A Legacy

Written by Sybille Bedford
Review by Jeanne Greene

The intelligent voice utters profound truths while unmasking secrets of the family and by extension, the German psyche. The persecution of cadet Johannes reveals that Germans at the turn of the century were as cruel to their own, be they noble or common, as their descendants would be to the Jews.

The family of the girl narrator depends on Jewish relatives who live in Berlin. The Merz house on Voss Strasse is a refuge and bedrock for the extended family. Jules, Baron von Felden, is a bohemian who makes an art of living. He had arrived in Berlin to marry the Merzes’ daughter, accompanied by two apes that misbehaved on the train. Offered a diplomatic post, he declined to represent Germany and requested another country.

Passion and betrayal stretch the fabric of this family, but everyone belongs, whether by ties of blood or love. The conflict comes from a militaristic society which resents the aristocracy and its excesses. Germany had only become a nation in 1870. The “Felden scandal” threatens to bring down the Kaiser and the military state.

Engrossing because it requires study, this narrative challenges the reader to keep up with family relationships across time, geography and languages. It’s an impressionist style with lush descriptions and the floaty effect of prose that requires interpretation, dialog with scant attribution, French with no translation. The strokes seem fragmented, but viewed from a distance, the picture comes together.