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A Legacy (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 2 Jun 2005
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On the marriage of Julius von Felden and Melanie Merz, the fortunes of two families are somewhat fatally entwined. In A Legacy, Sybille Bedford depicts their vastly different worlds the wealthy bourgeois life of the Merzes in Berlin and the aristocratic eccentricity of the von Felden dynasty in rural Baden. Portrayed with exquisite wit and acute observation, their personal upheavals and tragedies are set against the menacing backdrop of a newly unified Germany combined with Prussian militarism in the decades before the First World War.
About the Author
Born in Charlottenburg and educated privately in England, Italy and France, Sybille Bedford is also the author of A FAVOURITE OF THE GODS, JIGSAW and A COMPASS ERROR. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Vice-President of PEN. She was awarded the OBE in 1981 and a C.Lit in 1994.
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I suppose I was hoping for a parallel to "The Hare with amber eyes" and this certainly isnt that, but it was a good "journey" read and there was enough to hold ones interest between the opportunities to continue reading.
It would make a good basis for a screen play!.
Yet her work has been variously praised by VS Pritchett, Alan Hollinghurst, Hilary Mantel, and Bruce Chatwin - who said, "When the history of modern prose in English comes to be written, Mrs. Bedford will have to appear in any list of its most dazzling practitioners". As those names imply, Bedford is the stylist's stylist.
A Legacy is a slender, brilliant novel, Bedford's first, and a good place to start. It is the inter-linked story of three wealthy German families in the years before the First World War, partly based on the history of Bedford's own family.
The Merzes are a wealthy Berlin Jewish family, living a comfortable, incurious, well-padded life. The von Feldens are countryside Catholic aristocrats, who follow their ancestors' habits and tend their land, "diminishing rather than otherwise". And the Bernins, the von Feldens' ambitious and worldly neighbours, pursue their political ambitions in the newly unified Germany.
The tragedy, the `legacy', of the book is the experience of sensitive, animal-loving Johannes, one of the four von Felden sons, who is sent to a military training camp at fifteen. Neither he nor his family ever recover from the bullying he suffers there.
As the three families grow increasingly closely linked by marriage, the novel describes both the 'mores' of their daily lives - the ten-course meals, the dresses, the letters, the journeys, the parties - and the 'tempora', the changing face of Germany, where the brutality of Johannes's treatment will eventually result in the Third Reich.
Yet Bedford paints with the lightest of touches. Politics and history are simply part of her characters' lives, as they are part of - as they are - ours. She can portray a character's entire moral universe in a few lines of dialogue and a detail, trusting us to fill in the rest.
As the New Yorker wrote of her, "That is one of the joys of reading her: she thinks we are as sophisticated as she is. Her writing is like the conversation of a clever, worldly friend who we wish would come by more often."
In the novel, one character, a middle-aged heiress tired of paying her dissolute husband's gambling debts, takes solace in collecting new work by Monet - and Bedford's style is equally Impressionist, omitting much, but creating dazzling movement, light and colour.