Quicksands: A Memoir

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9780140279764: Quicksands: A Memoir

Beginning in 1956 with the publication of A Legacy, Sybille Bedford has narrated - in fiction and non-fiction - what has been by turns her sensuous, harrowing, altogether remarkable life. In this magnificent memoir, she moves from Berlin during the Great War to the artists' set on the Côte d'Azur of the 1920s, through lovers, mentors, seducers and friends, and from genteel yet shabby poverty to relative comfort in London's Chelsea. Whether evoking the simple sumptuousness of a home-cooked meal or tracing the heart-rending outline of an intimate betrayal, she offers spellbinding reflections on how history imprints itself on private lives.

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About the Author:

Sybille Bedford was born in Germany in 1911 and was brought up in Italy, England and France. In 1989 her novel Jigsaw was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She has published eight other books and lives in London.

From The Washington Post:

Evelyn Waugh called her first novel, A Legacy (1956), "entirely delicious. . . . cool . . . elegant." To Bruce Chatwin, A Visit to Don Otavio (1953), her travel book about Mexico, was a model of the genre, not least because of its stylishly witty prose. Similarly, her account of a celebrated English murder case, The Trial of Dr. Adams (1958), set a new standard for true-crime reporting, even as her two-volume biography of Aldous Huxley (1973, 1974) remains the fullest and most enjoyable life of that polymath.

Born in 1911, Sybille Bedford is nearly the last great representative of those amusing and intelligently cosmopolitan women writers who came to prominence in 1950s Britain: Nancy Mitford, Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark (still with us). She has written only four novels -- the others are A Favourite of the Gods (1962), A Compass Error (1968), and Jigsaw (1989) -- and all of them are, more or less, autobiographical. Again and again, she takes up her privileged family heritage (upper-class German, both Jewish and Catholic), her girlhood in France with a feckless art-connoisseur father, her adolescence in Italy with a beautiful, promiscuous mother, and her coming of age in Sanary on the Côte d'Azur, surrounded by eminent artists and writers (Thomas Mann and Huxley, above all), in the company of her restless Italian stepfather (15 years her mother's junior) and periodically exhilarated or wounded by heartbreaking infatuations.

In Quicksands, Bedford returns again to her seductive parents and gypsyish early years, but now forgoes all the convenient chutes and ladders of art. Instead she recalls episodes (more Jigsaw than A Legacy), in a jagged, semi-conversational mode, "an amalgam of fragments." As she announces at the opening, "I shall begin as I hope to continue: from the middle." Stendhal has long been one of Bedford's heroes, and her memoir possesses something of the same dynamic as that novelist's autobiographical Life of Henry Brulard. So Quicksands shifts constantly between the past and the present, between an older writer's interpretative understanding and a younger self's emotional experience. Like Stendhal, too, Bedford possesses a compassionate, autumnal view of the world, as well as a darting, quicksilver prose. She can be lyrical in her descriptions, but her intelligence is fundamentally dry, unblinkered, without illusion. In brief, she is what we Americans regard as a cultivated European, one who lives not for wealth or fame or power but for the petits plaisirs of life. As she says:

"Oh what has remained undone by sloth, discouragement, and of course distractions . . . Distractions of living the siren song of the daily round -- chance, often choice had led me to spend the squandered years in beautiful or interesting places: to learn, to see, to travel, to walk in nocturnal streets, swim in warm seas, make friends and keep them, eat on trellised terraces, drink wine under summer leaves, to hear the song of tree-frog and cicada, to fall in love . . . (Often. Too often)."

Quicksands covers, in its zigzagging between now and then, only the first 45 or so years of Bedford's life, roughly the first half of the past century. Essentially, she discusses the people who formed her imagination and mind; more circumspectly, those she loved. These last range from her adored father and mother, to the elegant Issa, who later collaborated with the Germans, and Huxley, whom she revered as a mentor, to Allanah Harper, who financially supported the novelist-in-training, to Evelyn Gendel, who one day murmured "the three fatal words" and on the next, simply moved in, abandoning a young husband. Along the way, Bedford also discusses lifelong eye troubles, a haphazard education in England, her passion for Quattrocento art, and her desperate measures to acquire a British passport, measures that culminated in a quickie marriage to a young man she seems never to have seen again. Still she made his last name her own, and then she made it famous.

Periodically, Bedford apologizes for going over material that has already appeared in her earlier books. And so I won't repeat yet again these same events (e.g., the cause and consequences of her mother's addiction to morphine). In truth, one reads Quicksands for the chance to be in touch with an urbane sensibility and to enjoy its prose and the worldly wisdom of its observations. Let me quote a few examples:

"She looks the kind of woman men fall for, young men, old men, the woman men do things for."

"My parents' marriage, the first part of which they spent in southern Spain which they only left because of my impending and unwelcome birth, did not last partly because of my mother's habit of falling seriously in love with another man every few years."

"One stayed of course on good terms with the concierges. Returning at daybreak you would be handed your key with a discreet, a very discreet, smile of approval. Such good relations were not engendered by a mere tip. You did tip, adequately mostly, not extravagantly, at the end of a week or in receipt of a parcel or message; what mattered was human comportment: mutual good manners, some pleasant talk, warmth. It is this rapport which comes naturally to Italians, which makes one feel belonging for an instant to the brotherhood of man."

A young German housemaid runs upstairs to the child Sybille: "Emerging from sleep, I heard, 'The Russians have surrendered to Germany . . . The war in Russia is over . . . !' 'I'm so glad,' I said. 'I hope your fiancé will be safe now.' The girl knelt down by my high bed and hugged me. You are a good child, she said, a kind child. At moments now when I am in distress about the many things which in the course of my life I said or left unsaid, or did or left undone, a recall of that night, so very far away in time, is consoling. Through that child's quick impulse I may have been accorded a grain, a very small grain, of absolution."

"Merano. A place I had not heard of. A prosperous, soigné resort in a benign climate, surrounded by orchards and vines, with blue skies and a luxuriant vegetation in well-kept parks and gardens with well-dressed middle-aged people on the garden-benches."

The great German art historian Julius Meier-Graefe settles in Sanary with "his very young fourth wife -- he had her elope with him straight from Swiss boarding school, pursued by telephone and police." After the art historian's premature death, "she specialized in famous writers and artists as well as Greek ship-owners -- concurrent with discreet affairs with one of their sons."

And so it goes. Alongside tales of adultery and addiction, of chicanery and betrayal, what remains in the reader's mind is the sense of Mediterranean ease, courtesy and dignity, of long periods given over to the sweetness of work one loves and of daily commerce with people one loves just as much. In particular, many of the most fascinating and intelligent women of our time appear in these pages -- Martha Gellhorn takes Bedford to Ischia; Virginia Woolf comes to her "wedding" supper; Mary McCarthy, Janet Flanner and Hannah Arendt attend her book party. The range of the Bedford memory is astonishing -- from the 19th-century Germany of her grandparents to the 21st-century world after Sept. 11. Periodically, she expresses a quite reasonable fear for mankind's future.

Though fragmented in structure and somewhat familiar in its elements (at least to Bedford readers), Quicksands is still a deeply ingratiating book, a chance to spend some time with a humane sensibility and to visit a now-vanished world. On the last page of what must likely be her last book, Bedford writes:

" 'Have another glass of wine?' they say. I don't think so. 'Why not? You might as well.' Perhaps I will." Wise readers will hurry to pull up a chair and join her for that drink.

Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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