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Sybille Bedford: Quicksands: A Memoir

I didn’t know much about Sybille Bedford before I read this – other than that she was born an aristocratic Sybille von Schoenebeck in Germany, married a Mr Bedford to obtain a British passport in the 1930s, and wrote acclaimed novels in English. I haven’t read any of Bedford’s novels yet, either, but I understand they are largely autobiographical, about her childhood and youth, her family and friends. Quicksands covers this same ground. The memoir begins in the ‘fifties, jumps back to the ‘thirties, then to her childhood years in the ‘teens, and back to the ‘fifties (I must confess my poor little brain was thoroughly confused by the matters chronological at this point). The later decades of her life, on the other hand, are quickly summarised in the last chapter, although these were her years of success as a novelist, journalist, and court reporter. Her first book, a travelogue about Mexico, wasn’t published until 1953 when she was in her forties – and this is effectively where the memoir ends, though she lived on till 2006 and says in the book she is writing it in 2001. Does writing begin where ‘real life’ ends? Or is it just that there is ‘no time’, as Bedford says at the end: ‘Wish I could tell the half of it . . .’

And so, the book begins when the writer in Sybille Bedford is born (ellipses in the original):

Writing: to be someone who wrote – books of course – was what I had wished to be from childhood, seeing it as an exalted calling, a vocation, bestowed (by whom?) on me, however unworthy . . . My limitations were large: an almost entire lack of formal education; a lack of facility in getting words on paper – la page vide que sa blancheur défend . . . (I read French early, and it did bite deep); great natural sloth . . . Make me a writer, but not yet. So, no tales scribbled lying on the nursery floor, no essays imposed by school (hardly ever went to school); only a guilty headful of unwritten letters.

If hiding behind your fictions is the typical thing for a writer to do, then Quicksands is a typical writer’s memoir. Like I said, I didn’t know much about Sybille Bedford before reading this book . . . and in some ways, I am not much wiser now. She casts herself as very much an observer in life, and launches into long digressions about the lives (and especially the romantic lives) of her friends and relatives. Her own emotional life is an éminence grise in this book: Bedford says she fell in love often (‘too often’), but if Quicksands is to be believed, its influence on her choices in life was pretty much nil. It took me a long while before I even began to suspect that the female friend she lived with was a lover, and that her naive infatuation with a friend’s wife was something more than hero worship. No doubt Bedford felt that her sexuality was nobody’s business, and more power to her; but at times the anecdotes about her stepfather’s mistresses, sister’s divorces, and friends’ amorous scandals seem like a ploy to divert the attention from herself. Sometimes, as in the case of Bedford’s glamorous but difficult mother, or of her idol Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria, the digressions are fascinating in themselves (and the nostalgic chapter about the Huxleys’ domestic life at Sanary-sur-Mer was probably my favourite). More often, I’m afraid, they are not – I had no idea why I should be so very interested in the love affairs of a Pierre Mimerel, for instance, or in the many friends whose real names she refuses to disclose; even her sister’s husband is known only as ‘D.’ I got the feeling that Bedford has probably made more and better use of all this material in her novels.

Partly this evasiveness may be due to her being unsure about her place in life, as an exile, an outsider, a woman of great sophistication and intelligence but no proper education . . . and as, to use her own term, an ‘escapee’ of history – someone who doesn’t know to whom or what she ‘owes’ her survival, and perhaps feels guilty about being no more than such an escapee. Bedford had a streak of political idealism in her, but not enough gravitas to support it – or so, at least, she seems to have felt. Here she tells about an essay of hers which was published in a radical journal:

I had put into it about everything I ever thought I thought and the pages were bristling with quotations, beginning, I blush to remember, with Paul Valéry: ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort‘ . . . (fortunately put into Aldous’s mouth, not mine). Unfortunately I had also dragged in words of my own, words hardly germane to a context of the paradoxes and absurdities of Mexico . . . There was one outspoken aggressive paragraph attacking current Nazi horrors. These indeed had been the themes of several other contributors, grandees of exile; I was aware of the futility of one myself. I merely wanted – very strongly – to stand up and be counted (or more likely not).

Gravitas or no gravitas, Bedford ended up blacklisted by the Nazi régime, and her German property was confiscated; she was in danger of being deported to Germany from France, and the Huxleys arranged her marriage of convenience to one Terry Bedford. (Or, as Maria Huxley put it, ‘We must get one of our bugger friends to marry Sybille.’) To Bedford, this appears to have been no great loss; she’d always seen herself, ‘obstinately’, as an English writer anyway.

Quicksands is like an old jewellery box, a little messy and the gems at times hard to find, but every little episode does have its peculiar charms. Among many other things Bedford tells how she ran away from her father’s castle as an unruly ten-year-old, how morphine was prescribed to calm her mother’s nerves and the addiction killed her seven years later, and how Virginia Woolf turned up at her faux wedding (Bedford couldn’t say why, as they never met again). The memoir has a surprising lot of dialogue, and it resembles a novel in many ways; the narrative jumps around and memories turn up, it seems, unexpected. Stream-of-consciousness memoir – is that a real category? Stream-of-memories? Whatever it is, the book is a quirky creature, and the writing style reflects the author’s character; the occasional dodgy grammar and peculiar turn of phrase (‘Goose is who goose does’) seem to be part of her identity, like every language she has spoken and every country she has lived in. As a matter of fact, the structure of the book probably tells more about her than its contents. I don’t think a rootless existence like this could be captured in a less fragmented form.

Final Verdict: Occasionally frustrating, but still worth reading.

Hamish Hamilton  2005  hardback  369 pp.  ISBN: 0241140374

10 comments on “Sybille Bedford: Quicksands: A Memoir

  1. Jackie
    July 26, 2008

    I wonder if it is really secrecy or if she didn’t really know herself that well, that makes her persist in diverting the story away from herself and giving lack of details? It does sound like she’s thinking aloud, rather than writing a memoir. I like your jewellry box metaphor. And isn’t that a beautiful photo on the cover? Simple, elegant, yet very pretty.

  2. Moira
    July 26, 2008

    I think Jackie may be right … that Sybille Bedford only had a hazy idea of who she was, and what she knew about herself she wasn’t very comfortable with.

    All of which begs the question – if that was the case, why write your memoirs?

    I know of Sybille Bedford but like you, Leena, I’ve never read anything of hers.

    Sounds like a curious book by a curious woman.

    And if you persist in putting words like ‘bugger’ in your reviews, you’ll have the League of Decency on your case … :mrgreen:

  3. Lisa
    July 26, 2008

    Gosh, Leena, you make this one sound enticing. I also loved the jewellery box line (and the unexpected turning up of Virginia Woolf!) Agree with Jackie about the cover. Very pretty. Soothing too. Excellent review, as always.

    P.S Stream-of-memories is a lovely way of phrasing the narrative style. Intrigued.

  4. Alex Pheby
    July 26, 2008

    I read this recently too – following a research dead end – and found the chronological shifts equally challenging. At the time I put them down to the bloody mindedness of an old writer who was damned well going to write her memoirs without having to obey the tiresome rules of the novels she’d written.

    As for her shady presence in the memoir: she was in the position of being known pretty much inside out from her fiction and was possibly a bit wary of re-treading old ground.

    Very good review,BTW.

    You really capture both the intrigues and difficulties of the book, of which there are many. I remember being fascinated by the woman at the beginning – the libertine socialite who eventually wined and dined the Nazi heads of state – can’t remember her name – and was disappointed by the return to Bedford’s own life. Definitely came away with the impression that the main strength of the book was in its supporting characters, which is unusual for a memoir, although perhaps not surprising given her fiction.

  5. rosyb
    July 26, 2008

    It does beg the question a little why write a memoir if you are going to play hide-and-seek…

    Interesting review. Not sure that this book wouldn’t just end up totally frustrating me, though sounds like an interesting portrait of a set of people and the times they lived in. Do you think hiding her sexuality is why she is so generally shifty? A learned habit? Or for survival – having to fit in as an exile?

  6. Leena
    July 27, 2008

    I love the cover too… actually I got the book because of it 😉

    Alex: As for her shady presence in the memoir: she was in the position of being known pretty much inside out from her fiction and was possibly a bit wary of re-treading old ground.

    Yes, I think so too – didn’t she say as much in the book? Something about having a pathological fear of repeating herself. Which makes me wonder if she started the memoirs in order to set the record straight (after all, autobiographical fiction can never be quite faithful to the truth) and then found herself unable to tell the full truth. Or preferring the fiction. I don’t know.

    I liked the story of the socialite, too – I think her name was Issa, wasn’t it? Apparently she makes an appearance in the novel Jigsaw. Must read that one.

    Rosy, I think the shiftiness is probably a combination of all those things… and I think Jackie and Moira are very right – it seems to me from reading this book that Bedford didn’t know herself (or her true, as opposed to fictional, self) all that well when she set out to write this. Perhaps mid-way through the book she realised she wasn’t even so very keen to find out.

  7. Crispin
    July 28, 2008

    Sybille Bedford got her last name from, as Leena wrote, Terry Bedford. He was a bugger, yes, as the ex-lover of W.H Auden’s former butler. They married and never saw each other after the wedding day.
    Her book ‘A Legacy’, from the 1950’s, is excellent. That should be read before even her ‘second autobiographical novel’, Jigsaw, short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1989, losing to Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’, yet another glorious reminiscent of days past. She told us about her parents life in ‘A Legacy’, came back with further details of unclear passages from that, in ‘Jigsaw’, and revisited them again, with yet a good dose of clarification, and worse, the truth (we liked the old world charm of ‘A Legacy’) in ‘Quicksands’.

  8. Kevin
    September 14, 2008

    Yes, why write a memior if you’re going to play hide and seek. I love reading memiors, a person really has to expose themself for me to really connect to it though.

  9. Ralph
    March 4, 2011

    In the 1980s I worked in the library in the King’s Road, Chelsea (London, England). A very old lady all in black, including a hat, had her books checked out and her name came up on the primitive computers we had then: Sybille Bedford. ‘Was that her? The writer?’ I asked colleagues. I thought she’d died in about 1930. It was her and I went and read A LEGACY, her most famous novel. It is brilliant – about a family in Germany in the early 20th Century. Bears some comparison with Mann’s BUDDENBROOKS, though Bedford’s Prussians are much less happy than his Lubeck folk…

    I never saw her again in the library, or if I did, never had any conversation with her.

  10. Dapplegrey
    June 3, 2020

    I loved Quicksands but I don’t understand why her family’s names are never revealed. For example, the real name of her half sister (who is called Jacko in the book) was Maximiliane known as Catsy. She married secondly Baron ‘Spatz’ von Dincklage who was a Nazi spy and lover of Chanel.
    All this is in the public domaine and anyway they’ve all been dead for years so I don’t know why Sybille Bedford was so secretive.
    Nonetheless it’s a fascinating book and I’m much looking forward to Selina Hasting’s biography which will be published in November and will hopefully fill in the tantalising spaces.

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This entry was posted on July 26, 2008 by in Entries by Leena, Non-fiction: literature, Non-fiction: memoir and tagged , , , .



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