Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education by Sybille Bedford
    Hamish Hamilton, 328 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 241 12572 3

It’s a characteristic of all Sybille Bedford’s fiction to tell the reader less than he wants to know. Ivy Compton-Burnett was a friend of hers and perhaps gave her lessons in leaving things out. She calls Jigsaw, which has to do with her own early life, ‘a biographical novel’; and it may not be a coincidence that the book’s most sympathetic reviewers have been those who seem already to know her life story. ‘Truth,’ one of the characters remarks, ‘is such a feeble excuse for so many things.’ Bedford, always inclined to look down her nose at the rest of the world, would probably consider it an excuse for being very boring. She was born in 1911 and doesn’t think much of ‘our tell-all age’.

Her mother, a daunting woman, had guessed that this book, or one like it, would eventually come to be written. When ‘Billi’, then nineteen or twenty, told her mother that she was writing a novel and that it was about a young man’s adventures in the South of France, her mother had apparently said: ‘I’m a much more interesting subject than your dreamt-up young man.’ (‘Billi’ was what her family called the young Sybille.) ‘God forbid, mummy,’ Billi replied. But mummy was sure of her ground:

‘One day. When you remember all this.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘No, I don’t think I ever could.’
She gave me a cynical smile.

Mummy was right. She is an interesting subject; and Bedford makes much more of her than she does of herself. Mummy was also right about the dreamt-up young man: his adventures were turned down by a succession of publishers. Since then, however, Sybille Bedford has published four novels, including the present one, which are all in some sense about her mother, though it is only here that mummy’s fatal addiction to morphine – ‘all this’ – is described. ‘As I was helping myself again from the carafe of wine, Oriane said in a velvet voice: “You know, ma chérie, I should be careful in your place – after all, ta mère est une morphiniste.” ’

A Legacy, Bedford’s first published novel, came out in 1956. Set in Germany at the turn of the century, it is about a minor aristocrat from the Catholic south of the country, Julius von Felden, and his complicated family history, which involves a great deal of money, much of it Jewish, and a scandal that comes close to unseating the Kaiser. Nancy Mitford said it was one of the very best novels she had ever read and Evelyn Waugh ‘saluted a new artist’. Proustian in its preoccupation with money and rank, it has the charm of the dying Europe in which it is set: a world where the very rich, when they went to take the cure, travelled in a private railway carriage and took their own sheets.

It turns out, as Nancy Mitford maybe knew at the time, that the character of Julius von Felden is pretty much that of Bedford’s father (‘to say that Jules was my father would be as misleading as to say that he was not’); that his fate is to a large extent her father’s fate; and that the family history which the novel describes is her legacy. ‘I do not know a time when I was not imprinted with the experiences of others,’ the narrator, who is also Felden’s young daughter, remarks towards the end of the book. In other words, A Legacy, too, is a biographical novel, but unlike Jigsaw, it also reads like a novel. It is impossible, reading Jigsaw, not to think one is reading an autobiography; and one is continually pulled up short by the thought that what one has taken to be a memory might well be an invention.

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