If the novelist had been more productive she would have had less funby Fatema Ahmed / November 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
Despite having a name reminiscent of a no-nonsense Home Counties hostess, the novelist and bonne vivante Sybille Bedford was born Sibylla von Schoenebeck in Charlottenburg, near Berlin, in 1911. Her father was a middle-aged baron of limited means whose second marriage to Bedford’s mother—a much younger British-born heiress of Jewish origin with an intellectual bent—was a disaster. Eventually her mother took Sybille to France where they became friends with Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria, as well as a number of émigré German writers, Thomas Mann the most eminent.
Bedford published four novels that relied heavily on her early life. It comes as no surprise that Selina Hastings’ biography is at its most vivid when it covers the same material, even if she is at times in competition with her own subject.
The wit of Bedford’s writing and its playful fracturing of chronology makes it impossible to read her novels as tragedies. In Hastings’s more straightforward telling, however, the details of Bedford’s early life seem very much darker: her father died when she was 14, her mother became a morphine addict, and her beloved maternal grandmother committed suicide to avoid being deported. Bedford herself was lucky to take the last passenger ship crossing from Genoa to New York in June 1940.
Bedford famously told an interviewer, “I wish I’d written more books and spent less time being in love.” At least half of Hastings’ biography—and rather more than her subject’s very long life—is taken up by a whirl of overlapping affairs with women in a social circle where everyone seems to be everyone else’s former lover. Food and good wine were just as much a presence. It’s not clear whether holding back from the good life would have made Bedford any more productive as a writer, but Hastings’ book goes a long way towards explaining why that good life was quite so important to her.
Sybille Bedford: An Appetite for Life by Selina Hastings (Chatto & Windus, £20)