sequence comes close – though he does finally emerge relatively whole. Yes, the term ‘mal-eleves’ was a little unfortunate to use with uncouth bullies. And yes, I’m sure you’re right about Sarah – another of SB’s fascinatingly detailed portrayals. Btw, I’ve only recently encountered the US term ‘hazing’: it was in an episode of ‘Lie to Me’ that I saw on Netflix: firefighters were bullying one of their fellows, and this term was used by the investigators. Don’t think we use it here.

      • Does anyone know how to get a copy of the BBC mini-series in 1975 of Sybille Bedford’s “A Legacy?” Of course this was before DVD or VCR. The casting sounds perfect: Jeremy Brett as bon vivant Edu Merz and Claire Bloom as the elegant Sarah. Did this program even show in the United States?

        • Sorry about the delay in replying, Howard: been away for the holidays, often without wifi. I didn’t know about the BBC version – must check it out. It would have been difficult to dramatise, since so much of the narrative is conveyed through the prose style, rather than ‘things happening’…Still, they filmed Proust…

  6. An excellent review, Simon. Thanks for alerting me to your posts. I like the way you’ve described the novel as having a collage structure – that’s a great way of thinking about it, almost like a scrapbook of pictures, vignettes and scenes from the past. I like your reading of the meaning behind ‘A Legacy’ too – it’s a title that works on a number of different levels. I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened to some of these characters during WW1 and beyond. Like Howard, I suspect Sarah turned out to be a survivor.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jacqui, and for the kind words. I’m not always an admirer of that modernist-postmod sort of fragmentary structure – it can seem to me excessively mannered or self-consciously ‘literary’ and striving for effects not worth striving for; but here I think it suits the mood of a fragmenting culture and time. And her style is I think superb: highly wrought, yes, but again in keeping with the mood and content of the narrative. Plain Hemingwayesque prose wouldn’t be appropriate…

      • Sure, plain prose wouldn’t work here – and I agree with you to a certain extent. (I’ve just expanded on this in the comments section of my post.) Interesting to see that you liked the book more when you returned to it for the purposes of this review. I’m sure it would reward a second reading. (I’m enjoying our exchange of views on this one!)

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