Pleasures and Landscapes by Sybille Bedford

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

Are you ready to be transported back to postwar Europe? Although this collection of essays was first published as Pleasures and Landscapes as recently as 2003, they are mostly from the 1950s and ‘60s, with one from 1979 and another from 2001 to round out the experiences of Bedford, whose long life lasted from 1911-2006. As such, they are a document of a time which has passed – and a time which, itself, must have felt vital and new and a separation from the past.

For someone who loves travel so much, Bedford’s relief at the freedom of postwar travel is palpable. These essays show her exploring conventional travel destinations – like Venice, Capri, and Bordeaux – alongside the more unusual, such as (what was then) Yugoslavia. But the interest in Bedford’s essays comes less (at least to me) from the destinations and more from her style and personality. What is a description of flora and fauna compared to the stylistic verve of this meeting with Martha Gellhorn:

“We must stay up here,” Martha said. “We don’t have to go to bed yet in those stuffy rooms. Let’s stay up here by the window. Let’s watch the dawn come up. I want to talk.” We did talk. Martha talked. I can still feel us as we stood balanced on those stools, heads out in the air, like two characters in a surrealist stage production.

As Bedford says, in the opening line of the longest essay, ‘The Quality of Travel’: ‘A part, a large part, of travelling is an engagement of the ego v. the world.’ She adds in that essay, ‘I am concerned here with the material framework of travel, not its contents.’ Bedford writes about the ways frequent travellers do – and the ways they should – approach travel. How they should engage with a foreign state, respecting its history, acknowledging its beauties, sampling its delicacies.

The last of those three is especially significant. For in ‘The Quality of Travel’, which purports to outline the ethos of travel in philosophical terms (the ‘framework’, you recall, no the ‘contents’) Bedford quickly becomes swayed into an indulgent inventory of the best things she has eaten and drunk in various exotic destinations. I shan’t make your mouth water by listing them, but there are many mentions of fish straight from the ocean, things dripping in butter, meat in various states of tenderness… and that’s before we get to alcohol. Bedford writes so much about alcohol in this collection, travelling with companions who are able to identify the vintage of a glass put in front of them, or – if not quite – get a year or a vineyard either side. Reminiscences of wine come up in every essay. The pleasures overcome the landscapes. Here, for example, she is learning a language…

I had taken care to provide myself with some thirty words of Serbo-Croat (Srpskohrvatski), things like Good morning and Please and How much and Thank you. I had also rooted out and put to memory a pocket-sized gastronomic vocabulary, the names for meat, shellfish, vegetables, how to say iced, hot, grilled, boiled.

Sybille Bedford

I am mostly immune to this sort of conversation. Almost none of the meals described were vegetarian (so I’m out) and I’ve staunchly resisted developing any sort of knowledge about wine (if I can remain happy with a £5 bottle from Sainsbury’s, I don’t intend to make my pleasures more expensive than need be) – but I still loved reading about Bedford’s culinary indulgences. If somebody can write passionately about their favourite topic, without adding the sour aftertaste of snobbery against those who do not share their appreciations, then it is inevitably captivating.

Did I learn much about Europe? Not really. Did I learn much about Bedford? Certainly – not personal details, but a detailed personality. I understand better the mind that created something as lovely as her novel A Favourite of the Gods (also published by Daunt Books) and I greatly enjoyed watching her at play. 

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Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and considers travelling to the supermarket as quite exciting enough, thankyouverymuch.

Sybille Bedford, Pleasures and Landscapes (Daunt Books, London, 2014) ISBN 978-1907970405, paperback 168pp.

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