Monday, August 30, 2010


In a house that is anchored and insulated with books, a book occasionally goes missing for its entire lifespan. Someone must have given me Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw some ten years ago, right after the 1989 novel was reissued with a new introduction. I found it last week in my bedside bookcase, brand new, untouched, and out of print.

"She is one of the best writers in English, and Jigsaw may be the best of her books," said the Boston Globe reviewer quoted on the cover. Well, maybe, if the reader has high tolerance for erratic punctuation and destructively haphazard lives. It is hard to put this book down, just as it would be hard to stop watching a train bearing down on a car stalled on the tracks.

The story starts in about 1913 with the narrator, still in her pram, being asked to sleep through one of her mother's infidelities. It ends less than 20 years later, by which time the mother has destroyed her own health, sanity, and relationships. She has apparently not destroyed her daughter, the narrator, though the young woman is in a precarious place.

The reason we suspect the narrator will survive and thrive is because Jigsaw is not really a novel, even though the cover says it is. It is Bedford's coming-of-age memoir, billed as fiction only to allow her certain liberties with names and events. "What I had in mind," Bedford wrote in her introduction, "was to build a novel out of the events and people who had made up, and marked, my early youth.... It had to be a novel in which the events had actually happened and happened largely as described; to invent, such was my instinct, would have been pointless: it mattered that these things had occurred."

Born to an eccentric German baron and his German-English-Jewish wife, Sybille spent her earliest years with her eccentric father in a crumbling castle in southern Germany. Later she joined her peripatetic mother for months at a time in Italy and in the south of France, and for several years she lived pretty much on her own in London - all before she was out of her teens.

You can learn more about Sybille's life from her obituaries in various newspapers - the Times, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph - but you will quickly note that dates and places are far from uniform. I'm guessing the fictionalized story in Jigsaw is closer to the truth than some of the supposedly factual obits.

Why might you want to read Jigsaw? Let me count the ways.
  • You enjoy memoirs
  • You're interested in the Roaring Twenties, the "lost generation," the Jazz Age
  • You like to read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, the Bloomsbury Set
  • You feel better when you read about people whose problems are much worse than your own
  • You have a clinical interest in dysfunctional family systems
Less than a  year before her death, Bedford wrote a book she called a memoir, Quicksand. According to a review in the Observer, it tells pretty much the same story she already told in Jigsaw. Both books describe a childhood in an environment of failed marriages, serial adultery, child abandonment, haphazard education, gambling addiction, drug addiction, financial ruin, narcissism ... in short, nearly every kind of dysfunction and codependence imaginable, more than 50 years before pop psych popularized those terms. I would have expected Sybille to die young and tragically.

Instead, she began writing for publication when she was middle-aged. Her works include the 832-page Aldous Huxley: A Biography as well as several novels, books on travel, and accounts of court trials. According to her obituary in the Independent, she
was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature - elected one of the society's 10 Companions of Literature in 1994 - and was appointed OBE in 1981. She was also an active member of the English Pen Club, and its Vice-President in 1979. Her joie de vivre expressed itself in an abiding curiosity about human beings, a deep love of nature, and a lifelong interest in wine.
She died shortly before her 95th birthday.

1 comment:

Minnie said...

Oh, excellent review, LaVonne - thank you! I read this book when it was first published; it has stayed in my mind ever since. The portrait she paints of her/the heroine's mother is compelling. You're absolutely spot-on: bit like watching a car crash in slow-motion. And, as you intimate, Sybille survived by/through her writing, casting a cold eye on life on fate.
The Aldous Huxley biog is worth a look.