Sybille Bedford has had a long and distinguished career in writing and journalism. She was born in Berlin in 1911-2006 and educated privately in Italy, England and France. She wrote her first novel when she was nineteen and around that time she became friends with Aldous Huxley, whose two-volume biography she published in 1973-4. As a reporter she covered the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt and the Lady Chatterley trial at the Old Bailey. Her books include A Favourite of the Gods (1963) and its sequel A Compass Error (1968). Her autobiographical novel, Jigsaw, appeared in 1989 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
I interviewed her in 1996. Here is what she told me then.
In an epigraph to one of your novels, A Compass Error, you quote victor Hugo: ‘Le passé est une partie de nous-mêmes, la plus essentielle peut-être.’ Is that something you believe yourself?
Very much. All my writing has always been about le passé. I can’t write about what happened yesterday, I have to write about events of fifty years ago. It’s a big drawback.
There appears to be something of a contradiction in your character: in the one hand you want to shroud your life in mystery, to muddy the waters of your own biography; on the other hand, your novels are full of detail and events from your own life. Does it seem much safer to you if such things are confined to the pages of a book?
It’s not a question of safety. I write as I must, and when I do, a great deal comes out which I normally don’t talk about. Most novelists use the experience of their own lives, and I am no exception. I am a very private person, but there is a compulsion to writing.
You left Germany at the age of nine and did not return to till long after the war. You have described that early period as being ‘suspended in amber’ till you came to write about it much later, in 1956. Do you think you were in some way scarred by your early experiences in Germany?
Not at all because I was a small child. The book you refer to sprang from a great distaste and dislike for Prussia, and I’ve always had an antipathy towards the German side, but I had no difficult experiences in my early childhood. It’s not quite correct that I never went to Germany till after the war because, in fact, when I was twenty-one I visited Germany with Aldous Huxley. I was absolutely appalled to see the Hitler Youth march about. I was, of course, half Jewish – two thirds Jewish, in fact – but one never talked about such things then.
In view of later events – Hitler and the rise of National Socialism – did you ever come to feel ashamed of having associations with Germany?
I had no associations with it.
But you were born there.
Yes, but I was born in Charlottenburg, which was a suburb of Berlin, and I was always very keen to put Charlottenburg rather than Berlin on my passport to make it sound a little bit more respectable. I had an early introduction to fascism because my mother married an Italian when I was a child. I went to live in Italy with her and her husband, and in their own very small way they resisted fascism.
Your father was German, wasn’t he?
Yes, but he belonged to the south German aristocracy who married into Italians and into the Tyrolese. He lived most of his life in Paris or in Spain or in Corsica because he loathed Germany and was very cosmopolitan minded.
Do you think you have drawn strength from the richness of your background or has there been a problem of national identity?
The richness of background was very good, except I never felt I had the German identity, the Germanic mind. I feel I’m a complete outsider, but the fact that I had any connections with this terrible country became a curse of guilt, and for some time I tried desperately to anglicize myself entirely.
I suppose your childhood was not very unusual for its time, although it would be considered extraordinary and even traumatic nowadays. Your father died when you were nine; you joined your mother in Italy, but you were sent off to England to be educated by tutors; your mother had a drug addiction problem – and so on. Did it seem difficult to you at the time?
I think I was perfectly happy until I was about five, when my parents got divorced. My mother was always having great love affairs, and she deserted my father, which hurt his pride very much. My father was much older than my mother, but a very good-looking man. He was a great womanizer in his time – the Parisian demi-monde, and so on. My mother was his second wife, but she only married him because she couldn’t marry her great love. All this was told to me as a child, and they certainly didn’t want me. I was a terrible disaster. My mother had just decided to leave my father when she discovered she was pregnant. They were living in Spain at the time, which my father adored, but Spain was too primitive for a baby. When they divorced he got custody of me. That was a very difficult time because I felt very alone, and when my mother left there was nothing – no money whatsoever because he had none. I was wretched because my father was almost sixty, and although I think he loved me very much, I never had any maternal love. My mother was not interested in children, not at all. She once said to me: ‘You were very sweet as a baby, but you’re going to be very, very dull for a very long time, perhaps ten or fifteen years…we’ll speak then when you’ve made yourself a mind.’ Of course I thought that was quite normal.
Did you ever regret not having a more formal education?
Very much. I longed to go to university, I longed to learn, but I never had a proper education at all. Tutors never came, there was never any money.
Your novel Jigsaw described the cruelty of the emotional and physical neglect of a child by her parents. I know you are sensitive to there being too much extrapolation to your own childhood, but the similarities are obvious. Did you find it difficult to forgive your parents?
Not at all. I used to wonder if my parents would forgive me. I actually behaved unforgivably to my father because I didn’t love him and I couldn’t show him affection. I was acutely aware of his loneliness, but I was like an ungrateful child. I grieved him awfully. As for my mother, I had a lot to be grateful for because she taught me everything about literature and art and world affairs. She was very well educated and she instilled into me the idea that it was a very grand thing to be a writer. She was a great influence on my intellectual life. I suppose I always had a passion for writing, but being brought up to talk about Dostoevsky at breakfast was a great advantage. I owe her an enormous amount.
Did you love her?
No. I was frightened of her as a child. She had a terrible temper. I began to love her when she started taking drugs and became unhappy in love and lived a lonely life. It was all much worse than in my novel because it went on longer.
A Legacy was reviewed favourably by Evelyn Waugh in The Spectator. He said: ‘We know nothing of the author’s age, nationality or religion, but we gratefully salute a new artist.’ I imagine these words gave you a tremendous thrill…
Still do…still do. It’s the one thing I hang on to sometimes when I start to wonder what I have done with my life. It’s much the best thing that ever happened to me.
When you were eighteen or nineteen and living in Provence, you met a number of writers, including Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht…do you think that was a significant turning point in your own aspirations?
Not at all. We were living in a small seaside resort when all the refugees arrived, and although one was of course very much aware of their plight, they all called themselves princes or poets. They had enormous pretensions, and people like Brecht and Furtwängler and the Manns, they were very grand. They were not all poor exiles, and we thought how extraordinarily badly they behaved. They were more figures of fun in our milieu.
It was at that time that you also met Aldous Huxley, who was to be very influential in your life. You became close friends with him…were you also in awe of him?
I was absolutely awestruck because I had read him when I was fifteen and admired him enormously as a writer. I thought that one day, in ten or twenty years’ time when I became a writer myself, I could perhaps be like him. At first the Huxleys were friends of my mother’s, and I was just a young person sitting at the lower end of the table, but after all the terrible things happened they befriended me, and my moral education was really due to them.
Was Huxley’s wife influential?
Enormously…she was one of the best human beings I’ve ever known. It was she who made his life possible. She was a near saint.
Was there perhaps a part of you that was in love with Aldous Huxley?
No. I loved him enormously, but I was not in love with him, no.
Isaiah Berlin said of Huxley that he had helped liberate a generation by shedding light in dark places…do you go along with that?
I think he did, and he continued to do so with a later generation when he became religious and then a mystic. He liberated a great many English people who had been entirely bound by Victorian morality. He did not do it for me, of course, because in my milieu and with my parents’ history we lived sexually emancipated lives.
Huxley was very concerned with moral anarchy in a scientific age and he made a number of sinister prophecies. Do you think at the end of the twentieth century that his pessimism was perhaps justified?
It was completely justified, but I think he was far less pessimistic than I am about it now. In his later life he thought that mankind could be saved by goodwill and at the very end of his life, when he was asked what was the most important thing, he said that we should all try to be a little kinder to each other. That was the measure of a man.
In another life you might have been a barrister and when you were young you used to go to the law courts. Your book The Faces of Justice is a study of legal and judicial methods in different countries. Do you think that what happens in a country’s law courts sheds light on other aspects of national identity?
To my mind it does to a large extent. I must admit that I was infinitely surprised when I went to Germany by the quality of fairness in their law courts. It reflected the new spirit of the Germans. By contrast I was horrified by what I saw in French courts. The French are so civilized and yet their courts are so corrupt and so encrusted with neurotic issues. English law is fair as one might expect it to be, but then it’s not so very good at finding out the truth. What struck me so much about the continental system was that at least the trials tried to bring out what actually happened.
You covered the so-called Auschwitz trial for the Observer. Were you able to treat that as a professional assignment or were your emotions involved to some degree?
My emotions were entirely involved but you learn as a writer to control those. When I was asked to do it I thought, I can’t do it, I don’t want to do it, but because I had felt so much about it all my life, I thought it was my duty. Everything one heard was so appalling.
The judge was anxious that the trial should not be a short trial or a foregone conclusion but there should be a genuine effort to get at the truth. Do you think the truth was uncovered?
Yes…the truth was there for everyone to see. It was a very fair trial indeed.
The trial lasted for nearly two years. You describe how Doctor Hofmeyer, the judge who had kept calm throughout the proceedings, broke down at the end because of the emotional strain…what were your own feelings at the time?
I can’t really remember my own feelings, I just knew there was great pressure at the end of the last afternoon and my piece had to be telephoned to England next morning from Frankfurt. I had no time to think about my own emotions. I became simply a machine which received information.
You also covered the obscenity case against the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Did you as a writer have a sense of incredulity that this case was actually being brought, that the establishment could believe that there was a serious risk of the nation’s morals being corrupted, and so on…was there not a fantastic element to the whole proceedings?
Oh, it was grotesque. I sat in court with like-minded people. I shared the special correspondents’ bench with Ken Tynan and we were nearly thrown out of court because we had to laugh, which wasn’t allowed of course. Yes, it was utterly fantastic. It sounds absurd now that it was all taken seriously.
What is it that makes you write do you think? Irish Murdoch describes it as an attempt to bring order out of chaos…how would you describe it?
I like to shape in words what I have received. It’s a strange urge, and I don’t know where it comes from. I have no confidence in my own writing, and I find it very difficult, but in writing one pays back the life that one has had.
In talking about your novel A Legacy V. S. Pritchett mentioned your ‘passion for justice, for moral courage, the truth of the heart’. Do you recognize that in yourself?
Passion for justice, yes, though perhaps not moral courage. I admire moral behaviour, by which I mean forgiveness, gentleness, and the fight against all the things I’ve had to contend with in myself, like bad temper, jealousy, unkindness, acts of selfishness.
Were you jealous in love? Did you have a weakness where men were concerned?
Not a weakness, no. I was very fond of some men; I had a few liaisons, a few affairs, but I didn’t ever fall in love with men. One never fell in love with men.
Not even the ones you had liaisons with?
Oh no, there would be friends whom I admired or father figures, or very intelligent men perhaps.
V. S. Pritchett also detects two other emotions in your novels – pity and sense of indignation. Do you agree?
Yes. I’d forgotten that. One mustn’t be too indignant, because it quickly turns into self-righteousness. I’ve been trying for the last twenty years, not very successfully, to reform myself…
In A Favourite of the Gods which was published in 1963, you examine the nature of love. Would you say that your fictional treatment of love has come from your own experience and observation, or is it purely imaginative?
It comes from my own observation and experience, yes. I wish I’d written more books and spent less time being in love. It’s very difficult doing both at the same time.
In that novel the character Anna displays a certain ineptness for love. Do you think people in real life are either suited or unsuited to love?
Yes. In Anna I was thinking very much of Lady Byron, or of my own maternal grandmother. They all had a horror of the sexual love life, which is to my mind a curse. Some people are born like that, and it’s very unfortunate.
Which would better describe your own disposition…suited or unsuited?
Suited, most definitely. It was immensely important. I have had the great fortune of having received and given a great deal of love. Some of it has been unrequited love and I have suffered as a result of love, but on the whole I’ve been very fortunate.
You married Walter Bedford in 1935 but the marriage was short-lived. Was that a very painful time for you?
No, not at all. It was a very dangerous time, but not painful. It was an arranged marriage, set up by the Huxleys, because I needed British nationality. He was a homosexual and Aldous Huxley gave him twenty pounds to take me out to the Criterion and then to a musical. The marriage was never consummated; it was a complete fraud and a rather comic interlude, but because the Home Office stepped in and tried to prevent it, it was very frightening.
In A Compass Error, published in 1968, you describe a love affair between two women. Would you have written about this kind of love earlier if it had not been such a risky topic?
Oddly enough I did not consider it a risky topic. In any case it was quite delicately done. Nowadays, God knows what they do.
But do you see love between women as an extension of friendship?
Not as an extension of friendship. It can be fulfilled and complete sexual love, as fulfilling as heterosexual love.
How do you know?
Because I’ve experienced it in sexual love. One knows when love is love.
Doris Lessing spoke of the shrill voice of feminism. Is that also how you have found it?
Oh, I can’t bear the feminists. I think they are appalling.
Have the feminists ever tried to claim you as one of their own?
Virago once wanted to put my name on their masthead but I wrote to them declining. Apparently my letter was so awful they hung it up in their lavatory for years. Nobody’s ever asked me again.
In most of your novels there is a sense of the transience of love, the impermanence of things. Is that something you have accepted easily?
No, it is a source of great sadness. Times change, places change; I’ve lived in places which I loved, the South of France between the wars, and then the five years in Rome, but everything came to an end. I’ve lost so many very dear and important friends, particularly in the last two years and that of course leaves an appalling age gap. One misses them terribly, and one misses the stimulus.
You were brought up as a Roman Catholic, weren’t you?
Yes. But nobody practiced, although when we were living in the country at Baden my father went to mass on Sunday. I turned against the church very early and for childish reasons, because the village people told me my parents would go to hell since they had divorced. I couldn’t accept that, so I decided that religion couldn’t be true. But one doesn’t lose it that easily, and I used to be quite frightened sometimes that hell might exist. But now I’ve lost it more, and I dislike the Catholic Church very much, the Church of England even more.
Jigsaw ends with a sense of forgiveness and of hope. So these feelings come from a religious sense, would you say?
No. I believe in forgiveness and hope for their own sake. Looking back on my life, there are certain acts of selfishness and meanness which I would like not to have committed. But what I can say is that all the people I’ve loved, I loved till the end. I mean, not only to the end of one’s living with them and one’s affair with them, but as long as they lived. That is a very rare thing.