Author of 'A Legacy' whose novels examined the relationship between freedom and fate
Monday 20 February 2006
Sybille von Schoenebeck, writer: born Charlottenburg, Germany 16 March 1911; OBE 1981; FRSL 1964; CLit 1994; married 1935 Walter Bedford; died London 17 February 2006.
Sybille Bedford belonged to that distinguished line of 20th-century expatriate authors who chose to write in English in preference to their native tongues, in her case German. Her grand predecessors were, she believed, Conrad, Isak Dinesen, and Nabokov, for whom English was a third language, but the one in which their creative powers came to full fruition. They enriched English literature with contributions from their own cultures, and by their use of the language - a striving for clarity and grace which gave their writings a charming quirkiness similar to a slight, attractive foreign accent.
She was born in 1911 in Charlottenburg, Germany. Her young beautiful mother, Elizabeth Bernard, "bolted" soon after, and she spent her childhood with her father, Maximilian von Schoenebeck, "an elderly, eccentric aristocrat", who had retired to a small schloss in a remote rural area of Baden.
After her father's death in the 1920s Sybille divided her time between England, where she lived "with Bohemian friends", and Italy and France, with her mother and her Italian stepfather. She was educated privately, and read widely in her various languages.
With the rise of Nazism in the early Thirties, a great number of German writers and intellectuals left Germany and settled in Sanary-sur-Mer, a picturesque fishing village near Toulon, in the South of France. Patronised by Jean Cocteau and his coterie, Sanary had already attracted Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria, who became a magnet for English visitors - D.H. and Frieda Lawrence, Julian and Juliette Huxley and others - while the German expatriates clustered around Thomas Mann and his large family, his brother Heinrich and his wife (the model for Blue Angel), the writers Stefan and Arnold Zweig, the playwright Bertolt Brecht, the art critic Meyer-Graefe, the artist René Schickel and many more. Sanary became "the centre of haute culture", where Sybille's mother chose to live as well, and where Sybille spent some of her formative years.
She became a close friend of Thomas Mann's children and a frequent visitor to their house, attending literary soirées: "It was heady stuff," she once said,
all these writers reading their works-in-progress aloud to each other, discussing literature, art, politics . . . Thomas Mann had once proposed to my mother, who thereafter referred to him always as "poor Tommy".
But it was her encounter with Aldous and Maria Huxley - "the most extraordinary people I ever met" - that determined the course of her life. "Aldous was a universal genius like Erasmus; he became my mentor and intellectual model," she wrote. They took her under their wing, encouraged her to write, and gave her shelter in their "attic room" whenever she was in London.
When the Second World War broke out, most of Sanary's émigrés fled to America via Spain and Portugal, "where Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer was doling out contracts to support them". Sybille left too, and "eked out a living" as translator and secretary in California, while trying to write on the side.
She returned to England after the war and settled in London, having acquired an English name and British nationality through a very brief marriage of convenience to an Englishman, Walter Bedford, in 1935. Her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio, was published in 1953 and was highly acclaimed. It was an amusing and serious account of a year she had spent in Mexico in the mid-Forties, which she defined as "an unusual travel book written by a novelist". It described the beauty of Mexico with its underlying sadness and violence inherited from a bloody history.
Three years later she published her first novel, A Legacy, considered her masterpiece. At first it was a critical and commercial flop: "the dullest book I ever read", declared her own American publisher. Eventually Evelyn Waugh reviewed it in The Spectator and it took off, becoming a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. It was televised 20 years later, in 1975, and has been reprinted several times since.
Her two subsequent books were non-fiction: The Best We Can Do (1958), an account of the trial of Dr Bodkin Adams, accused of murdering his rich women patients, and The Faces of Justice (1961), a "not quite straight-faced" reporting of legal practice in the law courts of England, France, Germany and Switzerland. Two semi-autobiographical novels followed at intervals: A Favourite of the Gods (1962) and A Compass Error (1968). They were praised by "the wrong people" - Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford - and failed to achieve the success of her first novel.
When Aldous Huxley died in 1963, Sybille spent six years researching and then writing the two-volume Aldous Huxley: a biography (1973-74). It was an act of filial piety she never repeated.
Sybille Bedford was always interested in the law: "Whenever I was in London in my teens, instead of going to films and matinées, I went to the law courts to watch trials," she once told me. She believed them " a good school for novelists", as they provided the most extravagant material, and taught "the near impossibility of reaching the truth" . Later she covered many famous cases, both in Britain and the United States, including the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial, the Auschwitz trial of 1964 in Frankfurt, and Jack Ruby's.
Then in 1989 came Jigsaw, "a biographical novel" and her first in 18 years, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It revived interest in her work, and led to the republication of several of her books, winning her a new and large readership among the younger generations. Jigsaw seemed a synthesis of her previous three novels as well as their source, in which "bits and pieces of people and their lives come together to present an overall view".
When I asked her why she called the book "a novel" when it was clearly her memoirs, especially since her previous novels had covered the same ground, she answered that it was hard to separate truth from invention, memory from imagination, that some of the characters and episodes were " real", while others had been transformed or embellished.
The central theme of all Sybille Bedford's novels was the relationship between fate and freedom: through her protagonists she indicated that as human beings we are free, and therefore responsible for our destinies. Yet at some point we take the wrong turning - "or the right turning" - and the course of our lives changes irretrievably. She called this " intellectual constant" a "device with which to sharpen in narrative what is diffuse in life".
Sybille Bedford was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature - elected one of the society's 10 Companions of Literature in 1994 - and was appointed OBE in 1981. She was also an active member of the English Pen Club, and its Vice-President in 1979. Her joie de vivre expressed itself in an abiding curiosity about human beings, a deep love of nature, and a lifelong interest in wine. One of England's best-known connoisseurs, she travelled widely all over this country and abroad, especially in France, to "tasting" and "judging" ceremonies. She described the charm and power of wine, and her own love for it, in a memorable passage in A Compass Error:
[She] loved wine from childhood on. She loved the shapes of bottles, and of course the romantic names and the pictures of the pretty manor houses on the labels, and she loved the link with rivers and hillsides and climates and hot years, and the range of learning and experiment afforded by wine's infinite variety; but what she loved more than these was the taste - of peach and earth and honeysuckle and raspberries and spice and cedarwood and pebbles and truffles and tobacco leaf; and the happiness, the quiet ecstasy that spread through heart and limbs and mind.
When Bedford read an article I had written on Persian cuisine, she invited herself to dinner. She arrived with a little basket containing two bottles of wine, red and white, already opened and half consumed: "I'm fastidious about my wine," she explained, refusing what I had provided. She poured herself a glass from her white wine to drink with the hors d'oeuvre, and another from the red for the main course; then she fastened the corks expertly and put the depleted bottles back in her basket - she seemed relieved when I told her I was a teetotaller. She made up for spurning my wine with lavish praise of the Persian dishes: "I love food, good food, simple, authentic. Taking food with friends has a sacramental dimension for me. It is part of my love of life."
She published two volumes, of essays, As It Was (1990) and Pleasures and Landscape (2003); and last year, a memoir, Quicksands, which was a summing-up of her previous work rather than, as many hoped, a revealing addition. I last saw her in the autumn at a round-table discussion on travel writing, followed by a dinner in her honour hosted by the French Institute in London. She was on fine form and enjoying the excellent wines provided.
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