Reviews — From the July 2016 issue

Peel Her a Grape

Sybille Bedford’s prudent hedonism

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Bedford intended for her next novel, A Favourite of the Gods (1963), to have “almost no autobiographical sources or associations,” but she didn’t quite manage it. The novel is about two women: a mother who becomes miserable when she discovers that her Italian husband has cheated on her, and a daughter who is by inclination and according to principle a rake, and therefore happier. Both women are attractive; both have more intellectual firepower than they know what to do with. In other words, both seem to be portraits of Bedford’s mother — the rake that she was in youth and the scold that she became in middle age — though the daughter channels Bedford herself when she asks her mother, “How can you be so unforgiving?”

The novel never really gets started; the philosophically promiscuous daughter never feels any one passion strongly enough to fight for it. As if Bedford sensed the flaw and was at a loss for how to repair it, she told the story a second time in the novel that followed, A Compass Error (1968) — a strange, unforced doubling of her error. But then, fortunately, A Compass Error turns into a neat little Jamesian thriller. Flavia, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the daughter in A Favourite of the Gods, is living on her own in a French seaside town in the 1930s, an aspiring writer eager to explore her awakening sexuality. The morning after bedding a neighbor’s wife, she looks up from a volume of Gibbon and giggles, “The sensual life is in the bag,” confident that the faith in reason that inspired that eighteenth-century historian will guide her through the shoals of eros in the twentieth. If only lust could be rationalized so cozily. Flavia soon falls for a cynical beauty — a version, Bedford later admitted, of the woman she herself had fallen for as a teenager — who sneers, “Physical passion is not as deliciously dix-huitième as you like to think it is,” and proceeds to prove the point.

A two-volume biography of Aldous Huxley followed, published in 1973 and 1974. In 1976, Bedford’s partner of twenty years, an American novelist named Eda Lord, died of cancer, ending a relationship that had become a burden on account of what Bedford called Lord’s “defeatism.” Left to her own devices, Bedford decided to return to autobiographical fiction. She hadn’t yet written about living with her father when she was a child, and she hadn’t touched the darker aspects of her mother’s story at all. It took a decade for Bedford to overcome her inner censor, but at last, in 1989, she published Jigsaw, subtitling it A Biographical Novel.

The texture is rich and mellow. Although Bedford unweaves a number of the fictions that she had imposed on her readers in A Legacy, the mood is not one of disenchantment but of ripeness: she’s strong enough for the truth now, and the time has come to tell it. She writes about napping in a pram while her mother has a tryst, about running away from her impoverished father, and about causing talk in her village by playing with the boys instead of the girls. She writes about how cruel her mother was when she learned that Bedford had fallen for a woman — “Don’t go about thinking of yourself as a doomed Baudelairean pervert” — and about how lost in morphine Lisa eventually became, secretly pawning a gold cigarette case given to Bedford by her father and taunting her daughter as a coward when she declined to try an ampoule herself. But by then the writer had learned that reason could not always be pleasure’s friend. In a lucid moment, after quizzing Bedford about a novel that she was trying to write concerning a fictional young man, her mother said, “You have me. I’m a much more interesting subject.” Indeed, she and le beau Max were Bedford’s greatest characters.

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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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