Am I a trivial reader, I wonder? Strange question, you might think, but maybe not so strange; as I found myself initially attracted to this book simply by its strikingly beautiful cover design. Well, you have to admit that it’s stunning! However, I do have several of Bedford’s books on Mount TBR already (including the one I’ve ‘borrowed’ from OH), so I think I can be forgiven.
Sybille Bedford was a novelist and journalist about whom Wikipedia tells us:
Sybille Bedford, OBE (16 March 1911 – 17 February 2006) was a German-born English writer. Many of her works are partly autobiographical. Julia Neuberger proclaimed her “the finest woman writer of the 20th century” while Bruce Chatwin saw her as “one of the most dazzling practitioners of modern English prose”.
So, a force to be reckoned with, then! Pleasures and Landscapes is a collection of Bedford’s travel writing, distilled from another collection, “As It Was”, with the addition of previously uncollected pieces. These range in date of composition from 1954 to 2001, and capture wonderfully the landscapes through which she travels. This is Europe from the past; a seasoned traveller, Bedford is revisiting countries she already knows (Capri, Venice) but also tackling the new (Yugoslavia, behind the Iron Curtain). And how intrepid she is! Not one to visit a country and sit on a beach, she instead drives up and down mountains, goes off walking, meets up with Martha Gellhorn on several occasions, sees the highs and lows of the countries she’s visiting – and all reported in beautiful, evocative, limpid prose.
Her writing is quite gorgeous – often just a string of beautiful words describing the elements of where she is, or the food of a region, which brings the place completely to life. And Bedford certainly does love her food – in fact, she could well have been a successful cookery writer, because the dishes of a particular area have great importance for her! She’s also something of a wine-fancier, and the essay “La Vie de Bordeux” is a fascinating account of a visit to the wine region of France to taste the new vintage.
In case you were thinking this might be just a collection of pretty-pretty travel writing, however, I should point out that Bedford can be quite hard-edged and sees the good and the bad very clearly. She’s not afraid to comment on the poverty she sees, on the difficulties in travelling in some areas, on the bad hotels and rotten service she receives. And one of the most fascinating pieces is the long essay “The Quality of Travel”, written in 1961, when the whole tourist industry had really started to take off. Already it’s becoming hard to go to places that aren’t crowded with sightseers, to travel without plans and without an itinerary, and Bedford obviously mourns the loss of that liberty – although she does manage to get round this most of the time. She’s also remarkably prescient in her comments on the need for a Channel crossing not involving the sea (and this was in 1961!):
“What is wanted of course is not the Tunnel or a Channel bridge but a tunnel and a bridge, several tunnels, a whole span of bridges, anchors to make the island know at last its place. The citizens of Calais are said to be preparing for this unlikely event by setting up profitable amenities, but in England it is still looked on as science fiction. Never before in history has England moved as fast as she has been moving backwards in these last few years.”
So – she didn’t think much of England in the 1960s then?! Despite that, this is a lovely, lovely book – beautiful evocative prose, conjuring up vivid images of places and people, but also with a sense of time having passed and so many freedoms lost. This if the first of Bedford’s work’s I’ve read, and it definitely won’t be the last!