Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sybille Bedford's A Legacy

Sybille Bedford's A Legacy (1956) tells the story of three German families in the years leading up to World War I: two neighboring landed families from the Catholic South and a Jewish manufacturing family from Berlin. Narrated by a woman whose mother was the product of one of the marriages that over the years intertwined the families, the book relates their very different ways of being in--and, despite their wealth and connections, largely being at the mercy of--the rapidly changing Germany of the turn of the twentieth century. Bedford describes one of the Catholic families, the Feldens, thus:
[T]hey were neither backwoodsmen nor courtiers, but country gentlemen of cultured, if not general, interests. They drank hock and claret, but they also drank and knew how to make their own wine. They dabbled in the natural sciences; they enjoyed and contributed to those branches of the arts that increase the amenities of linving--domestic archietecture, instrument-making, horticulture. They were bored by the abstract, bored by letters, and their acceptance of thought was confined to acceptance of thought about things. They liked new theories of acoustics, but turned from ones of government with suspicion and distaste. They played music like craftsmen, and made objects like artists.
The Feldens are lovably eccentric: for example, one of the sons, Julius, keeps chimpanzees that he treats like people. The family leads a charmingly bucolic countryside life that would seem farfetched if it didn't jibe so well with what Patrick Leigh Fermor discovered on his mid-1930s trek through that area. But that life of near-Edenic plenty and ease has done little to fit them--Julius in particular--for life elsewhere, where one must find new activities and occupations, and when love draws Julius to Berlin, he is unmoored and to some extent never quite recovers.

The other southern family, the Bernins, is more politically active, its members staffing government departments and holding cabinet positions, while the Berlin family, the Merzes, is almost entirely contained within its large townhouse, which is stuffed with spinster aunts and ungrateful uncles and autocratic grandparents. The events of the outside world reach them in confused fashion; then that blurry information is endlessly talked round and suspected to the point of negation. This scene, where the patriarch, some cousins, assorted other family members, and the butler discuss the extravagant gambling debts run up by the eldest son, Eduard, shows the mix of obliviousness, confusion, and petty cruelty that reigns in the house; it also serves well to demonstrate Bedford's light touch with comic dialogue:
"Whist, I suppose."

"Not whist, papa."

"Well, some fool game. Good money out of the window. Daresay it's in the family. Look at your uncle Emil. Wake up, Emil!" His brother-in-law, who was fifteen years younger and neither deaf nor napping, looked up. "Edu's lost more at the tables than you ever had a chance to spit at."

"Poor Sarah," said Emil, who was a nice man.

"Sarah is a rich woman," said Cousin Markwald, who was neither.

"Well, she forked it out. How much did you say it was?" said Grandpapa who knew, but wished to hear again.

Friedrich named a figure.

"Round," said Grandpapa.

"Has poor Edu been losing again?" said Grandmama. "He's always such bad luck. I'm sure they swindle him."

"Him," said Cousin Markwald.

"The results do not point to that conclusion, sir."

"Well, yes, mama, I think the money-lenders take him in. It's hardly conceivable otherwise; no-one could stake so much in cold blood."

"I never heard of anyone staking in cold blood," said Emil.

"Money-lenders?" said Grandmama. "What would the poor boy want to borrow money for?"

"Has my son been to the money-lenders?" said the old gentleman, really stung. "I'm going to cut him off. Who does the fool think he is, a Goy?"

"Everybody goes to them nowadays, papa," said Friedrich.

"It does sound degenerate of us," said Emil.
Bedford makes that sort of comedy seem effortless. She's just as skilled at showing how the refusal of each of these families to engage fully with reality and its problems not only dooms them to loss and decline but also, when ramified through a whole society, ultimately aids the rise of the Nazi horror.

But the novel really comes to life when Bedford begins to focus more clearly on Sarah, Eduard's long-suffering wife. Early on, when Sarah--who, unlike her in-laws, always lives in the world as it is, rather than as she'd have it be--is beginning to come to terms with the fact that she's married a wastrel, Bedford offers this capsule description:
She was a woman who had to know herself just in all her dealings. She liked few people, had never loved and liked at the same time for long; she could not afford not to like herself. Dignity and consience were her shell and her recourse. She had presence, she was instructed, she judged, she was too tall; men treaterd her as she appeared to them, and never, once, had she been spoken to in the way Julius spoke to Tzara, his chimpanzee. Nor was there anyone from whom this could have been entirely acceptable: she sought rectititude, success, character; looks, wit and mind, and had never found them united in one person. Without looks she could not be moved, looks and a civilized facade; mind she was long resigned tofinding only among those of her acquaintance who were slovenly and self-interested, or slovenly and indifferent; and at that period of her life she was quite alone.
Sarah's natural toughness, her cold facade, are drawn so convincingly, made so familiar and comprehensible--and, importantly, sympathetic--that when we learn, in a passage I quoted from yesterday, that she has fallen in what Bedford describes as "late love," the very revelation is moving. When we find (and here those of you who might be thinking of reading A Legacy should probably stop reading; the scenes on which I'm basing the rest of this post are best encountered in context), perhaps not unexpectedly, that the object of her love is fickle and flighty and probably unworthy, we ache for her--yet at the same time, Bedford draws that love so well that we understand.

The object of Sarah's love is revealed to us at a dinner party. She turns out to be a married woman named Caroline, who arrives decidedly late, spraying apologies to the assembled:
"How can you ever forgive me? That endless Brahms--you know the way that never stops. And then of course no cabs, there's a blizzard--"
She whirls through the party, "hugging silence, sometimes bubbling to the surface in a splash of talk," at one point managing an amusing exchange with Sarah's brother-in-law and friend Julius:
"Dinner parties," Julius told her, "so unnecesary. Large ones. So many people eating together. The after-dinner faces--it is so unbecoming to the women."

"How like Lord Byron."

"The poet?" said Julius with the recklessness of someone trying a very long shot.

She smiled at him, all on the surface now. "Lord Byron, the poet."
But later, when the crowd has thinned, Sarah corners her:
"My dear."

"And I wanted to say, I don't see how you can forgive me for tonight. It was unpardonable. But you know--"

"My dear--it was not Brahms this afternoon, it was Schumann. I know: because I was there."

"No? What a lark." She smiled at Sarah with her eyes. "Darling, then you're able to say that you saw me."

"Please, please my dear, be careful. Oh I beg you."

"I might. A little. To please you--to throw something to the gods."

"And were you supposed to have changed into this dress in the cab?"

Her look turned inward again as if to meet a memory.

"Should you even talk so much about going alone in cabs?"

"Not alone."

"I am frightened."

"I am happy." The face became drawn; then her eyes met Sarah's fully, she very lightly touched her hand with her hand. "Sarah--I am so happy. The world--"

"It does not make you invisible. Nor invulnerable."

"But it does," said Caroline, "it does, it does."
My god, that recklessness, that life, that glow--can't you see it? Haven't we all fallen for it at some point, despite knowing better? I get chills every time I read that scene, and what follows in the remaining 150+ pages, as relationships, marriages, families come and go, is worthy of that shiver.

A Legacy is a brilliant book; I'm with Nancy Mitford, who wrote to Evelyn Waugh that it "all seemed perfect to me."

3 comments:

  1. Going to see if my library has that right now.

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  2. Anonymous10:24 PM

    Thanks for this lovely review of a book to get lost in over a long winter's weekend.

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  3. Her book "The Best We Can Be" was superb and should be read by all trial lawyers

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