The Mexican Journey That Made One of the 20th Century's Finest Writers
Sybille Bedford's account of her remarkable year in Mexico is the perfect introduction to one of the 20th century's most remarkable writers.
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.
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.