Recently in this series we’ve seen what happens to life stories when asylum seekers must appeal to nation-states for protection. Many of their stories can’t be heard at all (see addendum to PoL #10). We’ve seen how procedural rules constrain the stories that can be told in a court room, and the ways that an artist can re-stage the same encounter while loosening the rules (see PoL #11). How close can those forms ever bring us to hearing and understanding “the other” (which is the starting place of politics)? And what about literature? What will shift, what possibilities will open, if we take the same complex lives that fill the processing centres and court rooms, and transfer their stories from there into literature?
Sybille Bedford wrote several books about court trials in the mid-20th century. Bedford herself is an under-appreciated giant of English-language prose. Best known for her travel writing (The Sudden View) and the brilliant novel/memoirs of her storied life (Jigsaw, A Compass Error, A Favourite of the Gods), she also produced five books about law courts. She reported the West German trials of Auschwitz guards, for The Observer, Jack Ruby’s trial (the man who shot JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald) in Dallas, Texas, for LIFE Magazine, and the London obscenity trial of the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The most intriguing of her court room books is The Faces of Justice (1961), a survey of trial court procedures in five European countries. Typical of Bedford’s work, the author herself appears as a central character, deflating any pretensions toward expertise, bedevilled by the accidents of travel, and wary of hubris in anyone, especially herself. This is a layman’s account of something that matters deeply, the reporting of what, today, we’d call a “fan boy.” Bedford’s belief in justice is fierce, anchored in a life buffeted by too much injustice. She observes the court with the keen hunger of an acolyte who must feed her faith. Bedford is a superb, sympathetic observer and a terrifically skilled writer. (Those interested in learning more about her can begin with novelist Boyd Tonkin’s insightful profile, published on the web journal Boundless.) Following is the Munich chapter of The Faces of Justice, currently available from Faber & Faber.
8 August, 2022