I received an advanced review copy of this novel from the publisher through Edelweiss.
This is the satirical yet poignant story of two wealthy European families living in Pre-World War I Germany. The first cast of characters that are described are from the Merz family, who are of Jewish descent and live together in an opulent home in Berlin. In addition to the matriarch and patriarch of the family, sons, daughters, uncles and in-laws all live under the same roof. Their youngest daughter, Melanie, marries an older man named Julius who is originally from the countryside and whose family is Catholic. As one can image, many comical discussions about religion and family matters involving religion, take place as a result of this Jewish-Catholic marriage.
Julius’ family, the Feldens, are the other family described at length in A LEGACY. The Feldens are landed gentry living in the South and their Catholic roots go back for generations; there are a total of four sons in the family including Julius. A lot of the story about the Feldens involves a description of Johannes, the youngest brother, who, at the age of 15, is sent off to a brutally abusive German military camp for young boys. Johannes escapes and a political battle ensues between the Felden family and the German government. When Johannes is threated with being returned to the military camp he loses his mind and is never right for the rest of this life.
There are many themes and plots in the book that Bedford describes which readers from any time or place can appreciate. Even though these families believe that they are vastly different because of their religions, they are actually very similar in how they view family, wealth and society. Although both families claim they are staunch believers in their respective religions, none of them actually ever sets foot in a church or a synagogue. The sons, especially the eldest in each family, expect to have vast amounts of income with which to gamble and engage in their eccentric hobbies; but each man has no intention, whatsoever, of working for a living.
The language of the book is very different and might not be what many readers are used to as far as dialogue is concerned. Oftentimes characters launch into a dialogue and neither speaker is specifically identified until well into the conversation. It is as if we are sitting at the dinner table with the Merzes, or any large family, and conversations are happening all at the same time around us. It might take us a while to catch up with the various dialogues going on simultaneously in the room, but we try to catch bits and pieces of discussions as best we can.
When there is a death, a marriage or a birth, all of which inevitably entail a consideration of religious practices, some type of an argument arises among the Felden and Merz families. A sister-in-law, who is on the fringe of this family dynamic describes the situations she witnesses among these families best when she says that there is a “Theological dead-lock between non-practicing members of two religions.”
A LEGACY is an entertaining novel, especially for those readers who understand the intricate workings and dynamics of an extended family. It also made me a little sad to think that this time period that is described is the last of its kind for such families as these in Germany before that country is ravaged by two world wars. In the end, Bedford makes us ask ourselves if any of the petty differences that exists among families really matter? What kind of a legacy will we leave for posterity? What does fighting over religion or money or property really leave us in the end?
Thanks so much to the New York Review of Books Classics series for bringing another great novel to our attention.
About The Author:
Sybille Bedford, (16 March 1911 – 17 February 2006) was a German-born English writer. Many of her works are partly autobiographical. Julia Neuberger proclaimed her “the finest woman writer of the 20th century” while Bruce Chatwin saw her as “one of the most dazzling practitioners of modern English prose.