Reviews — From the July 2016 issue

Peel Her a Grape

Sybille Bedford’s prudent hedonism

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Discussed in this essay:

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey, by Sybille Bedford. NYRB Classics. 392 pages. $18.95.

A Legacy, by Sybille Bedford. NYRB Classics. 384 pages. $16.95.

Quicksands: A Memoir, by Sybille Bedford. Counterpoint. 384 pages. $14.95.

“Whenever I can I bring my own provisions,” Sybille Bedford wrote in A Visit to Don Otavio, her lightly fictionalized account of a trip to Mexico in 1946. “It keeps one independent and agreeably employed.” At the start of the book, she boards the train in New York City, with her hamper well stocked:

I had got us some tins of tunny fish, a jar of smoked roe, a hunk of salami and a hunk of provolone; some rye bread, and some black bread in cellophane that keeps. That first night we had fresh food. A chicken, roasted that afternoon at a friend’s house, still gently warm; a few slices of that American wonder, Virginia ham; marble-sized, dark red tomatoes from the market stands on Second Avenue; watercress, a flute of bread, a square of cream cheese, a bag of cherries and a bottle of pink wine.

Source photograph from Sybille Bedford’s passport courtesy Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin

Source photograph from Sybille Bedford’s passport courtesy Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin

She even brings her own pepper mill, loaded with whole Tellicherry grains. “Have an olive,” she suggests to her traveling companion, before comparing her pampered self to a dachshund in Paris she once heard about, who wore a coat with a monogrammed handkerchief in its pocket.

The passage shows off the virtues of Bedford’s prose: unfussy diction (if there are two hunks, why be shy about repeating the word?), a relish for abundant, precise detail (the warmth of the chicken, the shape of the bread), frank appetite, and light irony. There’s also a note of excess, and that, too, is a virtue: Bedford was a sensualist, unabashed about the pleasure she took in food, wine, sun, swimming, literature, history, painting, conversation, and romance (in her case, mostly with women).

Anyone willing to take pleasure seriously can have this much fun, her memoirs and autobiographical novels, which NYRB Classics has begun reissuing, seem to say. Her hedonism wasn’t that of a spoiled child but of someone who, often abandoned as a girl, found that she enjoyed the freedom of fending for herself. It’s an enlightened, civilized, and even prudent hedonism. Why not make the best of there being, in the end, no one but oneself to see to it that one doesn’t go hungry?

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is the author of Necessary Errors, a novel. His essay “Counter Culture” appeared in the July 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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