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

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”.

Cultural Tensions

One of the hallmarks of good travel-writing is also, increasingly, its weakness; that is, the ability to use the outsider’s vantage to draw insightful and analytical observations about other cultures and places, as well as our own. Bedford strives and largely succeeds at mastering this technique, punctuating the chronicle of dilettante travels with philosophical and sociological reflections: never so many as to appear didactic or forced, yet enough to keep the brain healthily stimulated as the reader progresses. An opening reflection, for example, sparked by the raft of acquaintances coming to see her off at the train station, explores over several pages Americans’ fascination with arrivals and departures.

Bedford is trying to grasp at what would later emerge as post-colonial thinking, in her own post-Victorian manner of speaking.

Arrival and Departure are the two great pivots of American social intercourse. You arrive. You present your credentials. You are instantly surrounded by some large, unfocused hopefulness. You may be famous; you may be handsome, or witty, or rich; you may even be amiable. What counts is that you are new. In Europe where human relations like clothes are supposed to last, one’s got to be wearable. In France one has to be interesting, in Italy pleasant, in England one has to fit. Here [America]… where foreign visitors are consumers’ goods, it is a matter of turnover…

Between arrival and departure — if one is tactless enough to stay — there is a social no-man’s-land in which one is left to make one’s friends and lead one’s life. The country is large and so is the choice. One’s life and friends are rarely among the hospitable figures of the first whirling weeks. Some vanish, and, if one runs into them, are too kind to ask, ‘You still around?’ Instead they say, ‘Call me some time.’ ‘Indeed I will,’ one says, and that is that until another year. Others recede to fixtures, the unseen faces in the middle distance one meets through the winters at the same New York parties. One calls them by their Christian names, one hands each other drinks, but there is no impact.

When at last one leaves, one undergoes a social resurrection. Invitations and steamer baskets come rolling in as though one were the Sitwells and had only stayed five weeks…

The engaging reflection stands as true today as it did 70 years ago.

It’s one thing to apply that sort of reflection to one’s own culture. Travel writers, however, face an expectation that they can apply similar witty ruminations to the cultures and places they visit; a practice that today risks creating a certain dissonance. In an era grown more conscious and resentful of surface stereotypes, especially intercultural ones, casting a broad swath and summing up a people or region in a couple of paragraphs or pages can provoke resentment. We live in an era that craves complexity, an acknowledgement of our own complexity, and predicated on the presumption that we can never be truly understood because ourselves and our societies are so complex as to defy easy understanding.

This craving for complexity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s highly accurate; on the other, failure to accept some basic level of generalization may lead to paralyzing inaction in the field of social and political relations.

Either way, it renders travel writing of Bedford’s era subject to a more critical gaze today than in her own period. A chapter, for example, on “Money and the Tarrascan Indian” strives to offer a sympathetic perspective, arguing that the poverty-stricken indigenous inhabitants of the Mexican state of Tarrasco may be poor and reject consumer capitalism, but they retain their dignity. She is writing against dominant colonial narratives of the indigenous populations as poor and lazy, but in doing so winds up retrenching many of the stereotypes on which those narratives and their successors were founded. “They are not acquisitive; their interest in power is sporadic and slight, their sense of identity undeveloped; they are not much attached to anything, including their own lives.”

Yet Bedford is trying to grasp at what would later emerge as post-colonial thinking, in her own post-Victorian manner of speaking. “Is it a happy life?… It is ungracious to answer such questions for others,” she writes, struggling to deal with her own discomfort at the chapter she is writing and the questions she is asking. “In this encroached and interlocking world one has to ask, and perhaps not stay for the answers. What can I ever know about the Tarrascan Indians?”

She concludes that the ‘gifts’ of the west — capitalism, irrigation technology, medical science, European intellectuals — “can hardly be dropped, gift-package or loan, into their pattern of existence without disrupting its balance and perhaps its very structure, leaving chaos. The Tarrascan Indians are no wards. Nobody is anybody’s ward. It is easy to poke and prod and throw a bit of cheese, but the anthill cannot be added to from outside. The products of a civilization are its own fruits; to graft them as we do, according to the promptings of profit or philanthropy, is like putting the pudding into the soup in order to make the soup less salt. The result is neither soup nor pudding, but a mess.”

Public and Private

Sybille Bedford was part of a remarkable circle of queer literati, artists, and thinkers. Her traveling companion in Mexico — simply referred to as ‘E’ in the text — was Esther Murphy, a fascinating character whose life is chronicled in Lisa Cohen’s 2012 book All We Know. The six-foot-tall, heavy-drinking and smoking Murphy operated in the core literary circles of pre-WWII New York and Berlin. Murphy’s first marriage was to John Strachey, the eminent British Marxist writer and Labour MP; her second marriage was to Chester Arthur III, grandson of the US President of the same name. Arthur was an astrologer, sexologist, mentor to the Beat poets (including Ginsberg) and later a gay rights activist. But the love of Murphy’s life, according to Cohen, was Sybille Bedford. Their relationship only lasted a brief time, but they remained the closest of friends until Murphy’s early death in 1962.

Bedford herself enjoyed close friendships with the likes of writer and journalist Martha Gellhorn, German writer Klaus Mann, Aldous Huxley (she wrote his biography) and others of that ilk. She had two long-term relationships with women after her relationship with Murphy ended (one of whom, Evelyn Gendel, left her husband for Bedford).

Bedford was open about her sexuality, yet reticent about the deployment of gay and lesbian relationships in her writing and in broader society. “I have always been candid about my private life and shall continue to be so,” she told Shusha Guppy in a 1993 interview published in The Paris Review. Yet she then points out, almost defensively, “I’ve never introduced a single homosexual character in my books.” Bedford goes on to consider some of the prominent gays and lesbians of the early 20th century, and draws what she perceives as a distinction with how they expressed their sexuality.

For example, Colette and other women homosexuals of her time seemed to celebrate their sexuality. They did not create a ghetto, nor did they proselytize, or have what you call an ‘elite complex.’ It all seems a bit too earnest now… In those days — I’m talking of France, though others might think of Berlin — it was quite grand and fashionable to be queer. At least artists and writers were more naturally open… At the same time we were discreet. One didn’t necessarily shock one’s friends or the passersby. I find today’s sexual militancy appalling. Private life is private life, which means private.

She avoided depicting homosexual characters in her novels, and A Visit to Don Otavio contains not the slightest hint of the deeper relationship between Bedford and Murphy as they adventure through Mexico together. But the broader context makes for a fascinating consideration of Bedford’s contribution, if only through the force of her remarkable identity, to queer literature.

A Lasting Legacy

At the time of Bedford’s death in 2006, many of her tributes emphasized the need to ensure her books remained in print, as acknowledgement of her tremendous contribution to English literature. Fortunately, they still are, even if she doesn’t remain nearly as well known as she should.

It’s difficult to say why her works never achieved the canonical status they deserve. Bedford embarked on her writing career at a time when the patriarchal literary establishment still exerted a strong hold on the literary canon, and that’s doubtless part of the reason. Her writing, especially her fiction, was almost inextricable from her fascinating life. Like many writers, but especially for Bedford, her fiction grew out of her life experiences, painful and pleasurable alike; a merging of memory and fiction, and the more one knows about their remarkable author the more rewarding her books become.

A Visit to Don Otavio is a gateway text of sorts, straddling the thin line between imagination and reality more assertively than her novels. Here is Bedford in all her glory: the adventurer, the Bohemian, the reporter, the philosopher, the aesthete. Far from rendering the text chaotic, it thrives on these contrasting dimensions, engaging the reader on multiple levels and conveying the full range of Bedford’s many talents. Above all, what comes across is her sense of jouissance and fascination with the world.

Bedford castigated herself late in life for wasting too many potentially productive moments to hedonism and sloth. But without such a heedless approach to life — perhaps one of the greatest unrecognized virtues of 20th century life — the adventures which inspired her first and greatest book, A Visit to Don Otavio, would probably never have happened at all.