Good Reading : August 2001
authorprofile game of cat and mouse with her reader, so that one can never be sure where fact ends and fiction begins. She is a British author but her roots are completely European, and semi- aristocratic at that. She still has a faint accent on some words, a kind of German precision softened by the way she swallows her syllables. Her life story is confusing, cleverly disguised in her novels in a game of hide and seek. But the barest biographical details are that Sybille Bedford was born in Charlottenburg, in Germany in 1911, the only child of a Catholic father and Jewish mother. She was privately educated in England, France and Italy and began Sybille Bedford is one of the most intriguing figures in twentieth century fiction; the best of her writing is often autobiographical, but she persists in playing an elusive game of cat and mouse with her reader, so that one can never be sure where fact ends and fiction begins. writing at the age of sixteen. She has written four novels: A Legacy, A Favourite of the Gods, A Compass Error and Jigsaw. She has also written several works of non fiction and was vice president of PEN. In 1981 she received an OBE for her services to literature. 20 These days, she is adamant that she does not want to be the subject of a biography. She refers to the friend she has appointed to look after her papers as her ‘literary executioner’ rather than executor. Those who attempt an unauthorised version can expect to find that many of the sources of truth and gossip are dead, and that the rest are loyally discreet. While she sold many of her papers to the University of Texas, she retains many secrets. Those who would draw them from her, she delights in teasing with half-finished sentences. Her private life is very much off limits. Yes, she was married briefly, in 1935, to Walter Bedford, an army officer, but she says matter of factly that there have been two or three men in her life that she has loved, and four or five women. No names, though I learn from another source that Bedford was rescued from near destitution some years ago by a female Brazilian cellist who fell in love with her and has paid her bills ever since. She never wanted children. ‘I loathe brats! A writer and a pram are not compatible,’ she says firmly. Her books are dedicated to women. Friendship has always occupied a central place in Bedford’s work and life, equal to love. These days, most SYBILLE BEDFORD of her friends are absent, even those much younger than herself. She misses Bruce Chatwin. ‘I loved him,’ she says, remembering that she was asked to review In Patagonia when it came out and compared the author to Rimbaud. ‘Then I went to dinner at Marlene Dietrich’s doctor and Chatwin walked in and he had just been reading me!’ It was love at first sight. I try to imagine them both, looking into each other’s startlingly intense blue eyes. ‘He was a very good cook. He put his casseroles in his Citroen and came here with roasted grouse and partridge.’ The way to Bedford’s heart is through her stomach. She once said that ‘food is as revealing as money and sex.’ She is nostalgic for certain wines the way others miss favourite people. ‘The only wine I ever cried over was a bottle of ’53 Chateau Margaux, it spoke of such a different world...’ she drifts away, savouring a Proustian moment. Her expertise on wine is that of a connoisseur, perhaps even a snob, but she can give advice without resorting to fancy jargon. ‘You should always serve reds cooler than you think, never at room or blood temperature,’ she advises, ‘and you musn’t smoke, or have just used toothpaste. You must sniff, think, take a sip of water, choose your companion carefully – there are no such things as great wines without great occasions,’ she says, offering a tantalizing glimpse of a life in which she clearly experienced both to the full. Her closest foodie friends, apart from Elizabeth David, were American writer Richard Olney, and the great MFK Fisher: ‘She did not cook like an angel, she only wrote like an angel, you know. She wrote about food as if it were love, but she had no idea about wine.’ The name dropping is offhand but it can get overwhelming, even when she is playful. ‘I haven’t told you my Edith Wharton stories,’ she says, when I suggest it may be time to go. Of course I am rooted to the spot. I already know about her close friendship with Aldous Huxley, of whom she wrote an excellent biography, and with Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. But Edith Wharton? ‘Oh I’m saving those stories for her biographer, Hermione Lee, who is coming to visit me in a few days, so I won’t share them with you, except to say that at the end of her life, she was like Barbara Cartland, and she loathed women who wrote.’ I am wondering what this cryptic comment means: did Wharton wear a lot of pink chiffon? Use royal jelly? Wear too much eye make up and big hats? But Bedford has won, and will say no more.