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March272011

There Are Delicious Sensations: The Paris Review Celebrates Sybille Bedford

Filed under: On the Spot   Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Jonathan Taylor writes:

Last Thursday, the Paris Review hosted a convivial reading from the works of novelist, memoirist and journalist—of authorSybille Bedford, who would have turned 100 this year (and came closer than most; an Alan Hollinghurst article headlines her as a "Child of the Century"). The event was organized by Lisa Cohen, the author of the forthcoming All We Know—"portraits of the neglected modernist figures Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland"—and a friend of Bedford.

Cohen called Bedford a "sympathetic, vulnerable mind," exhibiting something of the gift for "compression" she also noted in Bedford's writing. To wit: Courtney Hodell read from the opening of Bedford's travelogue of Mexico, A Visit to Don Otavio, which includes the observation that "Arrival and Departure are the two great pivots of American social intercourse.... What counts is that you are new. In Europe where human relations like clothes are supposed to last, one's got to be wearable."

And in an assessment of her protagonist's first sexual encounter with a man, in the novel Jigsaw, Bedford wrote, and novelist Sylvia Brownrigg read, "There were no delicious sensations."

Poet and memoirist Honor Moore read climactically from the opening of Bedford's last book, Quicksands, in which Bedford plunges back through the decades to resurrect that vulnerability in her formation as a writer.

These were all passages I knew, but a dramatic reading of Bedford's account of the British Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial, by Cohen and Caleb Crain, revealed to me for the first time the felicitous role of Richard Hoggart, the British pioneer of cultural studies and author of the wondrous The Uses of Literacy in 1957. (I also just learned that Hoggart assembled the words "Death-Cab for Cutie"—as a made-up title for a type of "sex and violence novel," as part of The Uses of Literacy's study of the encroachment of mass popular culture on traditional working-class culture.)

Born in 1918, Hoggart is not much younger than Bedford would have been (yes, is—still alive!). He argued that Lawrence's novel was essentially "puritanical" in its sense of exceedingly stringent responsibility to conscience. Bedford recorded prosecutors' smug attempts to mock his hypothesis by reading him passages laden with four-letter words (or five, in the pertinent case of "balls"). As played by Cohen, he responded as an enthusiastic teacher might to eager students thirstily requesting further demonstrations of his wisdom.

The reading had a little bit of a feel of a private party, a slumber party in Lorin Stein's rec room. It was not inappropriate to the esprit of the friends you might find gathered, in her books, in a Provence farmhouse; nor to the consequent sense of being in good company one feels privy to, once you've started reading Bedford. I read her books at the same time as I did a number of her contemporary authors of travel and discovery, like Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor. More than theirs do Bedford's books crackle with the formation of thought amid the unpredictable eventfulness of company.

Thus it was a bit disappointing that the podium was limited strictly to readings, with no further discussion or reminiscence, what with Cohen in the house, as well as (if I understood correctly) Bedford's friend and literary executor, Aliette Martin. Fortunately, the Paris Review's site promises to post a series of "essays and archival finds" on Bedford, beginning with this post by Cohen, this by Brenda Wineapple, and a 1963 Review interview.

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