Let’s take a moment, before I begin, to praise how beautiful this book is – the book-as-object, I mean. Well, you can only see the picture – sadly, you can’t feel it. It is beautiful to read. The cover flips closed with a beautiful soft clunk; the pages slip beautifully together. It is a little soft to the touch. It’s delightful. This is why I love books, not just reading. This is why I won’t get an e-reader.
But, thankfully, it didn’t end there. A Favourite of the Gods (1963) is also a really good novel, which Daunt Books kindly sent me a few weeks ago, along with the sequel A Compass Error, which I’ve yet to read. You might already have spotted Rachel’s enthusiastic review of the books – and I’m jumping on the same bandwagon, because I think Sybille Bedford might be something rather special.
A Favourite of the Gods concerns three generations of women – Anna, Constanza, and Flavia – over several decades, dealing with Italian and English society, living lives governed by different moral systems, yet somehow inextricably bound together, even when understanding each other least.
The novel opens with Constanza and her daughter Flavia on a train to Paris, intending to meet Constanza’s fiancée. Everything goes rather awry when the train stops and Constanza realises she has lost her ruby ring… they get off the train and stay locally for a while. And then we leap back to the beginning of the story… as with Wise Children, this technique irked me a bit, but I’ll let them get on with the show…
Since the plot is the least important part of the novel, I’m going to whizz through part of it… Backtrack to 1870s American Anna – who heads off to Rome and falls in love with an Italian Prince, as you do. Marriage and a baby girl, Constanza, swiftly follow. Some years later, Anna discovers something that makes her whisk Constanza away to England, forbidding to let her ever see her father again. When Constanza becomes of age, she resolves to see him anyway, now she is no longer under her mother’s well-meaning but possessive control – only, war is declared.
Right, that’s as far as I’ll go – but, obviously, somewhere along the way Constanza’s daughter Flavia appears…
Thinking back over the novel, there are a few significant moments, but for the most part the events don’t particularly matter. Bedford writes, instead, about relationships between mother and daughter; how people come to understand the world around them, while relating their new-found understanding to their upbringing; how children grow to see their parents as people, and not simply parents; how events affecting the whole of Europe can equally affect tiny family units. And, throughout all this, Bedford has an astonishingly subtlety. Nothing is overstated; a lot is barely stated. Bedford depends upon her fine character drawings, rather than exclamatory narrative interjections. Anna is dignified and calm, but very proud; Constanza is more rebellious, but ultimately loyal. Their mother/daughter has a thousand shades in it, and is wholly believable. I loved how Bedford managed to convey this with tiny linguistic decisions. For example…
Constanza said: “There hasn’t been one word of marriage; and there won’t be.”
“But dearest girl, why?”
“One doesn’t marry like that,” said Constanza, “just like that. For a bit of love.”
Anna chose to laugh. “You don’t know yet, my dear, what one marries for.”
I think the ‘chose’ is really clever there. A lesser novelist would elaborate about Anna’s shock and discouragement, and her decision to put a brave face on matters – but Bedford captures it all in a word.
It must be so difficult not simply to show how these characters are and interact, but how they change over the years. We see Constanza growing from a baby to a mother, and Bedford writes her life without a false step or unbelievable move. Often characters seem the same from cradle to grave, but Bedford is cleverer than that. Here is Constanza as an adult, and a passage about change:
She had learnt to travel light. In her youth she had looked at fate as the bolt from the clear sky, now she recognized it in the iron rule of time on all human affairs. Today is not like yesterday; the second chance is not the first. Whatever turning-points are taken or are missed, it is the length of the passage, the length of the road that counts. She realized that she would never again entirely belong, but also that a large part of her belonged nowhere else. Once more she basked, volatile and melancholy: the sun, the fruit, the colour of the stones were her inheritance as well as the sad pagan creed of carpe diem and stoicism for the rest.
In terms of her writing, Bedford belongs (to my mind) with the small and disparate group – as diverse as George Orwell and Elizabeth Taylor – whose style does not clamour and shout, but has a rich beauty in its consistent balance and measure. It is difficult to point out a phrase which is exceptionally brilliant, or a piece of wit which ought to be repeated – but she is a subtle prose stylist par excellence all the same.
The best novels are the most difficult to write about, I find, especially where the novelist is not highly stylised – there are no grotesques or eccentrics in Bedford’s writing, however welcome these features may be in the hands of other novelists – so I don’t think any review could quite convey the feeling of reading A Favourite of the Gods any more than I can make you understand how it feels to hold the book. But I hope I’ve encouraged you to seek out this book. We’ve heard a lot this year about how Elizabeth Taylor is a Well Kept Secret and a dazzling writer. Well, I think it’s time that Sybille Bedford stepped out onto the stage.