In this installment of our summer conversation, we chat about Sybille Bedford’s 1953 travel memoir A Visit to Don Otavio and Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s 1936 film Redes. Please feel free to join the conversation on Twitter.
For our next and last installment, we’ll be discussing two works of noir from 1977: Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel Fatale and Wim Wenders’s film The American Friend. See our previous discussion, on Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work (1995) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) here.
No matter what T. S. Eliot claims, April is not the cruelest month. It’s August—torpid, muggy, school-is-almost-here, summer-is-almost-over August.
What a pleasure at this time of year, then, to read Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey (1953). It’s a delightful book, crisp and tasty like the claret Bedford longs for but can’t convince her Mexican host, the titular Don Otavio, to break out when visiting his estate. The book begins in New York City, in the summer, in a cosmopolitan tone: “The upper part of Grand Central Station is large and splendid like the Baths of Caracalla.” And it ends in Mexico, by the shores of Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara, at the villa of Don Otavio,—a kindly, courteous man Bedford deems “the last relic of Mexican feudalism.” In between, Bedford travels with her companion, an American woman dubbed E., from mountain to plain, from city to countryside. She transfigures the ungodly heat and wild sprawl of Mexico into the coolness of continental style, a style whose polished, Apollonian surface and anarchic, Dionysian core might be called absurdist classicism.
In the mid-1940s, the cosmopolitan Bedford—German-born, Italy-, France-, and England-bred—had been staying in the United States for a few years. Before returning to England, she writes, she “had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history and as little present history as possible.” Bedford chose Peru, but couldn’t afford it. She then decided upon Uruguay, but the necessary freighter never showed up. She ended up choosing Mexico as if by accident, and A Visit to Don Otavio is the result.
There ends up being an interesting fit between writer and country. Bedford’s German aristocratic father was Catholic and her British-born mother was partly Jewish, and she becomes interested in Mexico’s syncretic brand of Catholicism. Bedford knew privilege (that aristocratic father), but she also knew economic hardship (the term “genteel poverty” could have been invented to describe her father’s later life), and she finds both, in complicated and fascinating mixture, in Mexico. (Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s 1936 film Redes, which we watched this week, offers a very different vision of Mexican poverty.)