Legacyby Sybille Bedford
The Kaiser's Germany is the setting of Sybille Bedford's first and best-known novel, in which two familiesone from solid, upholstered Jewish Berlin, the other from the somnolent, agrarian Catholic South become comically, tragically, irrevocably
"A book of entirely delicious quality...Everything is new, cool, witty, elegant."Evelyn Waugh.
The Kaiser's Germany is the setting of Sybille Bedford's first and best-known novel, in which two familiesone from solid, upholstered Jewish Berlin, the other from the somnolent, agrarian Catholic South become comically, tragically, irrevocably intertwined. "Each family," writes the author, "stood confident of being able to go on with what was theirs, while in fact they were playthings, often victims, of the now united Germany and what was brewing therein." Did the monstrous thing that followed have its foundation in families such as these? "Writing about them made me think so. Hence the title."
Author Biography: Sybille Bedford was born in 1911, in Charlottenburg, Germany, and was brought up in Italy, England, and France. Best known as a novelist and travel writer, she has also written journalistic accounts of political and criminal trials and a life of her mentor Aldous Huxley. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a vice president of English PEN, Mrs. Bedford lives in London and is currently at work on a memoir.
Bedford's historical account, in which two very different families are bound together by marriage, money, and tragedy in the time just before WWI, parallels her own early life. In a recently unified Germany on the brink of war, familial struggles reflect the country's precarious foundation. When Julius von Felden, a well-off man of Catholic descent with more cachet in his cultural pursuits than money to his name, meets and marries Melanie Merz, a young Jewish woman from an affluent family, their union produces a daughter and causes tension. Although their time together is short-lived—Melanie succumbs to illness, leaving behind Julius and their daughter—Julius continues to receive an allowance from the Merz family. The Feldens, French-speaking Catholic aristocrats from the south of Germany, live a rich and rural life in the country. When Johannes, one of Julius's three brothers, is shipped off to a Prussian cadet camp and runs away, causing scandal within the family, the catastrophic results are felt for years. Then a tragic accident exposes secrets and motives, causing an irreparable rift between the families. Fraught with Prussian politics and heavy-handed historical context, this is less a bildungsroman than a tale of a family adjusting to a changing country. Bedford's cool, insightful narrative style leaves her characters flat and unchanging in the face of great historical change. (Mar.)
“Dry wit, careful attendance to detail, dialogue in which there is ‘more to be said than can come through’—these are the hallmarks of Bedford’s fiction. She shows the ways in which the private lives of individuals reflect the larger political life of their culture, and vice versa; she portrays the evolution of Nazism and Fascism where it really took place—in living rooms and kitchens and on benches.” —David Leavitt
“There’s such a wonderful tension between the hedonist and the historian in this author.” —Maria Bustillos, The Awl
“A book of entirely delicious quality. Two families, vastly dissimilar, the one Jewish inartistic millionaires, the other slightly decadent Catholic aristocrats, become joined in marriage. Everything is new, cool, witty, elegant, and some scenes are uproariously funny.” —Evelyn Waugh
“A Legacy lives by its delightful tart and feline wit, and by its author’s remarkable gift for capturing the breath of Europe past on the glass of fiction present.” —Time
“At once historical novel and study of character, a collection of brilliantly objective portraits.” —Aldous Huxley
“An astonishing and fascinating first novel.” —Janet Flanner
“Bedford’s language is vibrant with an awareness of people and their manners and the countries that shape them; she moves in and out of European sensibilities with a natural ease. This reissue of A Legacy will give new readers a chance to swoon over her gracious felicities—and to come to share Bruce Chatwin’s assessment that, ‘when history of modern prose in English comes to be written, Mrs. Bedford will have to appear in any list of its most dazzling practitioners.’” —Sylvia Brownrigg
"A Legacy is a story from a vanished world, a world before the deluge, and it provides its reader with the disorienting, melancholy pleasure derived from looking at old maps. It is a sophisticated book with a cosmopolitan gloss which flatters the reader, induces a nostalgia for other people’s past: for the vanished configurations of fallen empires, and days when the dice were shaken differently, where emotions were operatic and whims well-funded, where borders were crossed with ease but countries were different from each other, where beauty was viewed not merely as a personal asset but as part of an aesthetic tradition, and where raw experience had uncertain value till it was rationally examined and filtered through the lens of high culture...For a modern reader, some of the pleasure of A Legacy may be nostalgic, but the thrust of its intention is forward. What is the legacy of the nineteenth century, how and in what manner did it transform intolerant and divided societies into societies where mass murder was practiced?" —Hilary Mantel, The New York Review of Books
“The characters are allowed to speak and see; they move about a great deal…Bedford is…interested in what they do, what they seem like to others, what they say, and what she can do to her sentences…Her genius is to make all this matter, to allow surface to suggest depth, to create excitement by playing with tone, to direct the reader toward the lives of her characters and the spirit of the age by using implication, by letting the rhythms do the work, by surprising with her diction and the texture of her prose and her dialogue. A Legacy makes clear that she is one of the finest and most original prose stylists of her age.” —Colm Tóibín, Bookforum
"[W]itty and opulently beautiful…[a] richly realized historical drama….Partly ironic, partly nostalgic, A Legacy calls to mind other novels that portray the zenith and decline of an ostentatious old order. It’s as funny as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited but mercifully free of that book’s snobbery and God-bothering. It has the tragicomic temperament of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, but its writing, skimmed of exposition and distilled to quicksilver impressions, is more enticing. The novel fuses the heft and layering of a 19th-century family chronicle with a sparkling, allusive prose style learned from modernism…A Legacy is [Bedford’s] magnum opus, and a little harmony has been restored to literature now that it’s back again in bookstores." —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“The extraordinary feat of A Legacy is to be both an intimate family drama and an objective exposition of history...A Legacy is as perfect as a novel gets. It’s written with the sentence-by-sentence intensity of a short story, the narrative sweep of a history, and the tragi-comic interest of a family drama. Moreover, it is as significant as a novel gets, full of the interest of people distant from us in time and custom but recognizably human, and effortlessly illustrative of a period and society lost to us but incalculably important for the world we live in. Read it.” —Robert Minto, Open Letters Monthly
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Meet the Author
Sybille Bedford (1911–2006) was born Sybille von Schoenebeck in Charlottenburg, Germany, to an aristocratic German father and a partly Jewish, British-born mother. Raised variously in Germany, Italy, France, and England, she lived with her mother and Italian stepfather after her father’s death when she was seven, and was educated privately. Encouraged by Aldous Huxley, Bedford began writing fiction at the age of sixteen and went on to publish four novels, all influenced by her itinerant childhood among the European aristocracy: A Legacy (1956), A Favourite of the Gods (1963), A Compass Error (1968), and Jigsaw (1989, short-listed for the Booker Prize). She married Walter Bedford in 1935 and lived briefly in America during World War II, before returning to England. She was a prolific travel writer, the author of a two-volume biography of her friend Aldous Huxley, and a legal journalist, covering nearly one hundred trials. In 1981 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire.
Brenda Wineapple’s books include Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848–1877 and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a 2014 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Wineapple lives in New York City with her husband, the composer Michael Dellaira.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I was interested in the historical backdrop to the novel and in the characters' relationship to the events of the times. However, I thought the author's writing style was plodding and clumsy, perhaps because English was not her native language. The dialogue often confused me because it was so impressionistic and truncated. Lastly, I couldn't relate to any of the main characters; they didn't come to life for me.
You'll need to read this book at least twice to figure out what's going on. I read 75 pages before I figured out the character's names and how they're related to each other. Even then, I don't think I got it exactly right. Several people die in this story, and the ending should have been emotional. But, I was too confused to be invested in the characters so it was disappointing. I do have a feeling that this book would get better the more times you read through it.