Reviews — From the July 2016 issue

Peel Her a Grape

Sybille Bedford’s prudent hedonism

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Bedford, an English writer of German birth, occasionally let more than a dozen years pass between books, and in her own lifetime she was acclaimed, forgotten, and rediscovered repeatedly. In 1994, Britain’s Royal Society of Literature bestowed on her its highest honor, not given to more than ten writers at a time — and since then, the cycle of forgetting and recovery has revolved at least twice more.

Pleasure and loss were complexly interwoven in her life story, which she unraveled and restitched every time she told it. “A writer writes his past away,” she once explained. “Yet something keeps smouldering on.” She was born in 1911 in what is now a neighborhood of Berlin. “It was a boy?” a version of her mother asks in her first novel, A Legacy (1956), while recovering from labor. “No. Yes,” the fictional mother is told, as if even at Bedford’s birth there was a hint that she wasn’t going to conform to gender norms. The family’s nickname for her was Billi.

Her father, Maximilian Josef von Schoenebeck, was a German baron in his late forties who liked to gamble, womanize, speak French, and collect Gothic and Renaissance objets d’art — a sort of benign Gilbert Osmond. The family’s nickname for him was le beau Max. Bedford describes him as a man who had “lost his nerve.” Long after his first wife died of tuberculosis, he continued to live off her stodgy, generous parents, Jews who maintained a stuffy house in Berlin. After their fortunes collapsed, he was supported by his second wife, Elizabeth, née Bernhardt — Bedford’s mother, a British heiress and beauty who went by the name Lisa. She was younger than he, and her eye wandered as freely as his. In A Legacy, she cuts a dashing and charming figure, but Bedford’s portrait of her darkened over the years, and eventually Bedford would describe her as a “writer manqué” whose moods could be tyrannical. “I did not love her as a child,” Bedford admitted to one interviewer. To another, who happened to share her mother’s name, she confessed that she was reluctant to say it aloud.

During World War I, husband, wife, and child sheltered in Berlin, and after the war they moved to a small château in southern Germany. One day Lisa went away with a lover and never returned. The money went with her. All but one of the servants were let go; all but a few rooms were shut. Billi, who was around eleven, ran away, but after she was found at her half-sister’s house and gently returned to her father, she discovered that she was able to reconcile herself to living with him. Maximilian was an excellent cook; decades before Elizabeth David, he believed in liberating ingredients from the heavy sauces that the Victorians had poured over them. Chronically short of cash, he was nonetheless able to provide for the household by raising sheep, chickens, and pigs and making cider and white wine. In the evenings he took out a vintage roulette wheel, cried “Faîtes vos jeux,” and reminisced as he, Billi, and their lone devoted maid gambled. When Lisa at last decided to exercise her right to spend time with her daughter, several years later, Billi didn’t want to go.

She was made to. A chaperone escorted her to a hotel in northern Italy. Lisa had been planning to marry an art historian, but she now absconded, in pursuit of an architecture student half her age. The chaperone absconded, too. “What if nobody came back?” Bedford later recalled wondering, in her memoir Quicksands (2005). With two Swedish children also staying in the hotel, she begged in a city park on behalf of a make-believe charity. In the end her mother did return, taking her to Naples and then Sicily with the architecture student, whose name was Norberto Marchesani.

At around the same time, Billi’s father died, following an operation for appendicitis. Authorities in Germany became legally responsible for her and insisted that she be given an education. As it would turn out, she had already received as much classroom schooling as she would ever get, but, to oblige the authorities, her mother sent her to England, where she lodged with a couple of amiable, broke artists whom Lisa had once met at a hotel. While Billi was away, her mother and Marchesani moved to southern France, choosing the coastal town of Sanary-sur-Mer more or less at random.

So began a cosmopolitan, little-supervised adolescence, yo-yoing back and forth across the English Channel. In England, Bedford vicariously enjoyed the romantic lives of adult friends, visited courtrooms in order to soak up what she called a “blend of gravity and theatre,” and was intermittently tutored. In France, she swam, fell unrequitedly in love with the wife of an older friend, and got to know such neighbors as Aldous and Maria Huxley, who had come for the Mediterranean sunshine, and Klaus and Erika Mann, who were fleeing Hitler. The idyll ended when her mother, upset by an infidelity of Marchesani’s, started using morphine.

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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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