This is a collection of two books about several generations of women sort of traipsing across Europe. I will review them separately as I read them that way.
Sybille Bedford is a weird writer. She was born in Germany, spent long periods of time travelling around the world, was “more or less British” and then wrote about a variety of subjects. She only wrote a few novels and they were mostly autobiographical. I think she’s a little polarizing, but I like her stuff.
A Favourite of the Gods
In this novel, we meet Costanza and Flavia, mother and daughter, constant travelers, as they set off on another adventure. The novel then moves back in time to discuss how Constanza’s mother, Anna, an American heiress met Costanza’s father, an Italian prince, while traveling through the Italian landscape.
The novel describes their whirlwind courtship, his inevitable infidelities, and then the legal an religious fallout of their breaking up. Because Italy is both a Catholic country and one that was still holding onto a royal/aristocratic legacy in the late 1800s, the marriage cannot simply be divorced, and since there was a child involved, it could not simply be annulled. Instead, they agree to a legal separation, the main point of which Anna takes the daughter Costanza off to England, while their son stays with his father’s family in Italy.
From there the novel moves onto Costanza’s childhood in England, with periodic visits from her younger brother, and her courtship and marriage to a young British Law student who has gotten her pregnant, and then together they realize they don’t really love each other, and they divorce, in the much less religious, but still litigious pre-war England.
As that marriage dissolved, we move onto the third section of the novel where Flavia is now growing up. She has a fractured understanding of her world, her family, and how love functions.
As the novel closes, we see this same sense of fracture laid out upon Italy of the 1920s, where Fascism is taking over, where the spectre of Marxism causes the Italian aristocracy to make unhealthy allegiances with Mussolini, and the fate of Europe is uncertain by the end. What is certain is that Flavia and Constanza have no real desire to settle down.
A Compass Error
The second of the two books A Compass Error, is a kind of reflective take on the first book. Instead of just simply retelling or continuing the story, the focus is on the youngest daughter of all the generations now looking back over her life. Both as an interview and a potential book, Flavia is trying to make sense of her young adulthood, her mother, her family, and their shared history together as she writes about them.
I thought that the kind of weird carnivalesque nature and tone of the first book is completely subdued in a really good way in this second book. It doesn’t change anything that happens in the first one, nor does it rewrite its history. Instead what this book does is take a sober look at what came before. In some ways it’s a reflection of England between the wars, the effect of mixed heritage on one’s identity, and trying to find stability after an obviously unstable childhood. The sobering up of the story makes a lot of sense when it comes down to it. This book is a strong continuation of this story because its not just a sequel so much as a successor. In this sense, this book is/conflates the same experience between a writer’s look on their past creation and a child’s trying to make sense of a childhood without bounds. I am glad I read these books and more so I am really glad I read them together, separated only by a few days.