I have just read another book by Sybille Bedford – earlier this year, it was her novel, “Jigsaw”. This one “Quicksands: A Memoir” covered much of the same territory. Same, but different. Vivid and personal, even confessional. It is not so much in the details – she is very circumspect about her own adult relationships – but in the exposure of the intense and passionate emotions of a young person, growing up and learning how to feel and to love.
And a young – and not so young – writer, learning how to write.
She keeps coming back to that mother lode, childhood. A particularly tangled family situation, with parents drastically unsuited and divorced, father a recluse, mother looking for love and finding it eventually with a much younger man, half-sister similarly restless; and then there was the second world war, and her family was German…
Perhaps it was all a gift for a writer? Though probably like one from a fairy tale, a gift and a curse at the same time.
She wrote this in the week after September 11th 2001. I seems to apply, even more, to us all right now. I am having a break from reading the papers and those updates from the Age, the Guardian, the Monthly, the Saturday Paper that obligingly appear in my inbox daily.
Another turning of the screws of horror, suffering and pity, of man’s inhumanity to man, has occurred. How will it end? Very little has changed in our nature since we first set out from the caves, stones and cudgels in hand; infinitely much has changed about the means by which we are able physically and spiritually to torment and kill. And there are more and more of us, more to envy, more to disagree with, more to hate, fear destroy. We have overrun the earth, disregarded other forms of life.
Now more than ever we exist in the world of Matthew Arnold’s closing lines of ‘Dover Beach’, the world
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
No certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Quicksands: A Memoir by Sybille Bedford, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2005