A compass Error is the sequel to ‘A favourite of the Gods’, which I read last month. I do like these attractive Daunt Books editions – a very classy design.
In reviewing this extremely accomplished novel – I find that I am worried about saying too much about the actual story – revealing far more than would be fair – I always assume that some of my blog readers may want to read the book for themselves one day.
I am rather glad that I had a little break after reading A Favourite of the Gods before reading this, as in the first third of the novel there is a fairly lengthy re-hashing of the events in the previous novel, as Flavia recounts the events of her mother’s and grandmother’s lives . This serves as a useful explanation to any readers who have not read ‘A Favourite of the Gods’, but which I may have found a bit dull, had I read this novel straight after. As it was, although I had read ‘A favourite of the Gods’ very recently I did quite appreciate the chance to re-engage with the events of that novel, I also rather liked having Flavia’s own spin put upon those events.
“There she went. A foolish girl, a brave girl, a single human creature in first pride of its unique existence. Ignorant, as we are all of us, in youth, in health, untried, taking possession of the world, ignorant of its workings and that of our own natures, ignorant, arrogant, generous, self-enclosed, yet visited, however briefly, by a flash of intellectual passion.”
In ‘A Compass Error’ we again meet Flavia, seventeen and living alone in a costal Provencal village, cramming for her Oxford entrance. Here she lives a seemingly charmed and independent life, relatively wealthy, swimming daily and eating alone in harbour restaurants. Flavia is a sensible, conscientious young lady, remarkably unscathed from her chaotic upbringing by Constanza who we met fully in ‘A Favourite of the Gods’ – but who remains only a background presence in this novel.
“On the night of the fireworks, as Flavia was about to finish her Coeur-crème, a party of seven or eight swept Chez Auguste : They looked like strangers, indeed strange birds, in the place but they made themselves at home calling for tables to be put together, calling for olives, wine and bread, shouting enquires about the progress of their bouillabaisse. All were sunburnt and the men wore the same kind of clothes that Flavia wore with the northern town- dwellers delight in summer ease; and so with some ornamental touches did the women. They were painters, literary journalists and painters’ wives. Flavia, who thought that she could put a name to one or two of them looked and listened.”
Long hot summer days and a gruelling study timetable don’t prevent Flavia from making new friends, and a chance meeting with Therese the wife of famous painter draws Flavia into a circle of Bohemian characters. Flavia’s attention is distracted from her studies with a heady combination of long dinner parties, drinking and sex. Therese takes an interest in Flavia who is instantly attracted to Therese. Soon after, Flavia meets and is over awed by Andree – a vicious, conniving beauty who takes full advantage of Flavia’s naivety. Drawn into a fully adult and sexually experimental world, Flavia is unprepared for the lessons she will learn. Decisions that Flavia make are destined to impact terribly on both her and her absent mother.
In A Compass Error, Sybille Bedford explores the cost of a terrible mistake. A coming of age novel it charts the dangerous territory that can exist between the teenage world and the dark adult world that seems so enticing.
Sybille Bedford’s writing is really lovely, there is nothing wasted, it is intelligent and enormously evocative. A sublime sense of place which stays with the reader long after the book is laid aside, is no doubt why Daunt Books – known best for their travel books have chosen to re-issue it. Of the two novels, I liked A Favourite of the Gods best, Constanza’s story is just brilliant, and marvellously well told, but A Compass Error is just as memorable, and an absolute must read for anyone who has read and enjoyed the earlier book.