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IN HER OWN WORDS: Sybille Bedford

On Monday, Amy Weldon wrote of the way Sybille Bedford‘s worldliness—her wide range of cultural experience—broadened and deepened her writer’s voice.  Hear that voice for yourself in the following excerpts from her work and an interview.



We are said to re-invent our memories; we often rearrange them. Did we hear this then?  Do we remember saying that? or do we remember being told we said it? Did this happen at one time, or is this clear-cut scene, that amber moment, a collation, a palimpsest, a stereographic recording of many others? I see the lime tree, see my mother in the long dress, at her tea-table, alone, the parasol beside her – or is it the lady by the bushes and the ribboned hat in the picture upstairs? – I see the gramophone with the funnel horn set for striking up Vesti la Giuba by the master’s orders, the horse-shoe outline of the park beyond the lawns; hear the tone of her voice, bear in me the mood of the afternoon, always long, always hot; smell the lilac.   –-A Legacy, 1956

A part, a large part, of traveling is an engagement of the ego v. the world. The world is transport, the roads, the clerks behind the counters who deal out tickets, mail, messy money, keys; it is the porters, the waiters, the tourist industry, the natives, the weather. The world is hydra-headed, as old as the rocks and as changing as the sea, enmeshed inextricably in its ways. The ego wants to arrive at places safely and on time. It wants to be provided with entertainment, color, quiet, strong coffee, strong drink, matches it can strike, and change for a large paper note. It wants to find a room ready, warmth, cool, hangers, the right voltage, an ashtray, and enough clean towels. It wants the shops to be open and dinner at six-thirty or at half past ten p.m. It wants to be soothed, reassured, attended to, left in peace. It doesn’t want to be stared at. It wants to be made to feel competent, generous, knowledgeable, and of accepted looks. It wants to find everything just as it expected, only rather better. It also wants to find the unexpected, but it wants that to be manageable. And whatever it wants, it wants it now.  —“The Quality of Travel,” Esquire, November 1961, collected in Pleasures and Landscapes, 2003

What my father chose to remember was governed by his own sense of relevancy, and his aim was to converse. He would have preferred solitude, or rather a privacy of animals and objets-d’-art, yet thought it was incumbent on him to spend a reasonable amount of his time – at dinner, perhaps – with his kind. His language was limited, he was certainly not aware of words, but I believe that when he spoke he saw what he had lived. From these set fragments, then, I knew the sheltered valley of Landen where the apricots had ripened on the south wall every year; I learnt the names of dogs and ducks and horses, and the smells of seasons – of the scent that drifted across the snow from where the sides of boar were smoked, of sweet clouded wine drunk foaming off the press and stands at sunrise immobile by a pond, of the tree that bore three-hundred weight in plums and the swinging fall of rye before the scythe. I learnt terms of bee-keeping and terms of stag-driving; I learnt of clean straw, oats and clover, of winter honey, walnuts and March wool, of the pig killed at Michaelmas and Easter and the hams baked whole inside a loaf of bread; I learnt of demonstrations held by traveling Mesmerists in the library, of quirks of squires, discomfitures of tutors, and of the ruses employed by peacocks.  —A Legacy, 1956

“Every writer worth his or her salt eventually develops a voice. I aim at brevity, fluency and lucidity. I also try for a certain lyrical element. I would like to be able to put across what I have seen and lived, with a certain grace. Whether I succeed…”  —Interview with The Paris Review, Spring 1993

With one exception, the people of that time had passed out of my life before I was out of childhood: I did not see them again. They are all dead now. Their houses are no more. Their few descendants must be dispersed over three continents. Had I a mind to, I should be hard put to find them. It is a finished story – immobile in the unalterable past; untouchable, complete, as if sunk inside a sealed glass tank. For me, it was never a new story. Every second hand had touched a first; to every fragment there had floated up another – this phrase had been the key to a remembered look, this fib belied an earlier one, this hint illumined words once overheard, this tale resurrected the mood of a whole winter. Which memories are theirs? Which are mine? I do not know a time when I was not imprinted with the experiences of others. In a sense this is my story.  —A Legacy, 1956

I had indeed intended not to write in German. The structure, the run of the grammar would not bend to the ways in which I should one day want to shape what I would try to write. (By the time I was twenty, I had got on paper some laborious pieces in French.) To get into one language deeply, I found, one has to forsake all others.  —Quicksands, 2005

To see it in its subtle glory one must see the food of Venice as it arrives at daybreak at the quays of the Rialto markets, the pescheria and the erberia, and watch the cargo-gondolas being unloaded in that first blue and hazy Adriatic light. One will never forget that sudden transcendent quality of ordinary things, the glow of the fruit in its own leaves, the purple and green of artichokes with bushy tails, the delicacy of the sea creatures, silver, lilac – pale and coral red.  –“Venice in Winter,” Venture, November 1968, collected in collected in Pleasures and Landscapes, 2003

When I was a child I thought of my grandfather as a great villain; a little later on I thought of him as a man to emulate. Still later I began to see it as what talk had made it – a part of a story. It did not concern me, it could not touch my life: there is always a point when one is newly young when one is able to see oneself detached from all that went before. I was still curious and liked to hear about it. But my mother, great talker though she was, had always seemed content to let it lie. I knew that she, also, had not been allowed to see her father at one time, until she came of age and was free to choose. She only said that he was a dear, and an ill-used man, it had all been very silly and disastrous, and of course her mother’s fault, and now it was too late.  —A Favourite of the Gods, 1963

Wide windows, not yet shuttered at that hour, opened from the circular white-washed room on slopes of olives and the distant shimmering bay. The air still light and cool already held the promise of the dry unwavering heat of noon. Flavia turned seventeen alone, entirely alone for the first time in her life, was at the long table stacked and neat with books. She was working: playing at work, hard at work, immersed, yet alert to the hour and place and her own joy.  —A Compass Error, 1969

I love the world –the Mediterranean, the countryside, friends, wine and food, architecture, art, the riches of life. Why else does one write or paint, except to try to hold a little of that?  –Interview with The Paris Review

Bloom Post End

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