Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Favourite of the Gods

Sybille Bedford, a widely-touted novelist who died in 2006, was described in The Guardian as a writer who "did indeed look back to a multi-lingual society of salons and private trains, flawed by arrogance and complacency..." (Is there perhaps a hint of an apology in "indeed?")

She is so highly recommended (there seems to be a kind of mystique) that I did attempt to read A Favourite of the Gods.

Bedford wrote beautifully, with a luminous clarity which validates her reputation for intelligence and wit. The narrative of the novel perfectly orchestrates brilliant style with a loose plot centered on the complications of sexual fidelity. This Jamesian saga about three generations of women is vaguely reminiscent of Portrait of a Lady. James never wrote a saga, of course, but the characters on a superficial level fit into his paradigm of naive women and duplicitous men. Anna, an American ingenue (New England), marries an impoverished Italian prince, who makes her happy for many years. But when she learns of her husband’s long-term affair with a chic Italian woman he has known from childhood, she flees with her teenage daughter, Constanza, to England. And for a long time Constanza does not understand the reason for the separation. Since adultery seems so commonplace to her (she has already had affairs), she believes her father committed some crime, probably involving money.

In this case, unlike any of James’s novels, the prince is sweet, not a monster, but promiscuous. All three of the women, Anna, Constanza, and her daughter, Flavia, have different morals, all shaped by their birthplaces: America, Italy, and England.

The daughter of an IItalian prince and a German noblewoman, Bedford had some experience of growing up as the displaced daughter of a separated couple (she traveled between Rome and England, like her character, Constanza). And whe wrote of imcompatible marriage partners "that they at least shared a belief in the importance of society and the habit of being rich."

The characters seem shallow to me. I believe in Henry James, though how I don't know, yet these capricioush characters never come alive for me.

I know Bedford was a "good" humanist, though, who, as a legal journalist covered 100 complicated trials, among them the Lady Chatterley scandal and Jack Ruby's trial for the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald.

And A Favourite of the Gods is a brilliant book on many levels. It just doesn't work for me.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

From the way you describe it, I doubt it'd work for me either. Your description puts me in mind of Elizabeth Spencer's _Light in the Piazza_, which I did find so alive and moving and relevant directly to my life.

I'm almost finished with _Revolutionary Road_ and saw the movie. Oh Kathy, here is a book & film too, which cut close to our bones.