The Secret Poetry of Sybille Bedford as seen in her book Pleasures and Landscapes
By Ray Greenblatt
During a long life (1911-2006) author Sybille Bedford wrote in various genres such as: novel (The Legacy) and biography (Aldous Huxley); she also explored a more unusual category: legal systems (The Faces of Justice). But her writing career began with a travel book The Sudden View and ended with a travel book Pleasures and Landscapes. It is in this latter book that I discovered her poetic tendencies.
Most of these travel essays were written in the 1960’s; that is when I, too, began to travel to Europe. Although I did not have the wherewithal to indulge in high-end food and drink, I can certainly attest to what Ms Bedford writes about the various cultures at that time: Switzerland, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Portugal, France and Italy.
THE QUALITY OF TRAVEL
Bedford’s style is unusual in that she writes in broad swathes of painterly words as if she is composing a living picture. Let us examine an early chapter as she observes how travel has developed over time. “A part, a large part, of travelling is an engagement of the ego v. the world. The world is transport, the roads, the clerks behind the counters who deal out tickets, mail, messy money, keys; it is the porters, the waiters, the tourist industry, the natives, the weather. The world is hydra-headed, as old as the rocks and as changing as the sea, enmeshed inextricably in its ways.
“The ego wants to arrive at places safely and on time. It wants to be provided with entertainment, color, quiet, strong coffee, strong drink, matches it can strike, and change for a large paper note. It wants to find a room ready, warmth, cool, hangers, the right voltage, an ashtray, and enough clean towels.” (13) Notice the catalogue of elements that attempt to give a full overview to so much that constitutes travel. Nouns and adjectives jostle together with semi-colons loosely joining them. Bedford will use this device again in different ways.
Hotels were often a mixed blessing.” The hotels (where there were hotels) were well built, the bedrooms were larger, the wardrobes deeper, a door shut stayed shut. The Victorian plumbing across the corridor was first rate, but in the room itself there was likely to be a stand with a pitcher and basin, slop pail, and carafe. Horror of present horrors: no running water.” (19) You can often catch a whimsical twinkle in her eye.
Then automobiles came at the turn of the century. “The car took him into market towns, to the waterfronts, to the rock pool in the next bay, to the village where they’d found the fresco, into the mountain woods to the inn by the stream.” (22)
But there was the pain of new airports. “It would not have been a long, traffic-bound drive to the airport . . . There would have been no herding, channeling, queuing, standing, waiting, hanging about . . . You didn’t have to live through the takeoff; you didn’t have to think about the landing. Wind and weather, except in the extremes of blizzard, were none of your concern.” (18)
English airports were the worst. “My fellow travelers at the airport (English side) looked short-sleeved and disheveled. Tea slopped in the saucers, ashtrays overflowed, the counters stayed unwiped. The food displayed was predominantly shredded processed cheese on margarine and white. There were also on sale some of those dead-meat pies, the full soggy weight of which has to be eaten to be felt.” (28)
In Berne Bedford encounters a fountain that is almost too perfect. “This person in armor and pink gloves on the fountain is a bear. And here, on another, is a belted lion in azure, gold-laced boots, and his cloak piped with scarlet, sword in paw, lifting a trusting muzzle to the plumed Good Duke, and on this emerald-and-crimson pillar sits a man in splendid wooden clothes playing bagpipes to a goose, and everything is spouting water and geraniums, and the clock faces are painted too and as large as cartwheels, and there are doves and hares and princes to strike out the hours, and everything is picked out in gold and scarlet.” (62) Bedford overuses “and” on purpose to underscore how overdone this statuary is, a kind of European Disneyland.
The author is often able to catch a cultural trait that typifies the country. We just saw the saccharine quality of Swiss art. Here is something about a Danish couple that is more satisfying. “His face was placid and honest, the face of an honest fellow, with that look one finds in the North, in any North, on hardworking people of good stock, on peasants, on sailors, and also on laboring and contented beasts. Her face was goodness incarnate. We all have become used to the ease with which we can convey nastiness and horror; their opposites have no such ready currencies. I can only try to put down what in fact I saw. This woman’s face, then, shone with pure, sheer, golden goodness, with gentleness and innocence and patience and a kind of grave alertness; it was an open face, water-clear, and one could watch the movement of the slow, good thoughts across it.” (88)
When Sybille Bedford visited in the 1960’s, the Yugoslavs were working through Communism. “Lava tides of people both receding homewards and seeping in, sluggish and determined, a dark, compact mass oozing over the pavements, stagnating at corners, filling up the squares. Their overall aspect is one of sallowness, burdens, and poor clothes—raincoats and exiguous suits in muddy colors, mustard, gritty gray, off-brown. It is the all pervading drabness of one’s image of the streets of Moscow.” (121) The negative words too numerous to repeat dominate this passage.
And yet nature in Yugoslavia is untouched and teeming. Here is a partial description of the famous Sixteen Lakes. You will be dizzied by the flow of water as well as words. “The dominant, the all-pervading, element is water, live water in every phase—water on the move, on the roll, foaming, whirling, swishing water, rapid water toppling over cliffs in suicidal dash, still water, majestic water, horizons of water, tinkling water splashing in elegant quicksilver rays, hissing water spouting from stone and earth, thunderous vertical water roaring skyward in strong jets, folds of creamy water descending in soft cascades.” (131) You feel as if you have been body-surfing after that passage.
This country has its special beauty also. “The lifting of a barrier brightly painted like a lozenge at a fair, and we were in a river valley shining with new leaves—there were magnolia and oleander, fig and eucalyptus, water chestnut and spring maize, haystacks pressed like sugar cones hung from the boughs, and along the roadside the young birch trees were garlanded with vines. Lyre-horned oxen, under painted yokes, advanced hoof before slow hoof; women moved by with forests on their heads . . . we had entered into an Arcadian dream.” (103)
The challenge for tourists in this country was the language, says Bedford playfully. “Change any consonant into one easier to say, replace all s’s with a double shsh, aim at a nasal twang (a blend of Cockney with Meridional French will do), sing the whole like Welsh, explode it to sound like Polish, and do not forget a hint of Dutch.” (106)
France, where she had lived on and off for years, Bedford considered a quality country more conducive to human comforts than most. “The French are both soft and stoic. They are above all resilient. Their losses in the 1914 war were on such a tragic scale that it left them with a private and a national sense of irreversible bereavement. If they managed to keep a glow on life it was because of their sensuous vitality, their readiness to enjoy what life had to offer, or what they made it offer; their cultivated and articulate capacity for taking life physically: their passion for food, their due regard for bed, that perennial saving streak that is also an undoing.” (24)
What could be more French than a vineyard. “We are shown around the chai (storeroom), the sheds, the cellars, slowly, talkatively. What strikes is the order, the sacred immaculateness, the quiet. The steel vats gleam; the long, straight lines of barrels look as if they have been waxed; the bungs are glass. The whole has the aesthetic appeal of geometry plus spit and polish raised to an nth degree.” (151)
And then there is the all-important tasting. “We look, we inhale, we draw in our mouthful: we chew, we think. It is a slow process (one is standing, if not always standing still), utterly absorbing and near an ordeal—the raw tannin puckers the inside of the cheeks, rasps the throat like claws, while at the kernel one finds a notion of . . . what? texture, structure, multiplicities of scents, analogous tastes; divines staying power, future harmonies. How? It’s a mysterious process, essentially private, individual—who can ever get inside someone else’s palate?” (151)
Bedford seems to think that the twentieth century Italian male has adopted the car as his symbol. “The automobile must be God’s special gift to the Italians. He even created it noisy. The Fiat, the Lancia, the Alfa are the young man’s fine feathers; at the wheel, he is a bird of paradise displaying a dance of courtship—love my car, love me. Courtship in the animal kingdom is competition. So it’s a battlefield. On narrow roads. Plenty of blind corners. And precipices. Tanks, too: double-decker buses, oil trucks triple-linked.” (42)
All of this leads to excessive noise. “In Italy when the weather is right it is joy it- self; when it fails the single wet day is dismal and dead; just so, existence in this unique country is at times Elysian and at others like a sojourn inside a power-driven mincing machine. Like other travelers, we were alternately floating along in elated bliss or reeling off the streets felled by combat fatigue . . . The noise! There are no two ways about it, either you are Italian or Italian-built and don’t hear it, or you are not and you do and it is unbearable.” (47) Clever wording here!
It is Venice that truly bewitches Bedford. Moving through the maze of streets can highly stimulate. “Come from the sumptuous shop-lined street into a dramatic square, plunge under an archway, follow the boy with the trolley of tangerines, emerge into a triangular piazetta, cross the bridge, pass the colonnaded church, over the next bridge, up more steps, through a long street where cabinetmakers are chipping at their trade. “ (168) Can you feel the dynamic movements?
She revels in the Venetian food barges. “And for whose eyes? The shopkeepers’ and the greengrocers’ and the restaurant keepers’ who come morning after morning to buy their day’s supply—surely we have here one of the purest examples of art for art’s sake? Perhaps there is in the people of Venice still something of the human sprit that conceived of the tour de force of building a city in the sea and then, far from contenting itself with a primitive dwelling or a Spartan fortress, went on to create a place of incomparable fantasy and splendor.” (172)
While in Italy, Sybille Bedford met Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), a world-famous journalist and third wife of Ernest Hemingway. The women became fast friends for the rest of their lives, and Bedford aspired to be just a bit like Martha. “Meeting Martha Gellhorn, being addressed, being taken notice of by her, was like being exposed to a fifteen-hundred-watt chandelier: she radiated vitality, certainty, total courage. Add to this the voltage of her talk—galloping, relentlessly slangy, wry, dry, self-deprecatory, often funny . . .” (5)
She looked like an animated statue. “I saw her as the (very feminine) image of the Pierro delle Francesca Archangel in the National Gallery, the presented sword, the heroic yet angelic look, the slender foot poised on the dragon’s head: a shining defender of the just, the oppressed, the poor.” (6)
But Gellhorn was restless. “Before the week was out, Martha said that Rome had had it. (I was yet to learn about those barbarous spurts of restlessness).” (6)
And yet on the island of Capri in their hotel Gellhorn retuned to her inspirational self. “Owing to the peculiar topography of Capri back streets, the windows were near ceiling high: to get to them and undo those shutters one had to climb onto a pair of wooden stools. This we did and reached the small squares of open window-–and there were Mauresque rooftops, stars, night air.
‘Isn’t this delectable?’ Martha said. It was. Jasmine, citrus, oleander, warm stone, a hint of sea . . . We drew it in, leaning into the night, our elbows on the windowsill, our toes on the wobbly stools.
‘We must stay up here,’ Martha said. ‘We don’t have to go to bed yet in those stuffy rooms. Let’s stay up here by the window. Let’s watch the dawn come up. I want to talk.’ We did talk. Martha talked. I can still feel us as we stood balanced on those stools, heads out in the air, like two characters in a surrealist stage production.” (9)
Sybille Bedford began her writing career rather late, at 43 years old. I had my first poem published at age 37, my first book at 45. So Sybille Bedford shows us it is never too late to begin to write–provided we live to be ancient. I can’t think of an apter ending for this article on Sybille Bedford’s poetic writing by quoting from the first page of her book: “Left at dawn, driving south chanting poetry to myself in the car.” (3)
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Pleasures-Landscapes-Travellers-Tales-Europe/dp/1582431701
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).