A Legacy by Sybille Bedford. $16.95, 384 pp. NYRB Classics
Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedford’s father retained close ties to his former in-laws, and Bedford spent much of her early years shuttling between their luxurious household in Berlin and her father’s Black Forest schloss near the French border. Between these two homes—catching snatches of conversation, stray musings, the outlines of private tragedies—Bedford encountered the textures of a doomed era, where a fearful aristocracy and a fomenting nationalism converged.
She had a formal education in England and an informal one in France under the wing of Aldous Huxley, whose prodigious influence and generosity inspired Bedford to write. In the early 1930s, she was part of an artist colony whose members included Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. She fled for America in 1940 and spent her war years exiled in California. After the war, she settled in Rome, where she began the first serious phase of her work. In the wake of the Second World War’s horrors, the images from Bedford’s early life glowed with prescience. A Legacy, her first novel, appeared in 1956 and abruptly fell flat; it would likely have been doomed to oblivion if not for a glowing review by Evelyn Waugh, who called the book “new, cool, witty and elegant.”
Postwar novels bear the staggering weight of such questions as, Why did this happen? How could it come about? Who is responsible? Following the Second World War, the English novel set about swallowing it in bits and pieces. Works by Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Nancy Mitford traced the outlines of the conflict at home and abroad, drawing sharp images of life before and after Hitler’s bombs began to drop on London. But of all the English postwar novels to take up the conflict, few are so stylistically dazzling and self-consciously historical as Sybille Bedford’s sui generis debut.
Much of Bedford’s aforementioned biography finds its way into A Legacy. Indeed, the author’s early life in Germany—living between families, urban and provincial, in proximity to both socialism’s spread in the streets and anti-Semitism’s cancerous growth—occasioned a uniquely privileged view of the political and social turmoil on the ground. In a 1999 introduction to the novel, Bedford notes the breakthrough she had with writing a story founded on such a historical precipice:
Much of what was allowed to happen in these decades was ill-conceived, cruel, bad (in simple terms); there was also a German dottiness, devoid of humor . . . Is some of this a foundation of the vast and monstrous thing that followed? Did the private events I lightly draw upon leave some legacy? Writing about them made me think so. Hence the title.
For Bedford, the novel’s images of private life are inextricably linked to the great political and social upheavals of the time. Set within the terrifying momentum of a Prussian empire on the rise and several years after from the butchery of the First World War and before the death camps of the second, things said in the bedroom, around the dinner table, whispered or shouted, take on ominous overtones.
Two families make up the core of the novel, joined together by a young girl and her widower father. A Legacy’s narrator, raised in both a mansion in Berlin and an estate in the south, is all eyes and ears, taking in the everyday dramas of her two families and their circles. The Merzes, the narrator’s Jewish in-laws from her father’s first marriage, are classic members of the metropolitan haute-bourgeoisie, with “no interests, tastes, or thoughts beyond their family or the comfort of their persons.” At the head of the family are Grandmama Merz (“a short bundle of a woman, all swaddled in stuffs and folds and flesh”) and Grandpapa Merz (a man busied with “looking in at his club and . . . brightening his afternoons by the company of a shapely leg”). Their moneyed children are a source of casual disdain for the family. The elder son, Eduard, is a distinctly public failure: “[Once] an envy and model of the bloods, [he] was a Clubman, a rake, a gambler, and at sixty a bankrupt and a byword in Berlin.” For the elder Merzes, the everyday opulence of the old world is rapidly giving way to a newer, more frightfully consequential one. Theirs is the story of the lavish upper-class family fallen into complacency and public decline, but as events unfold, it’s their status as German Jews, rather than as dallying bourgeoisie, that comes to haunt them.
Their counterparts to the south, the Feldens, are an old Catholic family, “landed, agreeably well off without being in the least rich and of no particular distinction.” The patriarch, Baron Felden, is a rural gentleman of the pre-unification era, for whom Prussia was to be “ignored, despised, and later dreaded.” Firmly bedded in a Germany before Deutschland, so to speak, the Feldens are at once averse to the currents of nationalism while still finding advantage in its systemic nepotism. Believing himself on the brink of ruin, the Baron seeks government posts for his children. His son Julius, the narrator’s father and perhaps the major protagonist in this densely populated novel, packs off to Bonn for a life in the diplomatic service, and his travels in the French Riviera, where he meets and courts Melanie Merz, serve as the link between the Merz and Felden families. Another of the Baron’s sons, Johannes, finds his way into a Prussian cadet institution completely at odds with his eccentricities. He escapes from the military, and the public and private fallout provides the first major political conflict of the narrative: “If the boy were allowed to stay away, the fact might be damaging to the very framework of [the institution’s] educational ideology.” Here, the possible perception of the event trumps the very real problems at its heart. Johannes’s reinstatement into the corps and subsequent death at the hands of a fellow officer provide the basis of the Felden Scandal in the novel’s second half, a tragedy that spills out into the public sphere.
A Legacy takes up the ripple effects of the two families’ accumulating decisions. Bedford’s carefully detached style, drifting in and out of conversations like a child at waist-height, manages to both empathize with each family’s woes and remark on the irony of their places in history. After the first round of bargaining for Johannes’s return to the corps, the narrator sets out the theme:
The moves that shape the future seldom shape their own intended ends; the course of self-interest is seen as a beeline only at that moment; and the history of individuals, groups and countries is the sum of these.
For Bedford, histories that start in the parlor room can only end in the street. To illustrate the public temperament surrounding the novel’s scandals, Bedford provides unmarked fragments of dialogue, pulled, so it seems, from the cafés, the sitting rooms, and the street corners. Some are clearly from on high. When Eduard’s wife, Sarah, promises never to pay another of her husband’s debts, two voices muse: “She might have done it less subtly.” / “This kind of thing can only be done in that way or not at all.” / “Then it cannot be done at all.” Others, from on low. When the Felden Scandal erupts, so do the lower classes: “Our taxes.” / “That’s right.” / “Our savings.” / “Hear, hear!” / “The working man’s pence.” / “That’s where they go!” / “Lunatics in luxury.” And anti-Semitism: “Did you see—Jews got their fingers in it too.” / “Whenever there is something rotten in the state of Denmark . . . ” Like the Dreyfus Affair in Proust, the Felden Scandal occasions a glimpse into the larger social context beyond our principals; unlike Proust, Bedford knows where the sentiments are headed—where and when and how the casual and mocking anti-Semitism turns from words into actions.
A Legacy doesn’t find answers to the postwar era’s questions; to be fair, few books do and none conclusively. Rather, Bedford’s novel shows that the roots of our evils—our social evils, our political evils—are not just in decisions made in bunkers or boardrooms, but in kitchens and bedrooms as well. And they don’t start as evils, perhaps. Death might begin as a disagreement over dinner. That’s putting it lightly, but all histories are linked. As Sarah notes, “Crisis? There are no crises. It’s all a chain, a long chain.”
Hal Hlavinka is the event coordinator at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Knee-Jerk Magazine, HTMLGIANT, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Golden Handcuffs Review.
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