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Selina Hastings, Sybille Bedford, SF 69

Bruised, Shocked, but Elated

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I first met Sybille Bedford in London in the early 1980s when an old friend of mine, Patrick Woodcock, who at the time was Sybille’s doctor, invited us both to dinner. As a keen admirer of Sybille’s writing, I was thrilled at the prospect.

I was the first to arrive, a little nervous and full of anticipation. Soon afterwards Sybille made her entrance, a small, neat figure with short grey hair, dressed in trousers and waistcoat, a red-and-white spotted kerchief tucked into the neck of her shirt. Patrick introduced us, Sybille nodded acknowledgement, and from that moment on she completely ignored me, addressing all her conversation to Patrick. The chief topic, I remember, was her current infatuation with a woman artist in Richmond, only interrupted by a detailed analysis of the food – Patrick was an excellent cook – and of the wine we were drinking, both always a matter of supreme importance to Sybille.

I returned home feeling slightly snubbed, and it was several years before I encountered her again. This time it was at dinner in the flat of another old friend, Stanley Olson, a great gourmet and wine connoisseur. That occasion was very different: Sybille was charming, talkative and highly amusing, and from then on I saw her at fairly regular intervals, every few months or so. We met at her tiny flat in Chelsea, or at my house or in restaurants, and once she asked me to an oenophiles’ gathering to pay homage to a rare claret, which of course was way above my station. We also talked on the telephone, long conversations which usually started with Sybille complaining about some domestic irritation – a plumber who had failed to turn up, noisy neighbours on the floor above – but which almost always evolved into some fascinating recollection of her extraordinary, and often harrowing, past.

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I first met Sybille Bedford in London in the early 1980s when an old friend of mine, Patrick Woodcock, who at the time was Sybille’s doctor, invited us both to dinner. As a keen admirer of Sybille’s writing, I was thrilled at the prospect.

I was the first to arrive, a little nervous and full of anticipation. Soon afterwards Sybille made her entrance, a small, neat figure with short grey hair, dressed in trousers and waistcoat, a red-and-white spotted kerchief tucked into the neck of her shirt. Patrick introduced us, Sybille nodded acknowledgement, and from that moment on she completely ignored me, addressing all her conversation to Patrick. The chief topic, I remember, was her current infatuation with a woman artist in Richmond, only interrupted by a detailed analysis of the food – Patrick was an excellent cook – and of the wine we were drinking, both always a matter of supreme importance to Sybille. I returned home feeling slightly snubbed, and it was several years before I encountered her again. This time it was at dinner in the flat of another old friend, Stanley Olson, a great gourmet and wine connoisseur. That occasion was very different: Sybille was charming, talkative and highly amusing, and from then on I saw her at fairly regular intervals, every few months or so. We met at her tiny flat in Chelsea, or at my house or in restaurants, and once she asked me to an oenophiles’ gathering to pay homage to a rare claret, which of course was way above my station. We also talked on the telephone, long conversations which usually started with Sybille complaining about some domestic irritation – a plumber who had failed to turn up, noisy neighbours on the floor above – but which almost always evolved into some fascinating recollection of her extraordinary, and often harrowing, past.
In 2002 I completed a life of the novelist Rosamond Lehmann, who had been a good friend to Sybille. Sybille sent me a complimentary letter, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, it was that book that made her decide she wanted me as her biographer. This I learned only after her death. Although I knew something of her life and was excited by the prospect of writing about her, it was not until I had spent several months reading her papers at the Ransom Center in Texas that I realized just how rich and extraordinary her story is.

*

Born in Germany in 1911, Sybille, after her father’s death, had moved to France at the age of 15 to live with her mother. And it was France that remained her base until 1940, when she was forced to flee, her identity as both German and Jewish a sudden and serious threat to her safety. Arrived in America, she spent the war years in New York, increasingly anxious, once hostilities had ceased, to return to Europe. But from the moment peace was declared a vast exodus began, the waiting lists for transatlantic passage seemingly endless, the price of tickets far above what Sybille could afford. Eventually, realizing she had little hope of leaving the continent, she decided instead to go south, to travel to another country, eager to investigate a different history and culture. Throughout most of her long life, Sybille remained a keen traveller, almost constantly on the move, living in England, France, Italy, in her middle age writing many articles about her extensive journeys through Europe. Prone to anxiety, she never liked to travel alone, and was nearly always accompanied by one of a series of lovers with whom she lived over the years. While in New York Sybille had begun an affair with a woman almost fifteen years her senior, Esther Murphy, sister of Gerald Murphy, the close friend of Scott Fitzgerald. Tall, ungainly, very masculine in appearance, Esther was kind-hearted, clever and formidably well-read, given to talking for hours on end, drink and cigarette always to hand. With the war over, the two women spent hours poring over maps, examining the possibilities of South America, of Peru, Uruguay, Montevideo, all of which turned out to be far too expensive. So they settled on Mexico.
In the event, Sybille and Esther were to spend eight months in the country, a period vividly recalled in A Visit to Don Otavio. Passionately curious, Sybille was an avid explorer, keen to discover as much as she could, while Esther, referred to as ‘E’ in the book, remained the ‘born anti-traveller’. ‘God, she hated to travel,’ Sybille recalled. ‘I laugh when I think of her in Mexico . . . this tall Don Quixote figure, with a head like Jefferson, bowing to everybody and saying, “Viva Mexico,” with an American accent. It’s the only Spanish she learned.’ Arriving in Mexico City after a long, frequently delayed journey by train, the two women settled into a hotel, after which Sybille immediately set off on her own to explore the city. Although bewildered by the noisy, crowded streets, she instantly became fascinated by the sheer foreignness of her surroundings.
As one picks one’s way over mangoes and avocado pears one is tumbled into the gutter by a water-carrier, avoids a Buick saloon and a basin of live charcoal, skips up again scaring a tethered chicken, shies from an exposed deformity and bumps into a Red Indian gentleman in a tight black suit.
Over the next few days, Sybille, accompanied by a benignly indifferent Esther, visited many of the sights of the capital, churches and palaces, galleries and museums, as well as the murals of Diego Rivera in the Palacio Nacional. During the initial weeks in Mexico City one of the great pleasures for Sybille was to sample the local cuisine. From her childhood in Germany, and under the influence of her gourmet father, she had grown passionately interested in food and wine. And now, after years of the bland, boring fare of America, she could hardly wait to sample Mexican cooking. Seated in a local restaurant soon after arrival, she assesses with great concentration every mouthful of the long succession of courses. First two kinds of soup, then omelettes, after which came
two spiny fishes covered in tomato sauce . . . Two thin beef-steaks like the soles of children’s shoes . . . two platefuls of bird bones, lean drumstick and pointed wing smeared with some brown substance . . . We eat heartily of everything. Everything tastes good, nearly everything is good.
Rather less palatable is the wine. ‘I sniff before tasting, so the shock when it comes is not as devastating as it might have been . . . Cheap ink dosed with prune juice and industrial alcohol, as harsh on the tongue as a carrot-grater.’ Over the following weeks and months the two women were constantly on the move, travelling to Cuernavaca and Morelia, to Mazatlán, Acapulco and Veracruz. Together they covered hundreds of miles, cooped up on rackety trains that were always late, in taxis driven at hair-raising speed, on crowded buses stuffed to the rooftop with turkeys and pigs. Yet despite the discomfort Sybille was enthralled, while Esther remained calmly detached, rarely looking up from her volume of Trollope or Jane Austen. ‘I am more and more enchanted with Mexico,’ Sybille reported to a friend, ‘but Esther does not like to move, and stalks past colonial palaces and Aztec pyramids much as Doctor Johnson must have stalked through the Hebrides.’
Throughout their journey, all is observed with close attention, Sybille graphically describing her surroundings, vigorously engaging with the characters encountered en route – nuns, hoteliers, shopkeepers, as well as resident expatriates from Europe and America, many of the last regarded with a frigid distaste. As they continue with their rackety road trip, Sybille and Esther experience varying degrees of comfort. Arriving in Guadalajara at a magnificent sixteenth-century palace, now a hotel, they discover the staircase to their first-floor room has yet to be installed and there is no running water. (‘“There doesn’t seem to be any water in our bathroom.” “Of course not, Señora. It has not been laid on. One thing after another. Perhaps next year?”’) Elsewhere, by contrast, they find themselves living in luxury in exquisitely serene surroundings, on an estate on the shores of Lake Chapala belonging to an eccentric nobleman, ‘Don Otavio’. In the book the property is depicted as a private house, although in fact it was a hotel, the Villa Monte Carlo, its owner Don Guillermo Brizuela, who, like his fictional counterpart, Don Otavio, was generous, courteous, charming and effeminate. ‘He was wearing white flannels . . . [and a] shirt decorated with sea-horses. A bunch of gold holy medals tinkled in the open neck . . . He turned out one of the kindest men I ever met.’ Over the weeks spent staying with Don Guillermo, Sybille came to know a number of his friends, family and neighbours, they and their social interconnections providing rich material for the partly fictionalized account which she was eventually to produce. So enchanted were the two women by the hotel and its owner that they decided to stay on for some time, and it was here, ‘one warm night, on the terrace of a hacienda, lying on a deckchair under the sub-tropical sky’, that the idea came to Sybille of writing about her Mexican experience.
In the event it would be over two years before she began work on the book, by which time she had returned to Europe and was living in Rome. A Visit to Don Otavio, originally entitled The Sudden View, was the first of Sybille’s books to be published. Although from her earliest days she had been determined to write, her previous attempts had been unsuccessful: three works of fiction completed during the 1930s had been turned down. Now, however, she had found her voice. Don Otavio is a superb accomplishment, an intensely involving traveller’s tale that reads like a novel. (‘Of course it’s a novel,’ admitted the author some years later. ‘I didn’t take a single note while I was in Mexico.’) The book appeared first in Britain in 1953, a year later in the United States; widely praised, and subsequently translated into Italian, French and German, it has hardly been out of print since.
Encouraged by such acclaim, Sybille immediately began work on a new project. A novel, entitled A Legacy, it was to prove a remarkable success and to establish her permanently as a distinguished member of the profession of which from her earliest days she had aspired to be part.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 69 © Selina Hastings 2021


About the contributor

Selina Hastings has written biographies of Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Rosamond Lehmann, Somerset Maugham, of her father, The Red Earl, and Sybille Bedford.

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