The Mexican Journey That Made One of the 20th Century's Finest Writers

by Hans Rollman

29 September 2016

Sybille Bedford's account of her remarkable year in Mexico is the perfect introduction to one of the 20th century's most remarkable writers.
 
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A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey

Sybille Bedford

(New York Review of Books)
US: Jun 2016

In her 2005 memoir Quicksands, a 94-year old Sybille Bedford reflects on what it was that changed her from a failed writer to an international success.

She was not a failure for lack of trying: three novels under her belt by the age of 29, and all of them rejected.

Hedonism makes for great reading.

Now there she was, in the summer of 1949, on the sunny Italian island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples. She was penniless; or would have been, but for a faithful friend who, despite her own struggling finances, shared her salary with Bedford and told her to write.

The notion for her latest book, her fourth effort, had come to her the year prior. Now that the war was over she was sick of being cooped up in the US to which she—born German, and married British solely for the purpose of obtaining a passport to avoid deportation to Germany before the war—had fled, along with many other European scholars and writers. Restless and sick of America, yet cognizant that Europe was still in ruins, she cast about for somewhere to go.

“I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible. I longed in short to travel.” But where to go? “Canada? One did not think of Canada.”

She turned her gaze south, and opted for Peru. When she discovered she couldn’t afford to get there, nor to any of her backup choices, she took what she could afford: train tickets to Mexico. “I was not tempted by Mexico then, if anything vaguely put off by the artiness of the travel literature,” she reflected. One visit to the New York Public Library later, she was immersed in Mexican diaries and literature and never looked back.

Fourth One’s the Charm

It was in Mexico that the idea for her fourth book came to her.

“There, one warm night, on the terrace of an hacienda, lying on a deckchair under the sub-tropical sky, emptier, so much vaster than that of our hemisphere, alien and mysterious to my Western mind, on that night looking at that sky, seized by a sense of transience and infinity, the concept of a book had come to me. Abstract, ecstatic, eloquent though speechless: an apparition clear and complex moving unseen within myself,” she recalled more than five decades later in Quicksands.

“From then on the book I wanted to write—all guns ablaze—was about Mexico: the oldest country of the New World, the Mexico of the frightful history and the paradoxical present… of my experiences, my traveller’s tales, of the strangeness, the remoteness, the unending luminous landscapes, the violence, the absurdity: allegro and panic.”

But there was still the problem of her writing. Three books, three failures. Could this one be different? Never mind that it was grounded in remarkable first-hand experience—Bedford and a female companion adventuring on their own in 1946 through a country which was just emerging from a century of civil wars and revolutions. Never mind that she’d been robbed by bandits; gotten lost in the jungle; met anachronistic aristocrats living on vast haciendas that seemed to belong to bygone eras. Never mind all that; there was still the burning question: could she write?

As she struggled to set pen to paper, she later said, it came clear to her what had been wrong with her first three books. “I had read too much and knew too little,” she recalled (in that last book she was ever to write).

As a teen she’d struck up an intense friendship with the famous writer Aldous Huxley. They wound up neighbours, by one of those happy accidents that shapes one’s life, and although he had a profound influence on her and encouraged her own literary lifestyle, she realized she’d simply been parroting his writing style in her own work. “I followed the master, but I followed him very poorly: watered-down Aldous Huxley, was Huxley with flat water indeed.”

After her three failures she’d given up writing for almost a decade; did a bit of journalism; spent time socializing in literary circles and avoiding the war. Now, with both geographic and temporal distance from Huxley’s influence, she set at it again, and began to discover her own voice.

“That beginning was as hard as any before, and after,” she recalled. She drew on the advice of Ernest Hemingway, reflections on writing articulated in A Moveable Feast. Hemingway’s dictums provided literary advice, but it was Hemingway’s former wife, writer and journalist Martha Gellhorn, who proved even more invaluable. She and Bedford had met in Italy and became fast friends. Not only did Gellhorn firmly castigate Bedford not to turn into one of those “nonwriting writers”, but Gellhorn’s “racy, unrelentingly demotic verbal American in that lovely gravelly voice” proved inspiring as well.

“I owe her a good deal in one way and another; and it may well have been that it was her dazzlingly robust verbal style which provided the final kick that set my writing free,” recalled Bedford.

A Mexican Journey

The book that Bedford finally produced, after three years of working on it, was A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey (originally titled The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey when it was first published in 1953).  It was a hit. And from that point on, her subsequent writing—four more novels, a multi-volume biography of Huxley, several pieces of journalism that ranged from travel writing to crime coverage, and her final masterpiece of a memoir—was justly praised as some of the best material to emerge from the English language.

It’s difficult to precisely categorize A Visit to Don Otavio. Ostensibly a travel memoir, it’s just as often associated with Bedford’s other novels. Bruce Chatwin, in his introduction to the New York Review Books new edition of the classic, recalls discussing the matter with Bedford herself. “‘Of course it’s a novel,’ Mrs Bedford once said to me. ‘I wanted to make something light and poetic… I didn’t take a single note when I was in Mexico… If you clutter yourself with notes it all goes away. I did, of course, send postcards to friends, and when I started writing, I called them in.’ “

Chatwin, who rightly calls Bedford one of the “most dazzling practitioners” of the English language, was only partially right in his categorizing. A Visit to Don Otavio is more than simply an autobiographical novel. Nor is it simply travel literature.

An eclectic combination of history, philosophizing, and reportage, it comes at times closer to the sort of magical journalism practised by Ryszard Kapuscinski or Garcia Marquez, tempered with a strong dose of the Bohemian dilettante. The magical quality of the reportage comes through particularly during the travel sequences, and during the historical segments as well. Part three of the book (which is divided into four parts), for example, contains a brilliant and dazzling psychological portrait of the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. The younger brother of the Austrian emperor, he was enjoying a quiet life in Italy and France when the French offered to make him emperor of Mexico (which they had just occupied in response to the reform initiatives of Mexican president Benito Juarez, who had nationalized land, kicked out the Church, and turned his back on the country’s European-financed debt). Max seems to have been an amiable sort, and fairly progressive himself, yet turned out to be the hapless victim of schemers far less scrupulous.

In the end the French bolted from Mexico, Maximilian’s wife the Empress Carlota sped off to Europe to seek money and support for her husband, and Juarez raised a people’s army, which eventually retook the country. Incredibly, Maximilian refused to flee despite the hopeless situation, made a doomed final stand and was captured and, finally, executed. Bedford tells the story in a gripping yet thoroughly detailed narrative. Yet her real interest lies in getting inside the heads of the key characters. Just what was Maximilian thinking during this whole drama? What compelled him to stay despite the odds—even after the French armies had fled—and face inevitable defeat? What in turn drove Juarez? Why did Juarez refuse clemency for Maximilian, despite the protests and pleas and threats from virtually every world power to spare his life after his capture? What does the entire drama, and the psychology of its protagonists, say about the broader Mexican psyche?

The story is a mere snapshot in the broader book, but it conveys the essence of Bedford’s historical style: speculative, reflexive, and experimental; articulated with the pace and power of a fictional narrative yet in pursuit of a deeper, more universal human truth.

Another Time, Another Place

Of course, the book is fun, too.

The bulk of it revolves around the extended sojourns Bedford and her companions made at the Hacienda San Pedro, on the shores of Lake Chapala, domain of the inimitable Don Otavio. A “ruined” man with 17 servants, Don Otavio’s family struggled to hold on to their land and wealth during the various wars and revolutions of the previous decades, and emerged better off than many. Don Otavio’s ambitious, predatory and mafia-like extended family still harbour get-rich quick schemes for developing their land into a modern hotel resort and scheme and plot against each other toward that end.

Contributing to the drama are the eclectic residents of the area: arrogant, know-it-all British colonial ex-pats; iconoclastic German settlers; descendants of American Confederates who moved down south during the US Civil War. Local servants carry on adulterous affairs which, not infrequently, end in blood feuds and attempted murder, while poor old Don Otavio, a gentle and generous host who delights in indulging his guests, would simply prefer leafing through American fashion magazines with his sister-in-law.

This segment does indeed read like a novel; the characters are richly developed, the plot-lines richly embellished with humour and drama. Bedford and her companions alternate between bemused observation of local drama, and mischievous participation in the antics. In many ways, Bedford’s account hearkens to a different era—both of travel and of travel-writing.

Bedford and her companions are the prototypical colonial dilettantes, off to see the world in a post-war period where colonialism is about to start going out of fashion. They wax nostalgic about former lost eras of travel: “the good old times before the other war [World War One], of fabled hearsay, when one dined off omelette, claret and a roast bird at a French inn for a shilling, and paid one’s way across the Continent with sovereigns in the pocket and no passport.”

Then there were the inter-war years, “a time in Europe when one could still travel in comfort and have a part of good things without being rich or ruined… a time when hotels and restaurant meals and a second-class ticket to Florence were still within the means of everyone of moderate means; and a young man who’d got hold of a couple of hundred pounds might have his year in Paris.” By the time she’s writing, in the vulgar ‘50s, Europe has been ruined by war and capitalism and Bedford and her companion must travel to rural Mexico for such an experience.

Bedford, in her later years, blamed what she considered a poor literary output on sloth and hedonism, but the hedonism makes for great reading. Bedford’s habit of dwelling extensively on meals, for instance. The extensive passages detailing meals en route do more than just make the reader hungry; they express the profound jouissance Bedford derived from the minutiae of everyday experience.

Their first meal on the train to Mexico, when they are still able to rely on their own superior provisioning. “I had got us some tins of tunny fish, a jar of smoked roe, a hunk of salami and a hunk of provolone; some rye bread, and some black bread in cellophane that keeps. That first night we had fresh food. A chicken, roasted that afternoon at a friend’s house, still gently warm; a few slices of that American wonder, Virginia ham; marble-sized, dark red tomatoes from the market stands on Second Avenue; watercress, a flute of bread, a square of cream cheese, a bag of cherries and a bottle of pink wine…”

Then there’s their first luncheon in Mexico City proper:

[T]wo small platefuls of rice symmetrically embellished with peas and pimento appear at our elbows. ‘Y aqui la sopa seca.’ The dry soup. We are still trying to enjoy the wet one, when the eggs are there: two flat, round, brown omelettes. Nothing is whisked away before it is finished, only more and more courses are put in front of us in two waxing semicircles of cooling dishes. Two spiny fishes covered in tomato sauce. Two platefuls of beef stew with spices. Two bowlfuls of vegetable marrow swimming in fresh cream. Two thin beefsteaks like the soles of children’s shoes. Two platters of lettuce and radishes in an artistic pattern. Two platefuls of bird bones, lean drumstick and pointed wing smeared with some brown substance. Two platefuls of mashed black beans; two saucers with fruit stewed in treacle. A basket of rolls, all slightly sweet; and a stack of tortillas, limp, cold, pallid pancakes made of maize and mortar. We eat heartily of everything…

There is also a chicken, beer to wash down the meal and a concluding course of drinking chocolate, coffee, and a basket of “frankly sugared rolls”.

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