Nonchalance

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.

It isn’t Bedford’s style to state the plain biographical facts: she doesn’t say anything banal like ‘I was born there on that date.’ Similarly, if one wants to know her parents’ names, one has to look them up in Who’s Who. At least in A Legacy they have fictional names: here they have no names at all. Nor are we ever explicitly told that her mother was English. Had the story been narrated as if by Billi herself, this way of proceeding might have made sense, but Bedford has no time for this sort of formal pretence. Instead she gives the appearance of telling the story as she now remembers it; and tant pis for the reader, who has no way of knowing which bits are true and which aren’t, or why some things are concealed and others spelled out. She speaks at one point of wanting, in the interests of tact, to confine her account to what she saw and heard at the time, which sounds reasonable, but it’s something she does only intermittently, when it suits her, and it is hard not to think that this is yet another way of spiting the reader, of telling him to take his vulgar curiosity elsewhere. ‘Loose ends can stimulate,’ Peter Vansittart says in an introduction to the Virago edition of one of Bedford’s earlier novels, ‘and paying the readers the compliment of assuming they possess imagination, she creates gaps for that imagination to fill.’ But gaps that are artful in other kinds of fiction can seem merely ill-natured in a novel that is at the same time a biography.

Jigsaw begins where A Legacy left off, at an unspecified time after the First World War, with the family scandal resolved and her parents’ brief, unpromising marriage just about over. By 1919 her mother had bolted, leaving husband, daughter and maid in the schloss she had bought for them a few years before. ‘Now let no one think that I was missing my mother,’ Bedford protests – and it’s true that her mother in her own charming way could be quite a shrew. ‘That I was her own made not a scrap of difference. When I was slow she called me slow, when I was quick she called me a parrot.’ More to the point, perhaps, mummy would have been annoyed to think that her daughter was missing her – and from an early age Billi had understood the importance of attending to her mother’s requirements.

Of her mother’s previous life, though she dominates the novel, the only thing we know for sure is that she has always been an object of avid attention. ‘My mother captivated by her looks alone, yet what drew most men and women into her orbit at first meeting was her talk.’ About her father Bedford is less secretive and some of the ground covered in A Legacy is rehearsed again here. He, too, had been good-looking (in this novel few people are plain) and was referred to in his youth as le beau Max – his real name was Maximilian von Schoenebeck. By the end of the war, however, he was a sombre, eccentric man in his sixties, with many objects – ‘we lived inside a museum, one that nobody came to see’ – and no cash. He could have sold his objects, but chose instead not to spend any money. Billi had no new clothes, for example, but went about in a Red Indian outfit left over from earlier times. They grew their own crops, reared their own animals, made their own wine and bartered these in the village for necessities they couldn’t provide for themselves. Even so they ate well – instead of ham, which could only be bought at the grocer’s, smoked mutton, made from their own sheep, killed and cured on the spot. I mention this because Jigsaw is, among other things, a tribute to savoir-manger as it used to be before egalitarianism entered the kitchen and killed it – the old diet, the ancien régime.

Le beau Max was resourceful but gloomy. ‘What with the changes brought by the end of the war and the setting up of the Weimar Republic, he saw himself surrounded by an almost entirely hostile environment ... My mother’s defection did not help; nor did our poverty, our being ruined he called it.’ In her mother’s time, the house had been full of people: now they saw no one. In a fit of depression Billi in her turn defected, making a bid for freedom among the bright lights of Wiesbaden – an incident about which she still feels uncomfortable. It was her one lapse from filial loyalty. ‘Are all young children unregenerate creatures?’ Bedford now asks somewhat pointlessly. She must have had time to work that one out. On her return, she was briefly allowed to go to the village school, but taken away again when it became clear that she preferred the boys to the girls. After three years mummy summoned her. She was neither glad to leave nor eager to stay, and had been gone only a few months when her father had an attack of appendicitis and died.

Her mother had promised her a new life: a home near Florence and a stepfather – a ‘painter of some reputation’ whose name we’re not told. But within a few days of her daughter’s arrival in Italy, mummy went to a concert and fell in love with somebody else. Bedford’s mother was a highly intelligent woman and interested in all kinds of things, but her good looks required that she should always have the man she wanted and off she now went in pursuit of her heart’s new desire. Billi meanwhile stayed behind on her own – it could be for days, it could be for weeks – reading her books and looking for playmates in one Italian hotel after another. She was nine and it was the beginning of what Bedford calls her ‘unsentimental education’. ‘You will be all right, won’t you?’ her mother would say as she left her. If she wasn’t, she didn’t say so – mummy would not have been pleased. Besides, for a young foodie consolation was always to hand: ‘I ate at a table for one, attended by sweet waiters who brought the dishes for me to look at and gave me second and third helpings of anything I liked.’ The man mummy eventually settled with, in the novel he’s called Alessandro, was closer in age to her daughter. He was beautiful, like mummy; and rather grave. In a few years, her mother said, he would come to resemble Titian’s Man with the Glove.

One of Bedford’s (ambiguous) gifts is to make you feel that you missed a lot by not being her: by not knowing the people she knew or living the life that she led. About herself she’s quite reticent: not only not self-important, but not in the least introspective – her way of indicating a bad moment is to say that she can’t remember what she had for her supper that night. And in that sense she was right not to have described this as an autobiographical novel. As for calling her parents to account in the Freudian way, she’s much too patrician for that; the sort of person who would say that what’s wrong with the present-day world – apart from the food being less good and the beaches all spoiled – is that everyone whinges too much.

What we have instead is a novel written not exactly in praise of maternal nonchalance but in homage nonetheless to a very nonchalant mother. When mummy decided that it was time for her and her young husband to push off to Africa, she sent Billi to England to stay with a couple she’d once met on a beach (or maybe not met at all), in the vague hope that they might be the sort of people to find her a school:

  ‘They’re both painters. You admire artists, I’ve noticed ...’

  ‘Where do they live in England?’

  ‘How precise you’re being. Actually they move about a good deal ...’

  ‘Mummy, when am I going?’

  ‘As soon as I hear from them.’

Billi went off to England, as far as we know perfectly pleased with her lot; and in everything she does, seems so sure of herself, so self-reliant that one could find oneself wishing one’s own childhood had been just like that. One might also, more shamefully, think it quite nice to be that kind of mother.

A school was not in fact found, though from time to time there were tutors; and most of Billi’s adolescence was spent – or that’s how it seems – thinking about the lives of the grown-ups around her. About her mother’s rather haphazard life first of all. For the first few years of her new marriage mummy was happy enough: winter in the Dolomites, summer on the Mediterranean, where Billi would join them (‘oh, the clear water of those uncrowded bays’) whenever her presence was asked for. When Fascism made it dangerous to be seen reading the New Statesman (‘my mother thought of herself as a socialist’), they decided to settle somewhere or other in France. ‘Somewhere or other’ – the place where the French train stopped when mummy announced that she was tired of travelling – turned out to be a small fishing port on ‘the unfashionable’ (i.e. ultra-fashionable) ‘part of the Côte d’Azur’, between Toulon and Marseilles. It was called Sanary and they remained there – ‘Oh the Mediterranean addiction, how we fall for it’ – until Alessandro’s departure and her mother’s final descent into morphine.

Sanary today is all car parks and breeze blocks, as Bedford isn’t slow to point out, but in 1926 ‘the sea and sky were clear; living was cheap; there were few motor-cars, there were few people.’ (Cyril Connolly hadn’t yet got there.) And Elizabeth David herself couldn’t have found fault with the food. Her mother for the time being was calm, a pleasure to be with. ‘So there we sat Chez Schwob, my mother and I, sun-warmed, looking at the sea and tossing boats, drinking a modest apéritif ...’ It’s obvious, however, that the peace will not last – obvious because Bedford writes with her mother’s end always in mind. ‘Have I changed?’ her mother asked Billi just back from London. Billi looked at her and ‘saw what unasked I might not have seen: intimations of wear ... I can still hear the answer I gave ... an answer to the effect that for me she was, she would be, always the same. I remember the exact words but cannot bear to write them down in their shameful inadequacy.’ It was, she says now, ‘a most painful moment of my early life’.

The local people were civilised – Schwob, the café-owner, who came from Alsace, ‘spouted Heine and Descartes’; the expatriates everything that a sophisticated young girl might have wished for. Taken to meet Aldous Huxley (‘a writer whose work I idolised’ – hence the later biography), Billi ‘felt like some girls are said to feel when taken to their first dance before they are allowed to wear the clothes that they like’. (Her mother, incidentally, resurfaces as Mrs Amberley in Eyeless in Gaza, once ‘the very embodiment of desirability’, now a taker of morphine.) Almost everyone was artistic, bohemian, unconventional, wise in the ways of having a good time. They had affairs, sometimes with members of their own sex, and Billi, a few years on, fell in love with a very superior French woman. Her mother, always a little short with her daughter, called her ‘a goose’; told her above all not to think of herself as a ‘doomed Baudelairean pervert’; and sent her back to London where she might have a chance to come to her senses. Billi, for all her swooning, complied. The events of her own life, it seems, never troubled her.

In London as in the South of France, it was other people’s affairs that concerned her – how they managed their lives and their feelings. She had a room in a North London boarding-house (a fact which she had no difficulty in keeping from her mother) and spent most of her time with one or other of two German sisters, both much older than she was, one married to – then divorced from – an English bookseller, the other the mistress of a well-known (and unnamed) English judge. Things didn’t go well for them: the bookseller was unfaithful; the judge, who gambled away his own money and that of several distinguished friends, committed suicide. Billi listened to their stories, observed their reactions, and – it sometimes seems – made notes to add to an imaginary dossier on the harm women (her mother especially) can do themselves as a result of their feelings for men.

Bedford isn’t a feminist; she doesn’t think women are done down by men, or better or nicer than them. Most of Billi’s friends are women and she feels for them in their difficulties, but she speaks of her mother’s appalling ‘feminine’ habits and seems to find men rather more sensible. Bedford describes herself as having ‘a tendency to side with lovers’ – which makes sense when one considers the life Billi led with her mother. But one could instead see it as the only child’s tendency to take charge of his parents, to shoulder their grief (‘a most painful moment of my early life’) and work for their happiness. Billi was, for example, very fond of Alessandro, her young and at the end much-abused stepfather: they were, she said, ‘like two brothers serving, in different ranks, in the same regiment’. Her mother may have educated them both, taught them that most questions have more than one answer, but it was the two of them who looked after her, who made excuses for her derelictions of duty, her scattiness, her habit of not doing the right thing, while she taunted them for their old-fashioned virtues, telling Billi that she was ‘pompous and bourgeois’ and had boring ‘clubmanly’ ways. And when the loss of her looks and her jealousy drove her to morphine it was Billi, now living alone with her, who had to see to her needs.

There was one brutish occasion when I dropped the syringe, a glass syringe already primed with the precious contents of an ampoule, on the tiled floor. It shattered. My mother crouched down trying to retrieve fragments with her fingers. Then she flew at me, pulling my hair. I did the most sensible thing I could, ran out of the house, started the car and drove down to the chemist, our friendly chemist. Fortunately it was neither siesta hours nor night. From then on we kept two syringes in the house.

For a literal-minded reader it is hard not to regret that Bedford should have written her terrifying story in semi-fictional form and at the same time hard to imagine her writing a straightforward, confessional memoir. The consequence is that Jigsaw is as irritating to think about as it is engrossing to read.