From Michael Dirda's "LIBRARY WITHOUT WALLS" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
The long-lived Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) is perhaps the least well known of those amusing and intelligently cosmopolitan women writers who came to prominence in 1950s Britain. Others include Nancy Mitford, Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark. All in all, one would be hard put to imagine more civilized entertainment than that provided by their various works.
A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale of Mexico (originally published in 1953 as The Sudden View) was Bedford's first book and belongs in the dryly witty and ingratiating company of Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana, J. R. Ackerley's Hindoo Holiday, Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, and Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia. Appropriately, Chatwin revered A Visit to Don Otavio and once said of it: "There is no point in trying to summarize the trials, sights, tastes, and delicious surprises of Mrs. Bedford's 'Wonder Voyage,' nor to comment on the uncluttered lucidity of her style. It is simply a book of marvels, to be read again and again and again."
While Bedford wrote four novels, starting with A Legacy (1956), which Evelyn Waugh acclaimed as"entirely delicious," all of them are largely autobiographical. Again and again -- in A Favourite of the Gods (1962), A Compass Error (1968), and Jigsaw (1989) -- she takes up her privileged family background (upper-class German, both Jewish and Catholic); her girlhood in France in the company of a feckless art-connoisseur father; an adolescence spent in Italy with her beautiful, promiscuous mother; and, finally, a coming of age on the Cote d'Azur, surrounded by eminent artists and writers (Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley, above all). Perhaps only Nabokov can claim a more sophisticated European background.
Given her novels' mixture of fact and fancy, it shouldn't surprise readers that Bedford eventually confessed that A Visit to Don Otavio was also a kind of semi-fiction. "I wanted to make something light 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, send postcards to friends, and when I was writing, I called them in." How much of the book, then, is true? It's impossible to say. But during the mid 1960s I wandered about Mexico, and Bedford captures the beauty, strangeness, and contradictions of the country that I remember.
This "traveler's tale of Mexico" opens in New York: "The upper part of Grand Central Station is large and splendid like the Baths of Caracalla." Bedford and her companion, identified only as E., are taking the train south. It is sometime in the late 1940s.
The journey was decided at the last moment. . . . I never expected to go to Mexico. I had spent some years in the United States and was about to return to England. I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible. I longed in short to travel.
What follows is a series of short vignettes or travel notes, combining episodes of comic disaster with bits of Mexican history. To American ears, Bedford writes a darting, stylish prose that isn't quite idiomatic English. Just consider her précis of Mexico's astonishing past, which she turns into a coloratura prose aria:
Here it is then . . . the oldest country in the New World, where Montezuma lived in flowered splendour among the lily-ponds and volcanoes of Tenochtitlán; . . . where Cortez walked a year into the unknown, the blank unmeasured ranges of no return, with a bravery inconceivable in an age of doubt; where the silver was discovered that built the Armada, and the Spanish Viceroys and Judges sat still with gold and dignities, wifeless, among the wealth and waste and procrastination of New Spain; . . . where the plaster images of angels wore Aztec feathers, where . . . Creole ladies went to Mass covered in diamonds and leading pet leopards; where nuns lived and died for eighty years in secret cupboards, where squires were knifed in silence at high noon, and women in crinolines sat at banquet among the flies at Vera Cruz to welcome the Austrian Archduke who had come to pit the liberalism of enlightened princes against powers he neither understood nor suspected . . . ; where the monuments to the devouring sun are indestructible, where baroque façades are writ in sandstone, and the markets are full of tourists and beads.
As this long passage suggests, Bedford -- like many writers and readers -- loves lists. And she looks at the world with the eyes of a connoisseur or epicure. Once on the train, she and E. settle down to dinner:
I had packed a hamper and a cardboard box. Whenever I can I bring my own provisions; it keeps one independent and agreeably employed, it is cheaper and usually much better. I had got us some tins of tunny fish, a jar of smoked roe, a hunk of salami and a hunk of provolone; some rye bread, and some 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 few slices of that American wonder, Virginia ham; marble-sized, dark red tomatoes from the market stands on Second Avenue; watercress, a flute of bread, a square of cream cheese, a bag of cherries and a bottle of pink wine.
E. turns out to be a delightfully sour companion, never wanting to see anything and generally preferring to spend her time reading Jane Austen. "I am not," as she declares at one point, "going to be diverted by historical interest." When traveling to Oxaca, the bus driver stops so that the passengers 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 seeing the Grand Canyon; I avoided the Painted Desert, my nurse did not manage to drag me to Niagara. With all respect to Alexander von Humboldt, I will not get myself off this contraption to look at a tree however interesting."
E. is my kind of traveler.
As the two women journey about Mexico, they spiral from one comic misery to another. They take the bus to Lake Pascuaro and register at the local hotel:
Our room was unswept, there was a rusty shower-bath that dripped and someone's hairpins on the warped chest whose drawers we did not explore. Everything was damp. We spent the evening sitting on the verandah -- the barman had said to stay in because of the miasma, and anyway there was nowhere to sit out-of-doors -- drinking tequila in speechless gloom. The food tasted of swamps. At last we went to bed. The muslin nets smelled and had holes, insects whirred and our thoughts ran on malaria.
Things only 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 laid out for us inside a patio, and on coming out again found a mildly operatic outfit fumbling with the luggage ropes: three or four men in fine hats and bandannas tied over their faces on mule-back, and a pack mule.
The driver and conductor shooed us back into the patio. "Gentlemen, we must wait a little moment," they addressed us with the disciplined calm of sea captains, "the bandits have come."
From the robbery E. loses her new Mark Cross bag and a box, "one containing all of E.'s clothes, the other some notebooks of mine, some photographs and a manuscript without a copy." When the dejected pair finally get back to Guadalajara, they discover E.'s nonchalant young cousin Anthony -- who has flown down from Baltimore to spend his vacation with them -- enjoying lunch. They tell him about their losses. "Tough on you," he replies, apparently between bites." 'Succinct as usual, my dear Anthony,' said E."
At this point, however, fortune begins to smile. Through their connection with a rather louche male couple in Mexico City, Bedford, E., and Anthony are invited to San Pedro, the home of one Don Otavio, an exceptionally kind and supremely polite scion of a wealthy family, "who has been ruined these thirty years" but still "has seventeen servants to look after him." Here, on the restorative 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-washed room on to a sun-splashed loggia above a garden white and red with the blooms of camellia, jasmine and oleander and the fruits of pomegranate. . . . The air was sweet with tuberose and lime, and dancing like a pointillist canvas with brilliant specks, bee and moth, hummingbird and dragonfly. Birds everywhere . . . A white cockatoo shrieked hideously from a shrub and was answered by the house 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 a bamboo chaise longue engaged in reading the works of Mr. Somerset Maugham.
All around Lake Chapala reside various eccentric characters, such as the elderly and captious Mrs. Rawlston. Don Otavio explains that this former Virginian came to Mexico to work as a governess after "her family were ruined in a war. I think it was the war about the Negroes. . . ." Mrs. Rawlston is stubborn and full of every prejudice." I don't see why I should have my house full of 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."
Then there's the equally opinionated, domineering Mr. Middleton, who calls and leaves a message that "he wished to talk to us about arrangements for our coffins and would we come to tea tomorrow." Nearly as memorable are Don Otavio's three successful brothers and their three wives. During one family get-together the men discuss plans for turning the lakeside hacienda into a paying hotel. Already one imagines a Mexican equivalent of "Fawlty Towers." But learning that Bedford has lived in Europe, the women have more serious matters to address:
"Doña Sibilla, what is your real opinion of M Christian Dior?" said Doña Concepción.
"I suppose he is very great?" said Doña Victoria.
"Perhaps a little avant-garde?" said Doña Concepción.
"Not entirely a classic?" said Doña Victoria.
"Mama always went to Worth," said Don Otavio.
After E. and S. reluctantly depart from Don Otavio's lotusland, their troubles recommence. One chapter is simply and ominously entitled "Mazatlan: An Ordeal." On their way to this ancient port city, their train's locomotive -- experiencing some unknown difficulty -- grinds to a halt, then backtracks to a little station stop. There "a number of pigs now assembled round the train, and presently boarded it, looking and begging for food. They were dripping with liquid yellow mud." The passengers wait, trapped in the airless cars as the temperature rises." Information as to the length of our sojourn at Ruiz was not unanimous. Some said six hours, some ten; some said we would leave at midday, some at nightfall. Some said next morning, others in three days. The last train from the North had been four days late. There was also the hypothesis that we would be returned to Guadalajara. None of this was improbable."
In the meantime, E. grows wryly "eloquent on the various phenomena of heat prostration."
The two travelers survive, and go on to visit Guanajuato -- where in 1966 I once spent a romantic evening wandering the streets with students from its school of architecture, singing, drinking, and flirting. Bedford's own Mexican adventures culminate in a hilarious attempt to drive through a jungle to Acapulco, though she then nearly succumbs to a mysterious fever.
By this time she knows it's time to head home. The day before her departure she decides to visit Tlayacan to attend a festival and watch the bull-baiting.
As we entered the pleasure grounds, the grandstand, a scaffolding of sticks and strings, collapsed and two hundred people in gay clothes, very drunk, slowly, slowly fell into the trees below.
"I think I shall go now," I said. "I don't think the fiesta can do any better than this."
In her later 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 set a new standard for true-crime reporting, and a two-volume biography of Aldous Huxley (1973, 1974), who appears briefly in A Visit to Don Otavio when Bedford recalls 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 her death published the autobiographical Quicksands (2005), an "amalgam of fragments" highlighting moments from the first 45 years of her urbane and passionate life.
What remains in the reader's mind from Bedford's oeuvre? Overall, an air of aristocratic ease, courtesy, and dignity, the virtues of Don Otavio himself. There may be chicanery and betrayal in every life, but these are overshadowed by sweet memories of sipping wine on trellised terraces with the people one loves. While Bedford's precise relationship to E. is never made explicit, we know from her later memoirs that the author was bisexual when young but tended to fall in love with women in later years, "often. Too often."
A Visit to Don Otavio is certainly quite wonderful enough on its own, yet this "travel tale" should also encourage readers to go on to its author's subsequent work, especially A Legacy. For the moment, however, let us 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, my paraphernalia littered about me, trying to forget that we shall have to change trains at St. Louis later in the afternoon. Patience cards, writing board, mineral water, brandy flask, books. Terry's Guide to Mexico; Miss Compton-Burnett's Elders and Betters; Howards End; Decline and 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.