Monday, August 11, 2008

"A most disagreeable instrument, I hear."

Midway through Sybille Bedford's wonderful novel of pre-war Germany, A Legacy (1956) there occurs a very funny bit of dialogue between a woman, Sarah, and her brother-in-law, Julius, with whom she has developed a close, if somewhat mutually uncomprehending, friendship over the years. We have been warned in the preceding paragraph, in Bedford's simultaneously elliptic and epigrammatic fashion, that, unexpectedly, something is up with Sarah:
Late love has this in common with first love, it is again involuntary. In the event, Sarah did make a large sum of money by playing the French Rente; she did not get the Monet, but she bought another, and she also bought a Seurat, yet these achievements hardly weighed with her at all: if she had chosen them to keep herself diverted and absorbed, she was that winter--rapt in discovery, borne on laughter, freshly, involuntarily, magically absorbed. She was also something else, she was happy.
But we've as yet been given no details when the next paragraph opens with dialogue:
"Do you know anyone who can help one to get a telephone?"


"T e l e p h o n e."

"A most disagreeable instrument, I hear," said Julius.

"Obviously you're no help."

"A friend of mine has one. Somebody put it in for her as a surprise. It is used for ordering oysters when it's too late for sending a petit bleu. But the petit bleu is quicker."

"Extraordinary housekeeping. Your friend could hardly be willing to wrench it off her wall and give it to me? We must get our benighted Embassy to do something. You must speak to them."


"The brother-in-law of the Foreign Minister."

"Oh, poor Conrad; I don't think of him in that way."

"It's the way that best bears thinking about. They say it takes three weeks normally. I want it now."

"The telephone?"

"Yes, Jules."

"Whatever for?"

"To talk. To talk to one's friends in the morning."

"Sarah?" said Julius. "You are not expecting me to talk to you on the telephone?"

"No," Sarah said. "Not you."
In fewer than twenty lines Bedford sketches the heart of the difficulties that perpetually beset this family, the reliable inability of nearly every family member to properly attend to one another as actual people, with wishes and desires that just possibly might not be coterminous with their own. That she does so while also making us laugh--and at the same time beginning to cultivate the ache she'll later make us feel over Sarah's foredoomed love--is as good an example of the power of concision (or, as I referred to it the other day in writing about that past master of the art, Penelope Fitzgerald, the art of leaving out) as you'll ever see.

If I'm sufficiently organized, I'll have more to say later this week about this novel. Tonight, though, I have a question: when I first read this exchange, I immediately was sure I'd read a conversation about telephones in an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel that ran along similar lines. If it exists, I'm sure it's in one of the two that the New York Review of Books Classics line has reissued, Manservant and Maidservant or A House and Its Head. But in paging through those volumes a bit, I haven't been able to find it. Does this strike a chord with anyone else, or am I imagining it, based on how very Compton-Burnett the passage is?

{By the way: thanks to About Last Night contributor Our Girl in Chicago for leading me to pick up this novel. Compare something convincingly to Anthony Powell and you've got me every time . . . }

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:04 AM

    Hi there,

    Just read this, loved it but did find it hard to remember everyone's story -- will have to reread. Sarah's late love is whom? Yes, several times she reminded me of I. Compton-B.