Sybille Bedford’s long life spanned the twentieth century. Though of German birth, she wrote in English, and her novels had a European or cosmopolitan feel. Much of her writing was both autobiography and fiction. She was born to an aristocratic German family in 1911. Following her father’s death she lived with her unstable mother, first in Italy and then in France where she befriended Aldous and Maria Huxley. Bedford was for the most part informally educated, although she spent her life around artists and intellectuals.In the 1930’s she wrote negatively about the Nazi party, this coupled with her Jewish heritage, made her somewhat of an exile.
In A Legacy Bedford imagines her late father’s early married life. This complicated family life is seen through the eyes of a child in pre-WWI Germany. The marriage uneasily unites three families, Jewish manufacturers, Catholic aristocrats and politically astute intellectuals. Few family members acknowledge the reality of Prussian militarism in the newly unified Germany. The Merz’s are extremely close-knit, almost closed in upon themselves, and are blind to their son’s addiction. The genteel Feldens are rocked by their son’s cruel treatment by the military establishment. The three families were entirely different in terms of values and religion. Each viewed their own circumstances as the norm. The daughter resulting from this marriage is somewhat a product of all three families, yet not connected with any one tradition, perhaps more European than German.
This is a difficult book to sum up succinctly. It is a portrait of a family’s upheavals and tragedies set against the backdrop of events in Germany leading up to World War 1. The writing is witty (sometimes funny) and elegant. The narrative is sweeping and thoughtful. It’s a novel to be read slowly and appreciated.
Set in a similar place and time is Ursula Hegi’s Stones From the River. “Stones from the River is a daring, dramatic and complex novel of life in Germany. It is set in Burgdorf, a small fictional German town, between 1915 and 1951. The protagonist is Trudi Montag, a Zwerg — the German word for dwarf woman. As a dwarf she is set apart, the outsider whose physical “otherness” has a corollary in her refusal to be a part of Burgdorf’s silent complicity during and after World War II. Trudi establishes her status and power, not through beauty, marriage, or motherhood, but rather as the town’s librarian and relentless collector of stories.
Through Trudi’s unblinking eyes, we witness the growing impact of Nazism on the ordinary townsfolk of Burgdorf as they are thrust on to a larger moral stage and forced to make choices that will forever mark their lives. Stones from the River is a story of secrets, parceled out masterfully by Trudi — and by Ursula Hegi — as they reveal the truth about living through unspeakable times.” – publisher