Thelong-lived Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) is perhaps theleast well known of those amusing and intelligently cosmopolitan women writerswho came to prominence in 1950s Britain. Others include Nancy Mitford, BarbaraPym, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark. All in all, one would be hard put toimagine more civilized entertainment than that provided by their various works.
A Visitto Don Otavio: A Traveller’s Tale of Mexico (originallypublished in 1953 as The Sudden View) was Bedford’s first book and belongs in the dryly witty andingratiating company of Robert Byron’s TheRoad to Oxiana, J. R.Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday , Isak Dinesen’s Out ofAfrica, and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.Appropriately, Chatwin revered A Visit to Don Otavio and once said of it: “Thereis no point in trying to summarize the trials, sights, tastes, and delicioussurprises of Mrs. Bedford’s ‘Wonder Voyage,’ nor to comment on the unclutteredlucidity of her style. It is simply a book of marvels, to be read again andagain and again.”
WhileBedford wrote four novels, starting with ALegacy (1956), which Evelyn Waughacclaimed as “entirely delicious,” all of them are largelyautobiographical. Again and again—in AFavourite of the Gods (1962), A Compass Error (1968), and Jigsaw (1989)—she takes up her privilegedfamily background (upper-class German, both Jewish and Catholic); her girlhoodin France in the company of a feckless art-connoisseur father; an adolescencespent in Italy with her beautiful, promiscuous mother; and, finally, a comingof age on the Cote d’Azur, surrounded by eminent artists and writers (ThomasMann and Aldous Huxley, above all). Perhaps only Nabokov can claim a moresophisticated European background.
Given hernovels’ mixture of fact and fancy, it shouldn’t surprise readers that Bedfordeventually confessed that A Visit to DonOtavio was also a kind of semi-fiction. “I wanted to make somethinglight 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, sendpostcards to friends, and when I was writing, I called them in.” How muchof the book, then, is true? It’s impossible to say. But during the mid 1960s Iwandered about Mexico, and Bedford captures the beauty, strangeness, andcontradictions of the country that I remember.
This “traveler’stale of Mexico” opens in New York: “The upper part of Grand CentralStation is large and splendid like the Baths of Caracalla.” Bedford andher companion, identified only as E., are taking the train south. It issometime in the late 1940s.
The journey was decided at the last moment. . . . I neverexpected to go to Mexico. I had spent some years in the United States and wasabout to return to England. I had a great longing to move, to hear anotherlanguage, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in thepast and as little present history as possible. I longed in short to travel.
Whatfollows is a series of short vignettes or travel notes, combining episodes ofcomic disaster with bits of Mexican history. To American ears, Bedford writes adarting, stylish prose that isn’t quite idiomatic English. Just consider herprécis of Mexico’s astonishing past, which she turns into a coloratura prosearia:
Here it is then . . . the oldest country in the New World,where Montezuma lived in flowered splendour among the lily-ponds and volcanoesof Tenochtitlán; . . . where Cortez walked a year into the unknown, the blankunmeasured ranges of no return, with a bravery inconceivable in an age ofdoubt; where the silver was discovered that built the Armada, and the SpanishViceroys and Judges sat still with gold and dignities, wifeless, among thewealth and waste and procrastination of New Spain; . . . where the plasterimages of angels wore Aztec feathers, where . . . Creole ladies went to Masscovered in diamonds and leading pet leopards; where nuns lived and died foreighty years in secret cupboards, where squires were knifed in silence at highnoon, and women in crinolines sat at banquet among the flies at Vera Cruz towelcome the Austrian Archduke who had come to pit the liberalism of enlightenedprinces against powers he neither understood nor suspected . . . ; where themonuments to the devouring sun are indestructible, where baroque façades arewrit in sandstone, and the markets are full of tourists and beads.
As thislong passage suggests, Bedford—like many writers and readers—loves lists. Andshe looks at the world with the eyes of a connoisseur or epicure. Once on thetrain, she and E. settle down to dinner:
I had packed a hamper and a cardboard box. Whenever I canI bring my own provisions; it keeps one independent and agreeably employed, itis cheaper and usually much better. I had got us some tins of tunny fish, a jarof smoked roe, a hunk of salami and a hunk of provolone; some rye bread, andsome 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 fewslices of that American wonder, Virginia ham; marble-sized, dark red tomatoesfrom the market stands on Second Avenue; watercress, a flute of bread, a squareof cream cheese, a bag of cherries and a bottle of pink wine.
E. turnsout to be a delightfully sour companion, never wanting to see anything andgenerally preferring to spend her time reading Jane Austen. “I am not,”as she declares at one point, “going to be diverted by historicalinterest.” When traveling to Oxaca, the bus driver stops so that thepassengers can look at “the great Tree of Tule,” which the naturalist”Humboldt believed . . . to be the oldest living thing on earth.” E.replies:
“In my native country I successfully avoided seeingthe Grand Canyon; I avoided the Painted Desert, my nurse did not manage to drag me to Niagara. Withall respect to Alexander von Humboldt, I will not get myself off thiscontraption to look at a tree however interesting.”
E. is mykind of traveler.
As thetwo women journey about Mexico, they spiral from one comic misery to another. Theytake the bus to Lake Pascuaro and register at the local hotel:
Our room was unswept, there was a rusty shower-bath thatdripped and someone’s hairpins on the warped chest whose drawers we did notexplore. Everything was damp. We spent the evening sitting on the verandah—thebarman had said to stay in because of the miasma, and anyway there was nowhereto sit out-of-doors—drinking tequila in speechless gloom. The food tasted ofswamps. At last we went to bed. The muslin nets smelled and had holes, insectswhirred and our thoughts ran on malaria.
Thingsonly get worse on the bus ride back to Guadalajara:
Some thirty miles south of Guadalajara,we stopped by the roadside at dusk and left the bus for some refreshments laidout for us inside a patio, and on coming out again found a mildly operaticoutfit fumbling with the luggage ropes: three or four men in fine hats andbandannas tied over their faces on mule-back, and a pack mule.
Thedriver and conductor shooed us back into the patio. “Gentlemen, we mustwait a little moment,” they addressed us with the disciplined calm of seacaptains, “the bandits have come.”
From therobbery E. loses her new Mark Cross bag and a box, “one containing all ofE.’s clothes, the other some notebooks of mine, some photographs and amanuscript without a copy.” When the dejected pair finally get back toGuadalajara, they discover E.’s nonchalant young cousin Anthony—who has flown down from Baltimore tospend his vacation with them—enjoying lunch. They tell him about their losses.”Tough on you,” he replies, apparently between bites.” ‘Succinctas usual, my dear Anthony,’ said E.”
At thispoint, however, fortune begins to smile. Through their connection with a ratherlouche male couple in Mexico City, Bedford, E., and Anthony are invited to SanPedro, the home of one Don Otavio, an exceptionally kind and supremely politescion of a wealthy family, “who has been ruined these thirty years”but still “has seventeen servants to look after him.” Here, on therestorative shores of Lake Chapala, S. and E. linger in a paradise of “luxe,calme et volupte.” Bedford writes:
Wide french-windows opened from the domed, white-washedroom on to a sun-splashed loggia above a garden white and red with the bloomsof camellia, jasmine and oleander and the fruits of pomegranate. . . . The airwas sweet with tuberose and lime, and dancing like a pointillist canvas withbrilliant specks, bee and moth, hummingbird and dragonfly. Birds everywhere . .. A white cockatoo shrieked hideously from a shrub and was answered by thehouse parrot in Spanish. Bead curtains clicked from the kitchen quarters; and,below, under the shade of a papaya-tree, I could see Anthony reclining on abamboo chaise longue engaged in reading the works of Mr. Somerset Maugham.
Allaround Lake Chapala reside various eccentric characters, such as the elderlyand captious Mrs. Rawlston. Don Otavio explains that this former Virginian cameto Mexico to work as a governess after “her family were ruined in a war. Ithink it was the war about the Negroes. . . .” Mrs. Rawlston is stubbornand full of every prejudice. “I don’t see why I should have my house fullof Germans because my daughter was fool enough to marry one. I told them so.Now why did Diana have to marry that German for? Losing all their wars, too.”
Thenthere’s the equally opinionated, domineering Mr. Middleton, who calls andleaves a message that “he wished to talk to us about arrangements for ourcoffins and would we come to tea tomorrow.” Nearly as memorable are DonOtavio’s three successful brothers and their three wives. During one familyget-together the men discuss plans for turning the lakeside hacienda into apaying hotel. Already one imagines a Mexican equivalent of “Fawlty Towers.”But learning that Bedford has lived in Europe, the women have more seriousmatters to address:
“Doña Sibilla, what is yourreal opinion of M Christian Dior?” said Doña Concepción.
“Isuppose he is very great?” saidDoña Victoria.
“Perhapsa little avant-garde?” said Doña Concepción.
“Notentirely a classic?” said Doña Victoria.
“Mamaalways went to Worth,” said Don Otavio.
After E.and S. reluctantly depart from Don Otavio’s lotusland, their troublesrecommence. One chapter is simply and ominously entitled “Mazatlan: AnOrdeal.” On their way to this ancient port city, their train’slocomotive—experiencing some unknown difficulty—grinds to a halt, thenbacktracks to a little station stop. There “a number of pigs now assembledround the train, and presently boarded it, looking and begging for food. Theywere dripping with liquid yellow mud.” The passengers wait, trapped in theairless cars as the temperature rises. “Information as to the length ofour sojourn at Ruiz was not unanimous. Some said six hours, some ten; some saidwe would leave at midday, some at nightfall. Some said next morning, others inthree days. The last train from the North had been four days late. There wasalso the hypothesis that we would be returned to Guadalajara. None of this wasimprobable.”
In themeantime, E. grows wryly “eloquent on the various phenomena of heatprostration.”
The twotravelers survive, and go on to visit Guanajuato—where in 1966 I once spent aromantic evening wandering the streets with students from its school ofarchitecture, singing, drinking, and flirting. Bedford’s own Mexican adventuresculminate in a hilarious attempt to drive through a jungle to Acapulco, thoughshe then nearly succumbs to a mysterious fever.
By thistime she knows it’s time to head home. The day before her departure she decidesto visit Tlayacan to attend a festival and watch the bull-baiting.
As we entered the pleasuregrounds, the grandstand, a scaffolding of sticks and strings, collapsed and twohundred people in gay clothes, very drunk, slowly, slowly fell into the treesbelow.
“Ithink I shall go now,” I said. “I don’t think the fiesta can do anybetter than this.”
In herlater years, besides novels, Bedford produced much excellent nonfiction,including a classic account of a celebrated English murder case, The Trial of Dr. Adams (1958), which seta new standard for true-crime reporting, and a two-volume biography of AldousHuxley (1973, 1974), who appears brieflyin A Visit to Don Otavio when Bedfordrecalls a trip to Madrid with “a novelist who was adored by my generation.”She also wrote many travel pieces, collected in Pleasures and Landscapes (2003), and shortly before herdeath published the autobiographical Quicksands (2005), an “amalgam offragments” highlighting moments from the first 45 years of her urbane andpassionate life.
Whatremains in the reader’s mind from Bedford’s oeuvre? Overall, an air ofaristocratic ease, courtesy, and dignity, the virtues of Don Otavio himself.There may be chicanery and betrayal in every life, but these are overshadowedby sweet memories of sipping wine on trellised terraces with the people oneloves. While Bedford’s precise relationship to E. is never made explicit, weknow from her later memoirs that the author was bisexual when young but tendedto fall in love with women in later years, “often. Too often.”
A Visit to Don Otavio is certainly quite wonderfulenough on its own, yet this “travel tale” should also encouragereaders to go on to its author’s subsequent work, especially A Legacy. For the moment, however, letus leave Sybille Bedford as she is just settling down for her trainride south,about to begin her Mexican adventure:
I am lying on the lower berth, myparaphernalia littered about me, trying to forget that we shall have to changetrains at St. Louis later in the afternoon. Patience cards, writing board,mineral water, brandy flask, books. Terry’s Guideto Mexico; Miss Compton-Burnett’s Eldersand Betters; Howards End; Declineand Fall; Horizon and the Partisan Review; Hugo’s Spanish; The Unquiet Grave; two detective stories, one of them an Agatha Christie and,what rarity, unread. I know that I am comfortable, at peace with myself.