Sunday, July 24, 2005

A great essay by Alan Hollinghurst

about Sybille Bedford in the NYRB (not online, unfortunately). It's a review of Quicksands: A Memoir, but it covers her whole career in a really admirable and thoughtful way--I do love Hollinghurst, he's on my very short list of most highly regarded writers.

I love Bedford too and can't help but disagree with his judgment about the pair of her novels that I have read most often. I must read them again and see what I think these days, it has been some years since I last read them. Hollinghurst quotes Waugh as saying about A Legacy, "I think it was clumsy to have any of the narrative in the first person. The daughter relates things she cannot possibly ever have known as though she were an eye witness"; Hollinghurst then perceptively adds that Waugh "touches on something which will be an abiding small problem in Bedford's work, that she seems often unable to work out how to tell a story, that is, where to tell it from."

Here's his main commentary on "her next two, much lesser novels, A Favourite of the Gods (1963) and its sequel, A Compass Error (1968)":

A Favourite of the Gods is indeed a dismayingly bad book, in which Bedford seems to reveal herself as being all the things we had specially prized her as not being, snobbish, smug, and humorless. . . . The title itself perhaps gives warning of what Bedford herself calls the "highbrow Mills & Boon" color of this novel.

A Compass Error is a tauter and more focused, if still fairly solemn affair, evidently steeped in the light and emotion of Bedford's own youth in the south of France. It contains a lesbian relationship between Cosntanza's teenage daughter Flavia (now a third-person character) and an older woman clearly based on Renee Kisling, the wife of the Polish painter Moise Kisling, who figures prominently in Jigsaw. One is glad that Bedford should have written openly, and with a proper lack of fuss, about this central but otherwise only glancingly acknowledged aspect of her life; but it is still hard to forgive the book's hopeless organization. The fifty-two-page chapter ("A Night") in which Flavia, in bed with Therese, tells her the story of her mother's life in the tones of an omniscient adult is one of the least plausible feats of narration since Conrad's Marlow wound up his tale of a journey to the Congo. Still, all these forcings and awkwardnesses seem at some level expressions of Bedford's admirable and insatiable struggle to make artistic sense of her life.

I think I have a much higher tolerance than Hollinghurst for this kind of waywardness in point-of-view. (It is almost comical, the irritation with which he notes that Flavia has gone from being narrator to third-person character in the switch between books!) I think the point-of-view question is perhaps the most difficult thing about writing fiction--it's related to voice, but it's harder to find the right perspective than to write good sentences--on the other hand, fiction would be a lot more boring if we didn't sometimes get heedless rule-breaking by novelists who should have known better. The very tight, controlled Jamesian third-person voice of Hollinghurst's fiction is an impressive and extraordinary thing but its control in the end makes it perhaps less appealing to me than the intensely personal fiction of someone like Bedford.

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