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A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey (New York Review Books Classics)

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In the mid-1940s, Sybille Bedford set off from Grand Central Station for Mexico, accompanied by her friend E., a hamper of food and drink (Virginia ham, cherries, watercress, a flute of bread, Portuguese rosé), books, a writing board, and paper. Her resulting travelogue captures the rich and violent beauty of the country as it was then.   Bedford doesn’t so much describe M In the mid-1940s, Sybille Bedford set off from Grand Central Station for Mexico, accompanied by her friend E., a hamper of food and drink (Virginia ham, cherries, watercress, a flute of bread, Portuguese rosé), books, a writing board, and paper. Her resulting travelogue captures the rich and violent beauty of the country as it was then.   Bedford doesn’t so much describe Mexico as take the reader there by hand, like a small child, in second-class motor buses over thousands of miles, through arid noons and frigid nights, successions of comida corrida, botched excursions to the coast, conversations recorded verbatim, hilarious observations, and fascinating digressions into murky histories. At the heart of the book is the Don Otavio of the title, the travelers’ gracious host, a man of lived rather than recorded history. His hacienda at Lake Chapala is the still, Edenic center of the book, and his garrulous family and friends, what Mexico meant in terms of human experience for S. and E. Published in 1953, A Visit to Don Otavio was an immediate success, “a travel book written by a novelist,” as Bedford described it, establishing her reputation as a nonpareil writer.


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In the mid-1940s, Sybille Bedford set off from Grand Central Station for Mexico, accompanied by her friend E., a hamper of food and drink (Virginia ham, cherries, watercress, a flute of bread, Portuguese rosé), books, a writing board, and paper. Her resulting travelogue captures the rich and violent beauty of the country as it was then.   Bedford doesn’t so much describe M In the mid-1940s, Sybille Bedford set off from Grand Central Station for Mexico, accompanied by her friend E., a hamper of food and drink (Virginia ham, cherries, watercress, a flute of bread, Portuguese rosé), books, a writing board, and paper. Her resulting travelogue captures the rich and violent beauty of the country as it was then.   Bedford doesn’t so much describe Mexico as take the reader there by hand, like a small child, in second-class motor buses over thousands of miles, through arid noons and frigid nights, successions of comida corrida, botched excursions to the coast, conversations recorded verbatim, hilarious observations, and fascinating digressions into murky histories. At the heart of the book is the Don Otavio of the title, the travelers’ gracious host, a man of lived rather than recorded history. His hacienda at Lake Chapala is the still, Edenic center of the book, and his garrulous family and friends, what Mexico meant in terms of human experience for S. and E. Published in 1953, A Visit to Don Otavio was an immediate success, “a travel book written by a novelist,” as Bedford described it, establishing her reputation as a nonpareil writer.

30 review for A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey (New York Review Books Classics)

  1. 5 out of 5

    Buck

    After açaí berries and recycling, travel’s one of the most overrated things around. It’s just one long pain in the ass. There’s the expense, the indignities of airport security, the further indignities of economy class, crowds, sand in your crotch, very large people with very small fanny packs, and Two and a Half Men dubbed into Portuguese. And what do you get out of all this? A gnawing sense of disappointment and the realization that there’s just no escaping yourself, that your sagging spirit i After açaí berries and recycling, travel’s one of the most overrated things around. It’s just one long pain in the ass. There’s the expense, the indignities of airport security, the further indignities of economy class, crowds, sand in your crotch, very large people with very small fanny packs, and Two and a Half Men dubbed into Portuguese. And what do you get out of all this? A gnawing sense of disappointment and the realization that there’s just no escaping yourself, that your sagging spirit is tied to your weary flesh, like a deflated tetherball to a rusty pole, forever. Oh, and maybe some knickknacks. Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt. As with so many things in life, then, travel is best enjoyed vicariously, through books. A book won’t steal your passport or kidnap you or give you a drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea (unless it’s a library book and you rub it against your privates, but why would you do that?) Actually, A Visit to Don Otavio is almost worth risking gonorrhea for. It’s not only the best book I’ve ever read about Mexico; it may be the best travel book I’ve ever read, period. An odd, clever woman collides with a big, baroque country, and the result is a minor classic that’s better than a lot of major classics. In it, tequila is described as ‘raw alcohol with an underwhiff of festering sweetness as though chrysanthemums had rotted in gin.’ (Unfair, I think, but possibly true of the 1940s vintage.) A man has ‘one of those inherited handsome faces of Goya’s minor courtiers, where the acumen, pride and will of an earlier mould have run to fatuity and craft.’ (She adds: ‘He turned out one of the kindest men I ever met.’) A derelict hotel has ‘a thick smell of dead-town, faded splendours and present bankruptcy.’ Sybille Bedford is the author’s name. She died a few years back, in her 90s. The wiki version of her biography hints at the sheer fabulousness of her life. She loved Mexico, by the way, the land that has swallowed so many foreign writers. She saw it whole, the beauty and brutality of it, and came away composed, and wrote this quirky, gorgeous thing about it. I don’t encourage you to travel—that’s your business—but you should probably read the book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    4.5 stars One of the great travelogues and in Bruce Chatwin’s opinion “the greatest travel book of the twentieth century”. It helps a great deal that Bedford can write well and has a gift for observation and description. Living from 1911 to 2006, Bedford had a long and colourful life and is not appreciated as a writer as she should be. Bedford had escaped from France in 1940 and spent the war in the US. After the war she decided that before returning to Europe she would travel for a while in Mexi 4.5 stars One of the great travelogues and in Bruce Chatwin’s opinion “the greatest travel book of the twentieth century”. It helps a great deal that Bedford can write well and has a gift for observation and description. Living from 1911 to 2006, Bedford had a long and colourful life and is not appreciated as a writer as she should be. Bedford had escaped from France in 1940 and spent the war in the US. After the war she decided that before returning to Europe she would travel for a while in Mexico. She went with a travelling companion referred to as E throughout. E was in fact Esther Mary Arthur (at that point married to the grandson of the US president Chester Arthur). Bedford and Arthur were having a love affair at the time. As Chatwin says in his introduction, they approached their adventure “without an itinerary, without preconceptions, and with their senses wide open”. That propensity to go with the flow makes for an entertaining read. As I mentioned, Bedford has great descriptive powers, this is about a bus journey; “A well-grown sow lies heaving in the aisle. My neighbor has a live turkey hen on her lap and the bird simply cannot help it, she must partly sit on my lap, too. This is very hot. Also she keeps fluffing out her surprisingly harsh feathers. From time to time, probably to ease her own discomfort, the bird stands up. Supported on six pointed claws, one set of them on my knee, she digs her weight into us and shakes herself. Dust and lice emerge. On my other side, in the aisle, stands a little boy with a rod on which dangles a dead, though no doubt freshly caught, fish. With every lurch of the conveyance, and it is all lurches, the fish, moist but not cool, touches my arm and sometimes my averted cheek.” The book moves between pure travelogue, descriptions of Mexico’s bloody history (from Cortes to the nineteenth and twentieth century dictators), detailed descriptions of food and meals (always a plus), the vicissitudes of travel, he varying quality of hotels and of course, Don Otavio and his extended family and servants. Bedford, in an interview late in her life described it thus; “It is a travel book written by a novelist. I wanted to get across the extraordinary beauty of Mexico, the allegro quality of its climate, with the underlying panic and violence inherited from a long and bloody history.” Don Otavio is a slightly down at heel aristocratic type with a colourful family and some interesting neighbours who are similarly middle class with a smattering of those escaping Europe. Bedford has a sharp wit and excellent sense of humour. It does have to be noted that the travellers were middle class as were most of the people they stayed with and the lives of ordinary people are at a distance. That may have been inevitable, but there are many good vignettes and descriptions of customs and tradition (especially relating to the Catholic Church). All in all and excellent read by a very good writer.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Tony

    When Sybille Bedford disembarks in Mexico, the first thing she does is to load her bag with a quart of Bacardi rum (The best darkest kind. Five pesos.) and a bottle of Mexican brandy. And then when a child insists on carrying her purchases, she is free to add a bottle of tequila and some Campari. This is someone I could travel with. I already knew that Bedford could write; fairly gushing was I over her novel Legacy . And this again was superb. I posted, in my update progress, a few of the repres When Sybille Bedford disembarks in Mexico, the first thing she does is to load her bag with a quart of Bacardi rum (The best darkest kind. Five pesos.) and a bottle of Mexican brandy. And then when a child insists on carrying her purchases, she is free to add a bottle of tequila and some Campari. This is someone I could travel with. I already knew that Bedford could write; fairly gushing was I over her novel Legacy . And this again was superb. I posted, in my update progress, a few of the representative passages that moved me. I could have added many more. I liked, for example, this piece of dialogue showing the disconnect of language, culture and expectation: 'Where do you come from?' I am asked. 'America.' 'This is America.' 'From North America.' 'This is North America.' 'From the United States.' 'These are the United States, Estado Unidos Mexicanos.' 'I see. Oh dear. Then the Señora here,' I point to E., 'is what? Not an American? Not a North American? What is she?' 'Yanqui. La Señora es Yanqui.' 'But only North Americans from the States . . . North Americans from the North . . . I mean only Yankees from the Northern States are called Yankees.' '¿Por favor?' 'E' is Bedford's companion and is a wonderful character, subtly drawn. Mostly by her sparse replies. It works. The book is told in the present tense, of Bedford's travels throughout Mexico. Yet she does look backward from time to time, none better than when she tells the story of Maximilian and his unfortunate end. She tells everything, and warmly, except the moment of that end: My only complaint, and it's a minor one, is that there are many characters, superficially rendered because of the clutter of personalities. This is especially so toward the book's end when others - Germans, English - intrude, with their superiority and their prejudices. It was better when the story focused on Don Octavio, or the author herself. There was one loose thread, one missing piece. When Bedford arrived, or was transferring to another city, some rascals took her luggage, misappropriating some bags. Mostly she lost shoes, a blouse, nothing irreplaceable. But there was also an unfinished manuscript. This was the early 1950s, before you could save things to a thumb drive or a disk. She made inquiries, followed leads, but as far as I can tell the manuscript was swallowed by the Mexican jungle. One can only wonder what the piece was, whether she ever retrieved it from her memory. Bedford doesn't dwell on it. But I might.

  4. 4 out of 5

    T.D. Whittle

    This is a marvelous book. I only wish I had heard of Sybille Bedford sooner. Well, not "only." I wish too that I could have known her as a friend and travel companion, and been a part of the old-world graciousness that was life at gentle Don Otavio's hacienda. An old friend of mine recommended Sybille Bedford's writing to me, and cited this book in particular, telling me that he thought I would love it. Right he was. Sybille Bedford is erudite, witty, subtle, kind-hearted, and dedicated to her t This is a marvelous book. I only wish I had heard of Sybille Bedford sooner. Well, not "only." I wish too that I could have known her as a friend and travel companion, and been a part of the old-world graciousness that was life at gentle Don Otavio's hacienda. An old friend of mine recommended Sybille Bedford's writing to me, and cited this book in particular, telling me that he thought I would love it. Right he was. Sybille Bedford is erudite, witty, subtle, kind-hearted, and dedicated to her task of exploring Mexico with her companion E. It would have been enough simply to bask in the elegance of her prose and her sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant observations; but, A Visit to Don Otavio provides more than that. Bedford gives a concise overview of the history of the country in a way that connects its main events intimately to the key figures involved, some of whom are tragic figures, such as Emperor Maximilian I, who was shot by Juarez at the age of 34, and others who seem to leap from the pages of a picaresque novel, such as Benito Juárez, who had more lives and bigger balls than a streetwise tomcat. Bedford, while understated, is never dry. She is always considerate of her readers' time and attention, so that one can dive into this book with no knowledge of Mexico at all or with a reasonable background in its formation (such is my own situation, due to growing up in nearby Texas) and enjoy it thoroughly, either way, in Bedford's dependable hands.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Elaine

    First of all, a travel writer of yesteryear who is entirely obsessed with food! A woman after my own heart. Second of all, a frequently laugh out loud book, even as you were learning quite a bit about Mexican history. Third, a wonderfully idiosyncratic and erudite look at a pre-mass tourism Mexico. A bit reminiscent of that English chap who tromped around Europe on the eve of World War II (Patrick Leigh Fermor, it took me a minute) but where Fermor felt show offy, Bedford just seems smart, wry and First of all, a travel writer of yesteryear who is entirely obsessed with food! A woman after my own heart. Second of all, a frequently laugh out loud book, even as you were learning quite a bit about Mexican history. Third, a wonderfully idiosyncratic and erudite look at a pre-mass tourism Mexico. A bit reminiscent of that English chap who tromped around Europe on the eve of World War II (Patrick Leigh Fermor, it took me a minute) but where Fermor felt show offy, Bedford just seems smart, wry and like the kind of person I, at least, would have loved to take a long ago trip with. To be clear, I think you have to like this genre-the highly idiosyncratic travelogue that gives a glimpse into a world we can never see because it is further away in time than it is in distance. But if this kind of thing fascinates you, as it does me, Bedford's cast of eccentrics, catalog of travel mishaps, awe at the hearty cheap Mexican meals (described lovingly course by course) and occasional pointed historical lecture will not fail to charm.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Chrisl

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sybille... In the book's beginning, Sybille and her friend are on a train traveling from New York to St Louis. "In the plains of Indiana, nature certainly has it. We have been going through the wheat fields for hours; miles upon miles of fat, yellow alien corn visibly ripening under a wide-awake sky. A spread of cruel wealth. Of human life and habitation there are few signs, no farm houses, no animals by the roadside. "What part does man play in the farming of these https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sybille... In the book's beginning, Sybille and her friend are on a train traveling from New York to St Louis. "In the plains of Indiana, nature certainly has it. We have been going through the wheat fields for hours; miles upon miles of fat, yellow alien corn visibly ripening under a wide-awake sky. A spread of cruel wealth. Of human life and habitation there are few signs, no farm houses, no animals by the roadside. "What part does man play in the farming of these fields? Does he work the earth or does he operate it? Is he peasant, mechanic, or businessman? Perhaps here is the scene of his last defeat: eating tinned vegetables in a frame house, setting out in a tractor to cultivate his one-crop harvest mortgaged to the banks, he has been undone by a monstrous mating of nature with the machine. "Corrective: if the fields of Canada, the Middle West, the Argentine and the Ukraine were run like so many farms in the Home Counties, we'd all starve. Oh, double-faced truth, oh, Malthus, oh, compromise--there are too many sheep in the pen." ** (In Mexico City, a source of museum memories) "One of the happiest places in this town is a room of early nineteenth-century Creole genre paintings in the Chapultepec Museum. These graceful pictures ... are quite unlike anything one has ever seen, luxuriant but domestic, naïve and worldly, fresh, faintly absurd, wholly delicious ... "But here too, the other note is sounded. There is a picture of a small boy led by a governess through a most peculiar garden of sugar cane and coffee bush, followed by a curly lap dog and an Indian boy carrying his doll, a neatly dressed and bonneted baby skeleton." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museo_N... *** One of Mexico's places I most remember is Monte Alban. "S" as she calls herself writes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_A... "They are misnamed ruins: no decay has softened, no restorer's hand has touched, no wars have chipped a splinter off those monoliths, those walls, those flights of stairs ... They were not meant to please. "The medium is stone and space ... Everything is repeated, hard, grey ... they imply crushing size ... It appears colossal ... entirely successful, entirely frightening-- "If the Nazis had not been so cheap, had their taste been better and their instinct for self-dramatization less Wagnerian, this is the way they would have built. They would have found in the Zapotec architecture the expression and the setting of all they stood for. They would have constructed Monte Alban at Nuremberg ..." I've been to and through Mexico multiple times, have read many books about it. Glad I got to go with 'S' ... perspective from another era ... recommend for explorers of that country's convoluted complexities. The writing is classical, fine.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Villines

    At face value, A Visit to Don Otavio has its moments. Sometimes this book is funny, other times it’s interesting. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the physical setting. Sybille Bedford describes her 1950's Mexico with clarity. Her observations of Mazatlan were especially interesting given that this is a city that I have visited often some 50 years after her visit. Outside of the infrequent passages, however, the story skims over the top of most of the Mexican people. Bedford doe At face value, A Visit to Don Otavio has its moments. Sometimes this book is funny, other times it’s interesting. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the physical setting. Sybille Bedford describes her 1950's Mexico with clarity. Her observations of Mazatlan were especially interesting given that this is a city that I have visited often some 50 years after her visit. Outside of the infrequent passages, however, the story skims over the top of most of the Mexican people. Bedford does not live among the poor or the working classes. In fact, she runs when faced with such prospects. Bedford essentially seeks out her own kind (middle-class European/Americans) and thinks that finding them is an adventure. Once found, her expatriate acquaintances confirm the stereotype of the lazy Mexican who is poor due to an inherent lack of initiative and a savage upbringing. Bedford tells of a country that lost its opportunity to thrive under the European installed emperor, Maximilian. To this end, the most favorably depicted Mexicans are those of Spanish descent (e.g. Don Otavio) whose families were established in privilege by colonial acts of favoritism. Most of the book is devoted to her stay with Don Otavio, who treats her with the somewhat royal respect that she obviously thinks she deserves. Missing from this story is any reasoning as to why the depicted stereotypes of the greater Mexican population exist. There's virtually no discussion of the exploitation of the native Mexicans by colonial rule. The book is devoid of contemplations regarding the effects of the concentration of wealth in the hands of the appointed few. There is no consideration that the series of revolutions may have been ploys that were not in the best interests of the greater Mexican population. Yes, I am way off the mark in my expectations. After all, this is simple travelogue. But it’s important to note, especially in present times where those crossing the border are subject to similar impressions, that this book should not be considered a resource for an understanding of the Mexican people and their culture. The end result is a book that keeps the faith and viewpoint of a ‘superior’ Western European culture. If this book is still in print today, it is possibly because there are still those among us that like that feeling of superiority.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Maria

    I hate this book with the fire of a thousand suns. It is racist, classist, ignorant, and all kinds of wrong. The word "nigger lover" is actually printed in this freaking book and used as an insult. If you wanna read a book about Mexico and in the end having learned nothing true about the Mexican people, go ahead and read this one. (Although one must be ready to read a very long book where one constantly talks about oneself in this annoying manner.) If you came here because you want to read a travel I hate this book with the fire of a thousand suns. It is racist, classist, ignorant, and all kinds of wrong. The word "nigger lover" is actually printed in this freaking book and used as an insult. If you wanna read a book about Mexico and in the end having learned nothing true about the Mexican people, go ahead and read this one. (Although one must be ready to read a very long book where one constantly talks about oneself in this annoying manner.) If you came here because you want to read a travel book about Mexico, and learn some things about the country and the people, go ahead and read the excellent Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico. If this leaves you wanting more continue with The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. And please for the love of god and Mexico, don't ever ever read this hateful book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Diana

    A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey [1953] – ★★★★1/2 “The first impact of Mexico City is physical, immensely physical. Sun, Altitude, Movement, Smells, Noise. And it is inescapable. There is no taking refuge in one more insulating shell, no use sitting in the hotel bedroom fumbling with guide books: it is here, one is in it” [Bedford, 1953: 39]. Sybille Bedford wrote about her year-long adventure in Mexico in 1953, and her book, initially titled The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey, became a cl A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey [1953] – ★★★★1/2 “The first impact of Mexico City is physical, immensely physical. Sun, Altitude, Movement, Smells, Noise. And it is inescapable. There is no taking refuge in one more insulating shell, no use sitting in the hotel bedroom fumbling with guide books: it is here, one is in it” [Bedford, 1953: 39]. Sybille Bedford wrote about her year-long adventure in Mexico in 1953, and her book, initially titled The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey, became a classic in travel writing. In it, Bedford portrays colourfully her stay with her friend E. all over Mexico, taking journeys from Mexico City to Morelia and Guadalajara, and then to Oaxaca. At one point, Bedford visits a hacienda of one Don Otavio, situated near Lake Chapala, a place of both natural beauty and local intrigue. This is no ordinary travel writing, however – the book is written with humour and certain pathos, and Bedford ensures that there are many insightful observations on the history, geography and social conditions of the area. Even though now dated, A Visit to Don Otavio is still a very pleasurable read, not least because it often reads like an exciting adventure novel set in Mexico, rather than one’s usual travel log. Upon stepping onto Mexican soil for the first time, the author immediately starts “to soak up” the natural beauty, splendour and the hectic social life of the place, comparing Mexico to places in Europe she knows well, including Italy. Travelling around Mexico, Bedford tries to retrace the steps of conquistadors and early travel writers, making observations on the history, religion, architecture and economics. Some of the challenges for Bedford and her companion in Mexico are to endure long and uncomfortable train journeys, and to find suitable hotels to stay in. When Anthony, E.’s dashing young cousin, joins them in their journeys, his recent contacts take the trio to the colonial villa of Don Otavio, where they glimpse past colonial life and marvel at stunning natural environs, including Lake Chapala. At his hacienda, Don Otavio employs seventeen servants and has some rich and eccentric personalities as his neighbours, meaning that Bedford and her companion soon find themselves in the midst of some high society satire. Bedford makes rich, sumptuous descriptions of her surroundings, and the beginning of each chapter is especially well-written: “We wake to a fawn-coloured desert of sun-baked clay and stone. This is indeed a clean slate, a bare new world constructed of sparse ingredients – here and there a tall cactus like a candle, adobe huts homogeneous like mole-hills, and always one man walking, alone, along a ridge with a donkey” [Bedford, 1953: 31] or “As the train moves through the evening, the country grows more and more lovely, open and enriched. There are oxen in the fields, mulberry trees make garlands on the slopes, villages and churches stand out pink and gold in an extraordinarily limpid light as though the windows of our carriage were cut in crystal” [Bedford, 1953: 36]. As the author details her interactions with local people, much humour and comic situations emerge. Bedford and her companion E. become “lost in translation”, even though Mexican people they encounter speak English. At one point, Bedford starts a conversation “with the officer from Monterrey” [Bedford, 1953: 36] and it takes this form: “- Where do you come from? [the officer asks]; – America [she answers]; – This is America; – From North America; – This is North America; – From the United States; – These are the United States [the officer says, adding – ] Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Our trio of travellers also get the full meaning of such phrases in Mexico as “it’s regular” and “it lends itself”. Not all of the author’s observations are kind, however. There are expected references in the book to tortillas, tequila, tobacco and maize, but, when the country is described as the one where “the sky is always clear” [1953: 47], the author also adds that “a vertical sun aims at one’s head like a dagger” [1953: 40]. Bedford also states that “in Mexico everything is cheap and everybody is underpaid" [1953: 65], and her description of Mexican wine is in these terms: “cheap ink dosed with prude juice and industrial alcohol, as harsh on the tongue as a carrot-grater…” [1953: 51]. Needless to say, A Visit to Don Otavio is still a product of its time. This means that the book does present the usual Mexican stereotypes and there is even a well-camouflaged condescending behaviour shown towards those who are apparently “beneath” the author’s standing (after all, she did write her book from one “privileged” point of view). However, the book’s charm and light-heartedness mean that much banter with the locals does not come across as irritating. Bedford is forced to make surprising detours on her journey, veering off from her planned route, thereby making the reading of her journey even more exciting. It is easy to see why A Visit to Don Otavio became a classic of travel writing. Bedford’s book balances well its informative, insightful aspects with comedy and a sense of adventure. The result is a charming book that captures the liveliness, colour and contradictions of Mexico in the 1950s.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    There are four classical travel books written about Mexico by foreign visitors, and this is definitely one of them. The others are, in order of publication: Fanny Calderon de la Barca's Life in Mexico, Charles Macomb Flandrau's Viva Mexico!, and D. H. Lawrence's Mornings in Mexico. Now, to my mind, they are joined by Sybille Bedford's A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey, which was published in 1953. All four books have one thing in common: They are about the experience of travel in Mexico ra There are four classical travel books written about Mexico by foreign visitors, and this is definitely one of them. The others are, in order of publication: Fanny Calderon de la Barca's Life in Mexico, Charles Macomb Flandrau's Viva Mexico!, and D. H. Lawrence's Mornings in Mexico. Now, to my mind, they are joined by Sybille Bedford's A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey, which was published in 1953. All four books have one thing in common: They are about the experience of travel in Mexico rather than descriptions of various destinations. I am delighted with the NYRB edition, which has an introduction by Bruce Chatwin. The only problem is that the author revels in quotations from the French, German, and Latin -- none of which are translated.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Left Coast Justin

    This is one of those books that I think everybody should read, or at least try to read. Some may find it boring or old-fashioned, but to me, it's a perfect snapshot of life in the 1950's or so (of which I have zero first-hand experience, to be fair) and also a timeless portrait of what makes Mexico Mexico. Sybille Bedford had a life that I believe is no longer available to people -- some sort of minor royalty in Germany, but of course her status was destroyed during the World Wars. Nevertheless, This is one of those books that I think everybody should read, or at least try to read. Some may find it boring or old-fashioned, but to me, it's a perfect snapshot of life in the 1950's or so (of which I have zero first-hand experience, to be fair) and also a timeless portrait of what makes Mexico Mexico. Sybille Bedford had a life that I believe is no longer available to people -- some sort of minor royalty in Germany, but of course her status was destroyed during the World Wars. Nevertheless, with her occasional references to her childhood summers in Italy and English education and various marchionesses and dukes in her social circle, her life was clearly not like most of ours. She enjoys making fun of her own princess-and-the-pea sensibility, while also celebrating it. She lived to the ripe old age of 96, and by many accounts this is her best book. Thoroughly absorbing.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Peg

    I had higher hopes for this one. Two privileged women go to a 3rd world country and complain about everything except their stay at Don Otavio's, where they are treated like queens. They don't like the food, they don't like the traveling, they aren't interested in the lives of the people. Sorry, I'm not impressed! I had higher hopes for this one. Two privileged women go to a 3rd world country and complain about everything except their stay at Don Otavio's, where they are treated like queens. They don't like the food, they don't like the traveling, they aren't interested in the lives of the people. Sorry, I'm not impressed!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    This one started out well, but by the time the 'girls' got to Don Otavio's place, a down-at-the-heels (but still nice) estate on the lake in central Mexico that later became popular with American expatriates, but whose name escapes me... Ah, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Ch... I started getting impatient with the book's slow pace around here, and when they departed on a VERY slow train trip north along the West Coast -- the train kept breaking down -- well. That's where I stalled. the book This one started out well, but by the time the 'girls' got to Don Otavio's place, a down-at-the-heels (but still nice) estate on the lake in central Mexico that later became popular with American expatriates, but whose name escapes me... Ah, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Ch... I started getting impatient with the book's slow pace around here, and when they departed on a VERY slow train trip north along the West Coast -- the train kept breaking down -- well. That's where I stalled. the book has been sitting, gathering dust for the last 3 weeks or so. Not a good sign, and I think I'm done. Here's a bit from her wikibio: "After [WW 2], Bedford spent a year traveling in Mexico. Her experiences on that trip would form the basis of her first published book, a travelogue entitled "The Sudden View: a Mexican Journey", which was published in 1953." This is the book at hand, retitled on a later reprint. So she traveled ca. 1950-51. As it happens, my own travels in Mexico began around 1966, on a geology field trip to the Yucatan that I still remember fondly. I had a much better time than did Ms. Bedford!. Most of my other travels, many work-related, were also fun, if the work (or unpleasant clients!) didn't get in the way. It's a beautiful country, nice people, good food -- but you have to have a bit of the manana attitude to enjoy yourself. Bedford mostly did, but she didn't really know what she was getting into. Traveling into the hot country in the days before air-conditioning, well. Recipe for zero fun! S0 YMMV, and read some of the other reviews before writing this one off. But it (mostly) didn't work for me.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jaggerjag

    I first read this book years ago,and on reading it again I still enjoyed it. Certainly Sybille Bedford came from a privileged class, but I find so many of her 'complaints' about Mexico to be very tongue in cheek and funny, proving beyond doubt that the disasters of travelling make for the most entertaining anecdotes. More than this, though, her travels were done in a time that was just ending completely. When most people still crossed the Atlantic by liner, and continents by train. A time before I first read this book years ago,and on reading it again I still enjoyed it. Certainly Sybille Bedford came from a privileged class, but I find so many of her 'complaints' about Mexico to be very tongue in cheek and funny, proving beyond doubt that the disasters of travelling make for the most entertaining anecdotes. More than this, though, her travels were done in a time that was just ending completely. When most people still crossed the Atlantic by liner, and continents by train. A time before cheap package holiday were available to everyone. When you turned up in a city armed with introductions to people you had never met, who would then throw a cocktail party for you. And so on. From that point of view alone I love this book, the history of Mexico and its people on top of all this provides the backdrop to the country, as if you are with Sybille, reading the tour guide while the vastness of the countryside moves away from your train window, elusive, not so easily nailed down by print. I recommended it my book club, several couldn't finish it, and the ones that did, utterly hated it. . . Ah well!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Raquel Martin

    I'm reading this for the second time and it is still a delight. This is the best travel book I've ever read. Sybille Bedford is incredibly intelligent, extremely witty, and really GOT Mexico. Her insights are as true today as they were in the 40's when she visited Mexico and wrote this book. A must-read for anyone who loves Mexico. I'm reading this for the second time and it is still a delight. This is the best travel book I've ever read. Sybille Bedford is incredibly intelligent, extremely witty, and really GOT Mexico. Her insights are as true today as they were in the 40's when she visited Mexico and wrote this book. A must-read for anyone who loves Mexico.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Tuck

    utterly funny, informative, historical, picaresque travelogue of two women traveling alone in mexico in 1953. it is sybille bedford's debut and she never looked back don't think. they start by boarding the train in nyc, training and busing to DF, then by train, plane, bus, taxi, foot and car sweating freezing biting and getting bitten to central highlands, over to colima to acapulco and lake chapala (where they spend many months in idyll and near death) to oxaca to pueblo back to chapala disasters utterly funny, informative, historical, picaresque travelogue of two women traveling alone in mexico in 1953. it is sybille bedford's debut and she never looked back don't think. they start by boarding the train in nyc, training and busing to DF, then by train, plane, bus, taxi, foot and car sweating freezing biting and getting bitten to central highlands, over to colima to acapulco and lake chapala (where they spend many months in idyll and near death) to oxaca to pueblo back to chapala disasters and delights and wonderful writing.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Denis

    Deliciously entertaining, funny, intelligent travel book about Bedford's adventures in Mexico. Her style here is as perfect as in her novels, and she describes the country she discovers with a fascination that is compelling. It actually reads like a novel - her description of the landscapes and the culture, the characters she meets, the places she goes, the adventures and misadventures she encounters: everything makes for a terrific read, and it makes you wish you had been travelling with her. Deliciously entertaining, funny, intelligent travel book about Bedford's adventures in Mexico. Her style here is as perfect as in her novels, and she describes the country she discovers with a fascination that is compelling. It actually reads like a novel - her description of the landscapes and the culture, the characters she meets, the places she goes, the adventures and misadventures she encounters: everything makes for a terrific read, and it makes you wish you had been travelling with her.

  18. 4 out of 5

    CarolineFromConcord

    How to describe this book? A history of Mexico? A travel book? A novel? A biography? First published in 1953 and reissued in 1986 with an introduction by Bruce Chatwin, it's been called all those things. I will call it a comedy of manners because that suits the sections I liked best. The writer Sybille Bedford was a great traveler. Born in Germany before WW I, she lived in many countries. The book, which she playfully called a novel, recounts her travels through Mexico with an American friend in How to describe this book? A history of Mexico? A travel book? A novel? A biography? First published in 1953 and reissued in 1986 with an introduction by Bruce Chatwin, it's been called all those things. I will call it a comedy of manners because that suits the sections I liked best. The writer Sybille Bedford was a great traveler. Born in Germany before WW I, she lived in many countries. The book, which she playfully called a novel, recounts her travels through Mexico with an American friend in a quirky, often telegraphic, style. There is a great deal of history in the book -- history of Mexico and also of Europe -- and her staccato romp through the highlights often left me confused. The reader is apparently supposed to know a lot more than I do about history, not to mention how to read bits of French, Latin, German, and Spanish. The author's long digression on the the tragic life of Mexican Emperor Maximilian (originally an Austrian prince) was puzzling. The history of Mexico is so loaded with violence and revolution, why dwell disproportionately on the fate of Maximilian? Perhaps it's because he was a European like the writer. The heart, soul, and charm of the book lies in the scenes with Don Otavio at his country home. The characters and situations depicted there are truly amusing, and when the travelers depart for various excursions, one cannot wait for them to return to the comforts and entertainments of San Pedro Tlayacan. I did not care for Bedford's way of talking about the natives, but in spite of her condescension, I'd promised a friend I'd read the book, and I'm rather glad I did.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Gail Pool

    A Visit to Don Otavio was the first book to be published by Sybille Bedford, a novelist and journalist admired for her intelligence, wit, and prose style. Originally published in 1953 as The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey, the book was wisely reprinted by Dutton in 1986 and renamed with a title that is at once slightly misleading and also more apt. Misleading, because much of the book focuses on other Mexican travels ; apt, because the visit to Don Otavio is the centerpiece of the work and Otavi A Visit to Don Otavio was the first book to be published by Sybille Bedford, a novelist and journalist admired for her intelligence, wit, and prose style. Originally published in 1953 as The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey, the book was wisely reprinted by Dutton in 1986 and renamed with a title that is at once slightly misleading and also more apt. Misleading, because much of the book focuses on other Mexican travels ; apt, because the visit to Don Otavio is the centerpiece of the work and Otavio himself unquestionably the star. Having spent the war years in the United States, Bedford was about to return home to England when she decided she wanted to travel. Her destination of choice was Peru, but, unable to make arrangements, she accepted Mexico as a substitute. Setting off with her American companion, E., the two women met up later with E’s cousin Anthony, who, through some young men he met en route, received an invitation to visit their uncle, Otavio. The Hacienda San Pedro, on Lake Chapala, turns out to be a paradise—“Happiness Found,” as Bedford calls this section of the book. Otavio, she observes, was “one of the kindest men I ever met.” The son of an ex-governor of the state, Otavio has remained behind as his older brothers have moved away to work and establish families. He lives in the Villa, and looks over the Hacienda and all the property. Unmarried, he has 17 servants to look after him, and to look after in turn. “Don Otavio keeps house all day,” writes Bedford in a paragraph that gives the flavor of the man and daily life at San Pedro. “He appears on the terrace of the villa and claps his hands. Ninos,the papayas must be picked. Nino, there are roses again in the water tank. Has the boat gone for the butter? Has Jesus made it up with his wife? Has Carmelita been able to do something about the spell on the tomatoes? Would she like the priest?” Encounters with the eccentric ex-pats who live on the lake add quirky entertainment and perspectives to the mix. The bossy Richard Middleton thinks that Otavio is “shiftless” and that his older brothers have “done him out of everything.” But old Mrs. Rawlston, a tough American southerner who sleeps outside nights with a gun, believes that Tavio is very clever and got the best of his brothers, who had to leave idyllic San Pedro, while he got to stay home and now has “the run of the place.” At one point, the brothers and wives turn up, to discuss turning the Hacienda into a hotel, and in a series of hilarious scenes, Bedford describes the complex relationships and the issues that arise. Through it all Otavio moves with exquisite tact toward all. In the end, he tells Bedford, “there has been a general disgust and now there will be no hotel.” I was sorry to leave San Pedro, where the best of the book takes place, but throughout her travels Bedford writes about people with compassion, comments astutely on Mexican life and history, and describes her difficult travel with wonderful humor. My favorite line occurs when she and E., desperate to get out of Mazatlan and unable to get a plane (all full), a boat (nonexistent), or a train (a wait of days), consult the barman where they are drinking. “Why don’t you take the train of the day before yesterday?” he asks, explaining that it is very late—of course—and will arrive that night. Bedford called A Visit to Don Otavio a novel, and a note at the start advises readers that the characters are fictitious and the incidents compound. No doubt Bedford was more scrupulous in admitting this than some travel writers have been. But if it is impossible to know precisely what in this “traveller’s tale” is fact, all of it has the ring of authenticity.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    I think Noel Coward really wrote this. Sybille and her friend "E" act like they're in a drawing room comedy. I couldn't read the conversations without hearing the plummy tones of upper crust Brits, usually something I would enjoy. I really expected to like this, but found them difficult to travel with. I think Noel Coward really wrote this. Sybille and her friend "E" act like they're in a drawing room comedy. I couldn't read the conversations without hearing the plummy tones of upper crust Brits, usually something I would enjoy. I really expected to like this, but found them difficult to travel with.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    William Maxwell ranked this with any of Austen's novels. Maxwell's masterpiece The Chateau owes an obvious debt to this book - but I don't think he was merely gushing. William Maxwell ranked this with any of Austen's novels. Maxwell's masterpiece The Chateau owes an obvious debt to this book - but I don't think he was merely gushing.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    Bedford is a marvelous stylist and an engaging storyteller, but I think she's probably a more astute observer of Americans -- or wealthy Americans, anyway -- than Mexicans, as quote below suggests (and it comes on pg 4, well before she even arrives in Mexico). This may be due, in part, to her alleged working methods, as cited by Bruce Chatwin in his Intro: "Of course it's a novel. I wanted to make something light and poetic ... I didn't take a single note when I was in Mexico ... If you clutter Bedford is a marvelous stylist and an engaging storyteller, but I think she's probably a more astute observer of Americans -- or wealthy Americans, anyway -- than Mexicans, as quote below suggests (and it comes on pg 4, well before she even arrives in Mexico). This may be due, in part, to her alleged working methods, as cited by Bruce Chatwin in his Intro: "Of course it's a novel. I wanted to make something light and poetic ... I didn't take a single note when I was in Mexico ... If you clutter yourself with notes it all goes away. I did, of course, send postcards to friends, and when I started writing, I called them in." Indeed, Mexicans, more often than not, tend to come off as charming postcard fodder. "We were sitting in the station bar, waiting. There was a great deal of time. The bags were in the hands of porters and suddenly, after the rush of days, there was nothing more to do. We were receiving. That is people were dropping in to see us off and to buy us and each other drinks. People we had not seen for years. Arrival and departure are the two great pivots of American social intercourse. You arrive. You produce your credentials. You are instantly surrounded by some large, unfocused hopefulness. You may be famous; you maybe handsome, or witty, or rich; you may even be amiable. What counts is that you are new. In Europe, where human relations like clothes are supposed to last, one’s got to be wearable. In France, one has to be interesting, in Italy pleasant, in England one has to fit. Here, where intercourse is without degrees, sans lendemain, where foreign visitors are consumers’ goods, it is a matter of turnover. You are taken up, taken out, shown around, introduced, given parties for, and bang, before you can say American Resident, it’s farewell parties and steamer baskets. Your cheeks are kissed, your backs are slapped, your hand is pressed, you are sent bottles and presents and flowers – you are Sailing. The great empty wheel of hospitality has come full circle."

  23. 5 out of 5

    Michael Goodine

    Here is Sybille Bedford's very first book. Huxley famous described one of Bedford's later novels as "interesting, odd, unclassifiable." The description fits this one as well. Interestingly, there are basically two different books contained within "A Visit to Don Otavio." The beginning and end compose a travelogue describing a trip that the erudite Bedford and her cranky American friend E took through Mexico in the 1940s. Readers shouldn't expect a historically useful depiction of Mexico of the 19 Here is Sybille Bedford's very first book. Huxley famous described one of Bedford's later novels as "interesting, odd, unclassifiable." The description fits this one as well. Interestingly, there are basically two different books contained within "A Visit to Don Otavio." The beginning and end compose a travelogue describing a trip that the erudite Bedford and her cranky American friend E took through Mexico in the 1940s. Readers shouldn't expect a historically useful depiction of Mexico of the 1940s here. Instead, the book depicts a sort of carefree bohemian laziness familiar to travelers with comfortable finances and even more comfortable schedules. While reading it I felt deep pangs of nostalgia for my own travels done before I had commitments to keep. The middle (and better) part of the book is something different altogether. Here we find a comedy of manners set among the wealthy families - some Mexican, some ex-patriate - living around Lake Chapala. Bedford was arguably the 20th century's finest writer of this genre and this might be her at her very best (but see also: "A Legacy" and "A Favorite of the Gods"). Highly recommended.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    It is an account of a journey of about one year by two women in Mexico. A house at the qiite big lake Chapalas a smalm community of people finds together. A microcosmos community in a part of the world that has hardly ever been mentioned in literarture. Apart from this the travellers visit various well known places , they encounter dangerous, shockung, and funny situations, taste and describe food in Mexico and report on the pre-Diaz history. & Lawrence stay, in particular also tell the drama Ha It is an account of a journey of about one year by two women in Mexico. A house at the qiite big lake Chapalas a smalm community of people finds together. A microcosmos community in a part of the world that has hardly ever been mentioned in literarture. Apart from this the travellers visit various well known places , they encounter dangerous, shockung, and funny situations, taste and describe food in Mexico and report on the pre-Diaz history. & Lawrence stay, in particular also tell the drama Habsburgian empereor Maximilian. I enjoyed reading the book as an authentic long travel account enriched by historical narratives.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    A witty, entertaining, and fascinating book about two women -- one European, the other from the US -- who head to Mexico after World War 2 to explore their southern neighbor. They see a lot of the central highlands and make comical attempts at visiting the coasts, ending up informal members of an eccentric Mexican family. The author interweaves travelogue, history, and observational comedy to great effect, although surprisingly you may need to check Google translate for the plentiful bits of Fre A witty, entertaining, and fascinating book about two women -- one European, the other from the US -- who head to Mexico after World War 2 to explore their southern neighbor. They see a lot of the central highlands and make comical attempts at visiting the coasts, ending up informal members of an eccentric Mexican family. The author interweaves travelogue, history, and observational comedy to great effect, although surprisingly you may need to check Google translate for the plentiful bits of French and Latin and German interspersed throughout.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ted

    Such a pleasure to read a book like this one. Bedford's writing style takes you there and immerses you in that place and time. It felt like I was tagging along on her trip to Mexico, visualizing the people she met and the places she visited; all the while taking in the gradual evolution of her understanding of the country, its history and the people she came to know. Given the enormous changes that have occurred in Mexico since 1950, reading this book was a form of "time travel deluxe"- a visit Such a pleasure to read a book like this one. Bedford's writing style takes you there and immerses you in that place and time. It felt like I was tagging along on her trip to Mexico, visualizing the people she met and the places she visited; all the while taking in the gradual evolution of her understanding of the country, its history and the people she came to know. Given the enormous changes that have occurred in Mexico since 1950, reading this book was a form of "time travel deluxe"- a visit to a world that now exists only in the memories of the very old.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Just read this for book group. What a lovely travel book of Mexico, written in the 50's in a style that no one writes in any longer. Descriptive, witty, observant and sometimes hilarious. For anyone living in Mexico or having traveled in Mexico extensively, particularly years ago before Interjet and ADO, this book was a hoot. Bedford really dishes out the best travel book I've read, about a country I love. Just read this for book group. What a lovely travel book of Mexico, written in the 50's in a style that no one writes in any longer. Descriptive, witty, observant and sometimes hilarious. For anyone living in Mexico or having traveled in Mexico extensively, particularly years ago before Interjet and ADO, this book was a hoot. Bedford really dishes out the best travel book I've read, about a country I love.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nora Rawn

    I found this wonderful--utterly charming, un-self-conscious, and a dispatch from a kind of travel that's simply disappeared now that we have the internet and airplane travel. It's also the first time I've had a faint understanding of Maximilian and Carlota; the history, while glancing, gets the sweep of Mexico's revolutions and reform much better than you might expect And the depictions of hijincks and characters is just wonderful. Strongly recommend. I found this wonderful--utterly charming, un-self-conscious, and a dispatch from a kind of travel that's simply disappeared now that we have the internet and airplane travel. It's also the first time I've had a faint understanding of Maximilian and Carlota; the history, while glancing, gets the sweep of Mexico's revolutions and reform much better than you might expect And the depictions of hijincks and characters is just wonderful. Strongly recommend.

  29. 4 out of 5

    T A McCarron

    I found this book fascinating. Judging her by 2022 standards there is no doubt Bedford's views would have her deplatformed even at the Women's Institute Tunbridge Wells branch. However this approach would overlook the quality of the writing and the importance of the book's place in English literature. She was a woman of her time and her class and I am more than comfortable immersing myself in her world and her life and times within Mexico. I found this book fascinating. Judging her by 2022 standards there is no doubt Bedford's views would have her deplatformed even at the Women's Institute Tunbridge Wells branch. However this approach would overlook the quality of the writing and the importance of the book's place in English literature. She was a woman of her time and her class and I am more than comfortable immersing myself in her world and her life and times within Mexico.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Martin

    I was not crazy about this book...some great period detail & funny episodes but also pompous and quite condescending towards any Mexican who were not wealthy land owners. There were quotes in French and German which were left untranslated in this edition. The author's charm escaped me completely. I would not like to travel with her. I was not crazy about this book...some great period detail & funny episodes but also pompous and quite condescending towards any Mexican who were not wealthy land owners. There were quotes in French and German which were left untranslated in this edition. The author's charm escaped me completely. I would not like to travel with her.

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