Sybille Bedford, ‘A Legacy’. Part 2

In my previous post I sketched a background and context for Sybille Bedford’s first novel, A Legacy, published in 1956. In this second post (apologies it’s turned out so long again) it is not my intention to give a review, but to try to illustrate the merits of Sybille Bedford’s technique. This I hope will enable you to decide – if you haven’t read it – whether to do so. If you have, this will maybe provide food for thought – and perhaps disagreement.

A Legacy is divided into five parts of unequal length, which swoop backwards and forwards in time, relating events in fragmentary bursts so that the reader is required to be constantly attentive and to participate in the construction of the narrative. The narrator, who late on we discover is Francesca, the daughter of Julius, the second of the von Felden sons, relates the stories of the families with which her father and his family came into (often abrasive) contact over two generations between 1870-1914 in newly unified Germany.

Sybille Bedford, A LegacyThis narrative voice is highly impressionistically deployed. In the first two parts she tells in great detail and with deceptive charm and wit about the three flawed families (the subject of my previous post). The perspicacity and occasional mordancy with which she does this indicates that Bedford is utilising a narrative perspective that goes beyond the traditionally realistic; there are intimate aspects of the characters’lives and thoughts that the ‘real ‘ Francesca could never have known; in other words Bedford adopts a narrative approach with which we are familiar in modernist fiction – a blend of fictional first person participant (what Genette calls, with rather unhelpful jargon, the homodiegetic narrator), and the omniscient anonymous (heterodiegetic) narrator more favoured by earlier novelists. Perhaps it’s equally unhelpful to use Genette’s term for this blend: the character-focaliser, ie, the person who sees and perceives is also the one who ‘speaks’ the narrative.

This might all sound very technical, but in fact Bedford’s achievement is remarkable: as we saw last time, she heard and observed in her own upbringing much of the material which formed the basis for A Legacy as a young girl sitting listening to the sophisticated and flamboyant table-talk of her adult family. This is reminiscent of early Henry James’s technique (as we know, he’s a strong influence on Bedford) in such fictions as What Maisie Knew, in which a young, innocent character shows limited but often highly perceptive insight into the sometimes baffling and ambiguous behaviour of misbehaving adults. Bedford’s Francesca is far more knowing than any child, but she constantly reminds us of this ingenuous point of view, which highlights the often decadent or reprehensible behaviour of those about whom she writes. Let’s look at this more closely.

Part 1 of the novel opens with a conventional first-person description of the narrator’s birth – very much in the mode of Dickens’ first person narrators like David Copperfield and Pip:

I spent the first nine years of my life in Germany, bundled to and fro between two houses. One was outrageously large and ugly; the other was beautiful…My father’s first wife had died young, leaving a small girl. The widower’s continued position as a son of the house, even after his marriage to my mother some ten years later on, was not looked on as anomalous by anyone concerned; his octogenarian hosts had formed the habit of seeing him as a member of their family. Their perceptions were not fine; and they were not struck by the extension of their hospitality, on the same terms, to my mother, her household, and her child.

There is a childlike innocence discernible in the opening sentence, but the voice rapidly develops into that of a highly intelligent, slightly ironic adult who is set on presenting indirectly more than just a conventional realistic portrait: this also conveys her ironic view of her grandparents. The use of ‘bundled’ suggests a sense of unfairness at being treated like a parcel, and of a certain carelessness (heartlessness?) in her treatment by her parents (and grandparents, perhaps). Already we begin to get a feeling that they are somewhat selfish.

The hospitality shown to her father by his parents-in-law after his first wife’s death (their daughter) is at first sight generous and loving, but the narrator carefully undermines this impression by suggesting that this was more a factor of their eccentricity and familial laxity; it was more to do with ‘habit’ and lack of ‘fineness’ of perception. In a subtle and witty way the narrator has established a richly textured and nuanced scene in which all kinds of family tensions and relations are delineated and responded to, without once spelling this out too overtly.

The syntax also bears out this analysis. The first sentence is short and grammatically simple; subsequent sentences become increasingly sophisticated in structure, with their subordinate clauses and semi-colons, balanced symmetries and the tripled noun phrases at the end. Bedford has thus created at the outset of the novel a narrative voice which is clearly not impartial, and has an incisively intelligently opinionated tone and approach to the characters and plot.

The Merzes, this narrator shows us, value ‘tenu’ in a person’s demeanour; the estate of the Feldens in the warm rural south of Landen in Baden, which Francesca never knew personally, but about which she was able to piece together a picture from the ‘fragments’ her father told her, was more animated:

I knew the sheltered valley of Landen where the apricots had ripened on the south wall every year; I learnt the names of dogs and ducks and horses, and the smell of seasons – of the scent that drifted across the snow from where the sides of boar were smoked, of sweet clouded wine drunk foaming off the press…I learnt of clean straw, oats and clover, of winter honey, walnuts and March wool, of the pig killed at Michaelmas and Easter, and the hams baked whole inside a loaf of bread…[T]he boys were always given brandy and hot water when they came in from skating in the winter dusk, and…Johannes the third son had danced with a bear at a fair.

There are six of these ‘I learnt’ clauses in this passage (which I have had to truncate here), each of which piles up with an exact eye for concrete details lists of food, drink, animals and practices of agrarian-domestic life to create a Keatsian, sensuous and affectionate image of abundance, natural fecundity and pleasure. It’s almost paradisal in its expansive simplicity and honesty compared with the stuffy, architecturally enclosed world of the Merzes in Berlin. (It’s also notable throughout the novel how minutely, and with what passion, the narrator describes food, drink and the customs of mealtimes. It’s well known that Bedford was taught by her father from an early age to be a connoisseur of wine and a consummate cook. This is a novel that can make the reader feel hungry and long for a drink.)

By contrast, embedded in this same passage, the narrator tells us

I did not learn the name of my father’s mother, nor what the tutors had been supposed to teach.

Maybe not quite so paradisal then; even in this idyllic, bucolic setting there is something heedless or lacking in humanity in the regime of the Feldens, a feature which is more obviously shown in the portrayal of the ossified Melz family.

I shan’t say much more now about the plot, for this post is again becoming too long. It concerns the tragic events that surround the decision of the Baron von Felden, when his fortunes decline, to send two of his older sons off to learn a career. Johannes, a sweet soul who loved animals (hence the bear) and had wanted only to be an animal trainer suffers terribly in a brutal Prussian military academy. When he absconds there is a scandal that almost brings down the government. Although a compromise is reached, the outcome brings about two violent deaths and poor Johannes goes mad.

The other main storyline relates the two marriages of Francesca’s father, Julius (and that of his older brother, Gustavus). He is portrayed with a touching mixture of love and affection but also unflinching, pained insight into his flawed, selfish nature (which all the Feldens possess; Gustavus precipitates the tragic climax in the novel out of a desire to further his own personal ambitions).  Julius engages in a ‘side-stepping of self and life through a hobby’ and has ‘a lack of curiosity about the human world’; he has no need for company – except that of pretty women (‘but these loves were not windows, only entrances into another decorated room’ – a rare instance of Bedford’s use of extended metaphor). Later he drives a team of mules and keeps three pet chimps – but he has less interest in people, including his wives and daughters. (There are some brilliantly revealing portrayals in this novel of animals; I particularly like Fanny, the irascibly cunning pet donkey that loves music, wears slippers in the house, and ‘despises’ Francesca when she’s little, but they are assumed by the myopic adults to dote on each other).

The very first time the narrator speaks of Julius telling her about his youth in Baden she says this, which sums up her ambiguous attitude towards him:

He would have preferred solitude, or rather a privacy of animals and objets-d’art, yet thought it was incumbent on him to spend a reasonable amount of his time – at dinner, perhaps – with his kind. His language was limited, he was certainly not aware of words, but I believe that when he spoke he saw what he had lived.

I can’t end without mentioning the humour throughout A Legacy, though I hope it’s been apparent in what I’ve quoted so far.  An early example (there are so many) comes when Julius, who had wanted only to be ‘an amateur cabinet-maker’, is despatched to a crammer’s in Bonn to be educated for a career as a diplomat; he spends most of his time scouring the antique shops of Holland and Belgium. He replaces the tutor’s furniture with his own shrewd acquisitions, and installs his pet raven (‘no cage’), bulldog and cat in the house. He persuades the tutor to keep geese (‘such intelligent animals, he never failed to say, so rewarding’) and to let him supervise the cooking. Evenings are spent playing cards with his crammer, to whom he had taught the games:

The crammer’s idea had been that they might use the time for study.

“After dinner?” said Julius.

The crammer, conscientiously, wrote to Landen. The old Baron…sent a dozen of Madeira and a note to the effect that his son was not an Encyclopaedist but an homme du monde…

After this the crammer succumbs to a life of ‘geese-training, haute cuisine, period furniture and games of chance, with the rest of his establishment given over to the care of Julius’s clothes.’

I’d like to finish with a word about the dialogue in this novel. Here’s a random example towards the end of the novel, set in the Merz household to which Julius has returned  when the ‘Felden scandal’ fills the newspapers, and scurrilous things have been published about the families:

“What is it all about?” said Grandmama Merz. It was second breakfast. [As with the Feldens, meals are a central institution in the Merz household. One breakfast does not suffice]

“Jules must sue for libel,” said Emil [an old Merz uncle].

“Damages!” said Grandpapa.

“Fine son-in-law,” said Markwald [another Merz relative].

“We emerge not unscathed, sir.”

“Has someone been spending too much money?” said Grandmama.

“It’s about Jules’s brother, mama.”

“The Regimental Tragedy, ma’am.”

“Unfortunate young man…Mustn’t mention it to Jules.” [Bedford’s own ellipsis]

Although people do not necessarily speak like that, one accepts that these characters do. The bizarre non sequiturs and ellipses, unattributed speeches, the gaps and unanswered questions are perfectly pitched and usually very revealing of character, as well as comically extravagant (or sometimes, tellingly tragic or sinister; the Merz gentlemen are profligate sexually and with money; the Merz’s son Eduard gambles disastrously and is constantly bailed out financially by his wealthy wife; much of this – and the strained inter-family relation – is hinted at in this extract).

Space doesn’t allow for much more, but I can’t resist one further example, which is also highly revealing of the haughtily disengaged manner Francesca’s mother demonstrates towards her when the narrator is just a little girl. I shall have to quote selectively from the opening pages of Part 4, which also contains a telling explanation of Bedford’s method in constructing her novel; the scene is set in the garden, with characteristic accumulation of evocative sense-perceptions which I’ve had to exclude.

“Why?” I said. “Why, mummy, why?”

“Is it an idle question?” said my mother, keeping a hand on her book; “is it wise? Don’t you know that you may have to stay for an answer. And I may bore you. I don’t like boring people.”

We are said to re-invent our memories; we often rearrange them. Did we hear this then? Do we remember saying that? or do we remember being told we said it? Did this happen at one time, or is this clear-cut scene, that amber moment, a collation, a palimpsest, a stereographic recording of many others? …

“Why – everything?”

“Now you have stopped me. Before I’d begun. And I did want to talk. What are you after? An outline of the Aristotelian method? the Copernican system? Not Genesis, I take it; I know you only talk theology with the natives. A thirst for knowledge is very well – it wears off so early – but you must be more selective in your enquiries, duck. There is nothing so fatal as a good vast subject. You know, the man you try to talk to about crop rotation and who says Atlantis is more exciting. Well, it isn’t. I want your mind – if you turn out to have one – to be concrete and fastidious.”

“Yes, mummy.”

“You have already formed this wish yourself? You have grounds of hope for its fulfilment? Or do you merely concur?”

“Concur.”

“I must be boring you already. Go away and play.”

This is typical of the spirit of the novel: Wildean wit, exquisite characters and dialogue – but also monstrous egotism and a fair amount of mordant sarcasm and downright cruelty demonstrated to the young and innocent by adults who should know better. It’s one of the finest, most disturbing portrayals of damaged family relations I have encountered outside of Dickens.

There’s much more that I’ll have to pass over, but I would urge you read the novel and maybe comment here on whether you agree with my account of it in these two posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Sybille Bedford, ‘A Legacy’. Part 2

  1. This is a great piece, first and foremost, and thanks for it. And it certainly helped me to draw together some of my disarrayed thoughts about the novel.

    Firstly, I’ve never read anything quite like it. It is, as you say, impressionistic, and wasn’t easy (for me) to get to grips with the structure, at first. But once acclimatised I found the book a superb kind of hurtling time-tunnel tour of familial fragments that don’t nearly add up but which form a very clever and singular portrait of a peculiar family. And in terms of encapsulating a certain mindset at a certain point amongst that milieu: brilliant.

    And these two lines stick in my mind, and characterise many aspects of the book for me.

    “What does one do with unwanted monkeys?” said Emil.

    Grandmama pondered this. “He must give them away,” she said. “Hasn’t he any poor relations?”

    • Thanks, Lee. Your summary of the plot and structure is spot on. Great quote, btw. The novel is full of such gems – the humour is perhaps sometimes overlooked (or under-assessed) by commentators.

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