11 JANUARY 1963, Page 19

The Past as Heritage

A Favourite of the Gods. By Sybille Bedford. (Collins, 18s.)

You could write two totally distinct reviews of A Favourite of the Gods; both opening: 'This is an exceedingly good novel.' One would be for those readers—the elder majority—who ask of fiction only a long, densely-populated and hearty read. Mrs. Bedford's second novel stands ready for them like a great Edwardian mahogany side- board, thickly carved, solidly carpentered and laden with births, marriages, family scandals, investments and wills. It spreads across three generations of Europe, dealing with rich, multi- lingual people who travel between Rome, London, Boston and the Riviera, with maids, minor titles, jewellery cases and their own wine; and it assumes in a way which places it histori- cally that the most important and intense rela- tionships are those of family—parents and Children,, mother and daughter, father and son. It is ample, polite; picturesque and gossiping, and could be read by many people with- the same pleasure they get front Edna Ferber, say, or Margery Sharpe. To older, subtler tastes it might recall Edith Wharton or the Henry James they used to enjoy innocently before the universities turned him into a symbolic moral philosopher. You can read it, in short, simply as a novel, in the sense of the word which was universal fifty Years ago and seems almost extinct today. For (oh dear, yes) it tells a story, an almost old-fashionedly, good one. Anna Howland; one of the New England Howlands, sets off on her father's death in the 1880s, with her wealth, her fair-skinned beauty and liberal education, for Europe, where her sister is married into the US diplomatic corps. She catches a Roman prince, gay, handsome, urbane, and becomes a brilliant hostess to Roman society. There is " "thing Jamesian about the match—the prince adores her, so do his mother and sisters—but all the same something goes obscurely wrong With it: not the prince's conventional in- fidelities, but something missing in Anna, which makes her seize on them as a pretext for slam- ming out of their palazzo and into drab London exile with her daughter, Constanza. Constanza's 8.rowing_ub is a slow realisation how much her life is sacrificed to the want in her mother— She one man because he fits into Anna's Illusions, rejects another because he does not. But when Anna dies, she realises also what she has gained by her parents' contest of wills: free- dom of both the cultures which held them, to choose her own life, to be civilised without nationality. At least this is the blessing—to seek the favour not of one god, but of many—she rtes to pass on to her own daughter, Flavia. It sounds like one of those bulky chronicles, all .warring matriarchs and Balzacian litigation, Which used to make five-act French domestic dramdb--

(there are reminiscences of an old

money-and-daughter play of Hervieu's, Le Cours du Flambeau), and now produce three-hour Hollywood sagas. In fact, summarising makes it sound longer than it is. That is the first clue to the difference between the kind of novel Mrs- Bedford appears to have written and what she actually has done. A Favourite of the Gods Nils to a bare 300 pages, scarcely space for a Ferber (or a James, for that matter) to establish characters and milieu. Its impression of rich- ness is achieved with an economy, a dazzlingly swift, allusive precision ' of reference, which rstablishes in a paragraph what Edwardians aboured in chapters. Those schools which offer to teach the art of fiction by post might corn- Press their courses to an analysis of the amount

of information—character, background, atmo- sphere, period, destiny—Mrs. Bedford manages to convey, merely describing a missed train con- nection, in her short prologue. Simply in con- cision, in lean intelligence of style, she lifts her novel above the plane of plum-pudding realism.

But, of course, style is never just a dress, an idiosyncrasy. It is structure; meaning. Mrs. Bed- ford's foreshortened technique is part of her intention. It is the same method she used so superbly in A Legacy, sketching in a couple of lines of dialogue the passage of years,. the changing of a civilisation. It is, interestingly, the same quick, cumulative cross-cutting Evelyn Waugh perfected in his war-time trilogy, to establish within a contemporary, swiftly-paced plot the -slower movements of time, the pano- ramic perspective of converging centuries. As Mr. Waugh makes Guy Crouchback's misfor- tunes reflect obliquely the whole descent of Christendom, so Mrs. Bedford, without taking her eyes off her characters, is making them evoke the enormous weight of history pressing behind their actions.

For, like A Legacy and the Crouchback trilogy, A Favourite of the Gods is about the end of a world, the old European civilisation in which the whole of your life was moulded by the past and society, every action dictated by all that had gone before.. `How is one to live,' cries Flavia to her mother, appalled at the chain of consequences Anna's- flight from her marriage has dragged through all their lives, `if every step leads to another?' 'Like that,' answers Constanza. She has found the escape from history, the modern mode of day-to-day living, without gods or expectations. But part of her fortune is that she, too, has been shaped by the old world, given its riches of tradition and discrimination on which to use her free- dom. The great catalogue of Edwardian comes- tibles with which the Merzes, in A Legacy, celebrated a family anniversary, Niagaras and Mettemichs and Miroites—en Grenadin; en Favorite; en Chambertin; en Financiere; en Chasse, en Croise, en Frappe, en Triple-Eau, en Glissade, en Diadem; en Sainte-Alliance, en Belvedere, en Ballonne, en Demi-Deuil and Demidoff

has its parallel here in the list of clarets which Constanza's husband, Simon, loves reciting: Château Latour, Château Rauzan-Segla, Château Rauzan-Gassies, Château Montrose. Constanza does not care particularly for claret herself, but she likes Simon's litany and en- courages Flavia in her father's enthusiasm.

Mrs. Bedford's attitude is similarly poised to- ward the traditional rich, ramified banquets of the Edwardian novel. A Favourite of the Gods, you realise at the end of it, resembles them only in content. It is a rendering, as it were, of Edith Wharton for modern readers, as Picasso's versions of Les Femmes d'Alger and Le Dejeuner stir l'Herbe are renderings of Delacroix and Manet: the point of the picture being no longer the representation but the lines which, exaggerated, stretch from it, backward and forward; the sensibility of the earlier artist becomes the subject of his heir. The time before ours reaches and affects us as a dual artifact : an image formed by us of the image of their world formed and forced on us by our parents. This is what Mrs. Bedford's novel is about, and this, in equivalent literary terms, is what it is— the matter of Henry James, that elaborate, mani- fold social continuum, reflected at an angle by a

mind formed by Freud, Forster, Mann, Eliot and their successors.

Perhaps you need to have read A- Legacy to realise (several reviewers seem to 'have missed the 'point) that what Mrs. Bedford is writing about is not just the past, but the past as heri- tage-7-the distillations of it which survive as Manners, taste, family legend, ideas. Her sub- ject, in short, is culture: a subject almost uniquely, 1 think, her own, which accounts for her unique structure of long, exploring sweeps back- ward from now to then, tracing the modifications by which history transmits itself. A Favourite of 11th Gods may' be less obviously impressive than. A Legacy—its Italians seem slightly more second-hand than. the haut-bourgeois Berliners of the earlier book—but that, after all, was an achievement to set beside Buddenbrooks. In its. way, the new novel reaches farther and deeper, and certainly Mrs. Bedford's hand has lost none of its cunning or distinction. By the most modern definition you can name, this is an exceedingly good novel.