Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sybille Bedford, _A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale from Mexico_

THE VAGUE INTENTION to read Sybille Bedford one day formed for me after reading an essay on her by Hilary Mantel, I think it was, an impressive number of years ago, but it took Lisa Cohen's All We Know to get me to the point of actually taking one up--and I took up this one, of course, because Bedford's companion on this journey to Mexico was Esther Murphy, with whom I felt just a little in love after reading Cohen's biographical triptych.

I seem to recall a remark in Paul Fussell's Abroad (a study of interwar British travel books) to the effect that a great travel book could not be written about Mexico, the country having defeated even such excellent travel writers as D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. He's wrong, though--this is a fine book. (Perhaps, published in 1953, it fell outside of his chosen timeframe). I see an NYRB Classics edition is due this summer.

Bedford and Murphy's reasons for going to Mexico in the first place never become completely clear, and their prolonged stay with the ineffectual but charming Don Otavio similarly hovers in some region beyond ready explanation, but if you as reader are willing to tolerate a little drift for drift's sake, all will be well.

You get to hear the conversation of Esther Murphy, for one thing.  Sybille takes it into her head that she wants to buy "two Mexican baby donkeys, one grey one and one black, for fifteen shillings a piece," and get them to France.

     "And how do you propose to get those animals from Bordeaux to Normandy?" said E.
     The shipping clerks were finding their stride. Every day more details, all splendid were coming to light about the desirable cargo boat.
     "Are you sure it exists?" said E. "Is there such a thing as a freighter from Vera Cruz to Bordeaux?"
     I reminded her of a friend of ours who had actually travelled on something of that nature.
     "Ah, but Nancy commands freighters; they rise for her from the seas like Prospero's island. And nearly drown her, too."

I'm willing to credit Esther with an assist, too, on the bravura passages on Mexican history here--she could, Cohen assures us, be spellbinding on, for instance, the Hanseatic League, so I wonder whether her spirit breathes in the chapter on the Emperor Maximilian. You will read nothing more captivating on the Emperor Maximilian  this year or next, that I can promise you.

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