A legacy

by Sybille Bedford

Paperback, 2015




New York : New York Review Books, [2015]


"A Legacy is the tale of two very different families. The Merzes are members of the Jewish upper bourgeoisie of Berlin and direct descendants of Henriette Merz, friend of Goethe and Mirabeau. But this imposing legacy has long since ceased to mean much of anything in the Merzes' huge town house, where the family devotes itself to little more than enjoying its comfort and ensuring its wealth. The Feldens are landed Catholic aristocracy, well off but not rich, from the Catholic south of Germany. When Julius von Felden marries Melanie Merz the fortunes of the two families become strangely, and sometimes fatally, entwined. Told from the point of view of a precociously observant child and set against the background of Germany before the First Word War, A Legacy is at once captivating, magnificently funny, and profound, an unforgettable image of a doomed way of life"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member yooperprof
Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) was born into an aristocratic German family before World War I, and lived long enough to publish a rather brilliant memoir called "Quicksands" in 2005. "A Legacy" was her first published novel, from 1956, and is said to be largely autobiographical, but I thought it was disappointing and rather "tough going" in parts.

"A Legacy" features a first person narrator who seems to know an awfully lot about the internal lives of characters born a generation or more before her - improbably so. Bedford writes some clever dialogue (reminiscent of an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel), but it is interspersed with undeveloped characters in an unnecessarily complicated family drama. There's some wit about the follies of the bourgeoisie in Pre-World War I Europe. In the better parts, it reminded me of a Germanic "Galsworthy Saga." But there's just too much missing. It's like watching a foreign language film without subtitles. And I gave up caring at all about the characters about half-way through. Moreover, the whole narrative structure seems faulty to me.
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LibraryThing member piemouth
In 2005 when I read and loved a quartet of novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, dedicated to Sybille Bedford, I started looking for her books. This is a novel written in the 50s about three turn of the century European families and how their different styles bring them to grief when they intermarry. I liked it, though it’s quite opaque. I wasn’t sure I understood everyone’s motivations since they’re mostly implied.… (more)
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
While German literature counts few works by late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century authors with an aristocratic background --- with the exception of Count Eduard von Keyserling --- there is an English author who has described that milieu from within. Sybille Bedford, was born as Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck, and she grew up at the family estate Schloss Feldkirch in Baden, in southwest Germany. She lived the first 14 years of her life in Germany. In 1956, she published the novel A legacy, which is largely autobiographical, describing her family.

The novel consists of five parts, each composed of several chapters, although some parts are very long while some are very short. The first part describes the story of the escape of the young Zoegling Johannes von Felden from the military academy in Benzheim am Rhein bei Cologne and his return to the family estate Schloss Landen in the Grand Duchy Baden. This part of the novel is brilliantly conceived, enticing and convincingly illustrating the Prussian cadaver discipline of that age. Fortunately, for Johannes, his family embraces his and protects him from being forcefully returned to the academy, particularly through the sublime tact of the Baron Felden. These episodes illustrate the tension in the novel between old nobility for whom duty and social position determine social relations, and young ambition. Although this story is set up and executed perfectly in the first part of the novel, it is carried on throughout the novel, but is not forceful enough to encompass a full-length novel. Instead, the novel describes the aristocratic family at large, on both sides of the extended family, bringing in very many characters, while there is hardly a plot to speak of. Personal matters, financial dealings, and the whole extended running of the aristocracy is described. A Legacy is set mainly in Berlin and Baden around the turn of the century. Part of the confusion in the novel are the rich and colliding differences between the two branches of the family: between the stilted Catholic aristocracy of Southernwest Germany and the rich Jewish mercantile establishment in Berlin. This provides a unique perspective into Bismarck’s militantly nationalistic Prussia and Wilhelminian Germany from the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 till the First World War in 1914.
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