“Legacy” is a word that looks both backward and forward. Each of us inherits our family’s accumulated experiences while leaving behind a version of that history filtered through our own life’s accomplishments, relationships, and perspectives. Our ability to take the familial past and make the future different, better, is the product of personal imagination, internal grit, and a good measure of luck, and the context for Sybille Bedford’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, A Legacy, first published in 1956 and today reissued by NYRB Classics. As it does time and time again, the NYRB Classics gives readers who value great literature an invaluable gift, this time recognizing and renewing interest in Ms. Bedford, an author who deals-out the grave moral of her story with an ironic, perceptive, and immensely entertaining hand.
A Legacy looks at the gravitational pull of the past through the experiences of two wealthy German families at the start of the twentieth century, the Jewish Merzs and the Catholic Feldens, united by the brief, loveless marriage of Melanie Merz and Julius Felden.
While the novel is framed by the childhood memories of Francesca, Julius’ daughter by his second wife, Caroline, most of the events take place before Francesca’s birth. At the novel’s center is a personal tragedy involving the mental illness of Julius’ brother Johannes, which upon Johannes’ death years later erupts into a political scandal damaging to both families. Two strong-willed women marry into the Merzs and Feldens; Sarah Merz and Caroline Felden possess the necessary intellect, determination, and financial means to reverse their familys’ ennui, moral dissipation, and financial collapse. Their husbands, by contrast, are short-sighted, weak and self-absorbed. Of Julius:
the lines that enclosed his nature and laid out the always repeated pattern of the coming years: in the daily care spent on his person and its setting; the existence built with money, unease over money; the guards against intrusion; the trick of living in Germany as though it were a vacuum; the side-stepping of self and life through a hobby; the lack of curiosity about the human world, and the absence, remarkable in so young a man, of the need for general human company.
He saw forces everywhere he wished only to dodge, not understand, and existence governed by a sequence of fortuitous blows. He had a long run of successful elusion of what he feared, but he believed it to be always at his heels, and his own great talent for the grace of living was mined by that streak of pessimism, gloom and caution which must have made life seem to him such a precarious course, and life with him so peculiar.
But rather than being catalysts for change, Sarah and Caroline enable, by propping-up the crumbling finances, emotional abnegation and dysfunction of the two families. Sarah and Caroline, too, succumb to the apathy around them. Sarah thinks,
life [. . .] a drab, bearable half-sleep banked by a little store of this and that, subsiding after visitations and alarms, a drowsing, often not uneasy, down the years, an even-paced irreversible passage.
And, here is Caroline during a dinner party with her future brother in-law and his wife:
Caroline, used to this kind of occasion, was now indifferent to her own relation with it or effect, she, too, was quite detached; the spring to seize, connect, relate, had become slack, and she received the scene before her, the room, the lives, the people [. . .] as an integral and direct impression of something composed of several levels — smoothness lying over painstaking elaboration, and order covering and engendering chaotic agitation and beyond it nothing [. . .]. She turned to Jules, and he was outside; from him there came immobility, not stillness, the immobility of someone asleep and yet at bay.
Bedford portrays the idiosyncrasies, habits, and dysfunctions of the members of the two families with biting, unsentimental wit. Her tone is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bowen and Anthony Trollope, and her edges may be even sharper.
Grandmama Merz eventually put two and two together.
“Is Melanie going to live in a house with monkeys?”
Fraulein von Tschernin, who had had a glimpse also of Julius, confirmed that this was part of her daughter’s radiant prospects.
“We’re not going to allow it,” said Grandmama [. . .]
“What does one do with unwanted monkeys?” said Emil.
Grandmama pondered this. “He must give them away,” she said. “Hasn’t he any poor relations?”
Admirers of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks will recognize in A Legacy many of the same symptoms that afflict the Buddenbrook clan: madness, the selfish squandering of money, the demands to keep up appearances, and the inertia that renders the characters incapable of altering the trajectory toward eventual ruin. Gaining an appreciation of Bedford’s take on these themes is time very well spent.