Classics Reissued: A Legacy
by Sybille Bedford
NYRB Classics: 2015
Sybille Bedford’s semi-autobiographical novel begins with a mystery of eccentricity. What sort of people live this way?
I spent the first nine years of my life in Germany, bundled to and fro between two houses. One was outrageously large and ugly; the other was beautiful. They were a huge Wilhelminian town house in the old West of Berlin, built and inhabited by the parents of my father’s first wife, and a small seventeenth-century chateau and park in the South, near the Vosges, bought for my father by my mother.
She continues, “I was born, however, in a flat rented for the occasion in the suburb of Charlottenburg.”
Why does the narrator’s father live half the time with the parents of his first – and therefore presumably dead or divorced – wife? And who rents a flat for the purpose of giving birth in it? Bedford takes up each piece of the puzzle, following the misadventures of the narrator’s father, Julius Felden, and his three brothers, as well as the various families to which they unite themselves by marriage—the rich Catholic Bernins, the rich Jewish Merzes—and finally, toward the end, the narrator’s mother, a beautiful British heiress. All these people—and there are an astonishing number for a 368-page novel—provide copious opportunities for Bedford to analyze and satirize the entire upper strata of late 19th and early 20th German society.
The military, the government, the churches, the gambling houses, the art world, the press: all receive their barb. Bedford’s depiction manages to be both loving and uncompromisingly critical. Family stories and the glowing fragments of childhood memory conveyed to her a story about her forebears, set in a society that was destroyed by two world wars. She appropriates that story with cynical nostalgia. She laments what was lost but remains perfectly aware that the seeds of cataclysm had already been planted, their vicious tendrils evident to anyone who looked closely enough: anti-semitism, militarism, political polarization. The extraordinary feat of A Legacy is to be both an intimate family drama and an objective exposition of history.
The variety of Bedford’s narrative styles matches this double achievement, yet the virtuosity of her prose and pacing knits Gibbon-like expositions to impressionistic five line scenes of pure dialogue and sharp Austenian observations of character. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Consider, for example, the harrowing story at the heart of the second of the book’s five parts. It concerns Julius Felden’s brother Johannes. Their father, in order to secure his sons’ financial future, uses the nepotism available to a member of the old German aristocracy to place each one in a promising career, making a disastrously inept choice in each case. Young Johannes is sent to a cadet academy. He is a cosmopolitan and free-spirited boy, unused to discipline or the animosity of his peers. Bedford sets up the tragedy of sentencing him to cadet school by breaking away from her narrative for a bit of exposition:
The rigours of the Prussian cadet institutions were notorious and intentional. They were places where boys—the sons usually of military gentlemen, and sometimes from as young as nine—were left to spend seven or eight years in a formative atmosphere of organized hunger, brutality, and spiritual deprivation. They were drilled into rigidity on frosty mornings with small-arms, von Moltke, the Army Manual, Julius Caesar and the campaigns of Frederic the Great. Many died. Of dysentery or pneumonia in the infirmiraries—no boy was sent, or after one experience would go, to these for less—of injuries, never reported, never mentioned, suffered in the dormitories after dark. The survivors were released at eighteen as career officers and defective human beings.
Johannes spends a few days there, days of unmitigated horror for him, and then he runs away. Living like an animal, hunted by the administrators of the academy (who do not bother to inform his family for almost two months), somehow he creeps home to safety. His father is naturally horrified at the treatment his son received and promises never to make him return. But the cadet school itself, for purposes of maintaining internal discipline, require that Johannes be sent back and punished. They call upon the Felden’s neighbor, Count Bernin, whose daughter and the eldest of the Felden brothers wish to be engaged, to persuade him to convince the boy’s father to send him back.
Bedford steps into the head of Count Bernin as he decides to do as the cadet school asks. We discover another of her many registers: the philosophical.
It was simple. To the Count used to thinking on those lines, it was crystal clear. To us, and our perspective, the heirs of this and other more enormous pieces of expediency, it appears futile, shameless and involved. The moves that shape the future seldom shape their own intended ends; the course of self-interest is seen as a beeline only at the moment, and the history of individuals, groups and countries is the sum of these. On that May morning eighty years ago Count Bernin was told that he had the opportunity of rendering a lasting service to the German government.
Bernin does as he is asked. Ever-persuasive, he quite easily directs Baron Felden to release his son back into the custody of the cadet school. But the Count’s daughter, Clara, sees with clear eyes what this will do to the boy. She tries to convince her father to reverse the course of his influence. Failing that she calls in Father Hauser, a Jesuit priest skilled in casuistry, to work upon her father’s conscience. (The Machiavellian layers of this situation are characteristic of the whole book: a priest persuading a Count to persuade a Baron to do something. Bedford handles it with ease; reading, one is never confused.) Their conversation is a perfect example of Bedford’s elliptic, brilliant use of dialogue. Between each sentence is a double line break to indicate the passage of time:
Count Bernin spoke; Father Hauser listened. Then Father Hauser spoke and Count Bernin listened. To every word he had to say. It was a great deal. “I and yet I cannot agree with you,” he said at the end. “I cannot.”
Presently, Count Bernin said, “There is too much involved.”
And presently, “I can’t help it that old Felden hasn’t got his wits about him.”
“Besides it’s too late.”
“You are not my spiritual adviser, you know.”
“I did not start it. I never like it.”
“You know, if anybody does, I am not building for myself. Nor for my time…” […]
“Yes, if you like, used. On occasions used.”
And so on, as the Jesuit – out of our hearing – slowly wears down with implacable reasoning the rationalizations of the Count. This one-sided conversation, a conversation that implies much more than it says, is a virtuosic example of Bedford’s ordinary practice. When she writes dialogue it is as if the patient historical expositor, or the inditer of explicit invective, has disappeared, replaced by someone with the sensitivities and meaningful reticence of a Virginia Woolf. As she cycles between registers like the ones I have been citing, Bedford fits each one seamlessly into the workings of her story. Only in retrospect does the stylistic daring, the narrative skill become apparent.
What holds it all together? Speed and the narrator’s viewpoint. Without seeming rushed, Bedford packs into less than four-hundred pages dozens of characters populating what amount to five novellas with an astonishing range of incident and setting. At strategic moments she reminds us of the journey this story has taken to reach us, reminds us from whom we are hearing it. Heir to the modernist tradition in this respect, Bedford never forgets that a novel is told by someone. The personality of this narrator intrigues us. Indeed, in A Legacy the narrator’s story in some senses is the story, though she is hardly present – apart from a few cameos – except as the voice that tells the tale:
[This] is a finished story—immobile in the unalterable past; untouchable, complete, as if sunk inside a sealed glass tank. For me, it was never a new story. Every second hand had touched a first; to every fragment there had floated up another–this phrase been the key to a remembered look, this fib belied an earlier one, this hint illumined words once overheard, this tale resurrected the mood of a whole winter. Which memories are theirs? Which are mine? I do not know a time when I was no imprinted with the experience of others. In a sense this is my story.
A Legacy is as perfect as a novel gets. It’s written with the sentence-by-sentence intensity of a short story, the narrative sweep of a history, and the tragi-comic interest of a family drama. Moreover, it is as significant as a novel gets, full of the interest of people distant from us in time and custom but recognizably human, and effortlessly illustrative of a period and society lost to us but incalculably important for the world we live in. Read it.