Jigsaw, An Unsentimental Education – Sybille Bedford

20 April 2011
Parts 1-3
I’m reading a memoir by a writer whose work I’m not familiar with. She describes an extraordinary childhood in Germany, Italy, England…. So far, I’m not sure that it’s a jigsaw. It’s more like a collage of vaguely familiar elements, pasted together with things that are specific to her own family life. Some of that sounds vaguely familiar too, now I think of it. Her mother, in particular, is straight out of What Maisie Knew: like Maisie’s mother Ida, she starts off divorced from the more reliable father, disappears when she’s nominally expected to be looking after the girl, wanders the sexier parts of Europe to find a lover far younger than she is. She turns up, she disappears with the young man, reappears married to him…. Blimey, she really is like Ida.

Is this really a memoir? It reads like one, and Bedford’s apologies for being a bit vague about details and chronology sound genuine. But I’ve just finished reading E L Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, an avowedly fictional memoir, and the narrator in that novel is always apologising for exactly the same things. It’s one of the ways fiction-writers have of making it sound like real memory. But Bedford’s isn’t really a novel, is definitely based on details of her own life. She even explains how characters in her novels who are based on family members differ from the real ones we’re meeting in this memoir. That’s not massively interesting if you haven’t read any of the novels, but what did I expect?

Some things are interesting. There’s something headlong about the new situations she keeps finding herself in, matched by her long sentences, connected only by commas, that don’t always seem to know where they’re going either. She has vague memories of an early childhood in prosperous Berlin before the divorce, memories she tells us about in an impressionistic, Joycean way. But she really only gets started with the life which is, in her description, like squatting in the art-filled Schloss her father has taken from the marriage. German village life, German food, not fitting in, becoming a feisty little thing. Her ‘escape’ is so self-assured and well-planned the adults just kind of accept it. She lives with her half-sister and the mayor of the town she’s now in for what sounds like months.

I’m a bit bored with this. Next: Ida, or whatever her mother is called, wants her to go and live in Italy. Then she doesn’t, sorts out another squat with some artists in England who might be able to get some schooling organised for her. Maybe. Her father dies. She visits Italy often, grows to love it before, as the adult Bedford tells us, she can appreciate what it is that makes Italy so fine. What she loves most as a child there are the people, whom she finds loving and caring. Italian food, English food, a bohemian lifestyle of one kind or another with money a bit short, a new father – Alessandro – who doesn’t quite know what he wants to do.

There must have been a lot of these families in the last quarter of the 19th Century and the first quarter of the 20th – we’re in the mid-1920s now – because Bedford is describing situations that seem utterly familiar from other literature of the time. I shouldn’t go on about What Maisie Knew, but it has all the elements of Bedford’s story of adults getting it wrong and kids, somehow, finding their way through the mess. The biggest difference is the literary style. Instead of James’s stately prose we get gossipy, breathless sentences that sound unedited. Maybe it’ll settle down when the young Billi does, as the title of Part 4 suggests she will: ‘Anchorage’.

23 April
Part 4, Chapters 1-7
Nah. The style, I mean: it doesn’t settle down, and nor does our Sybille. Her prose is still all commas and dashes, and she’s taken to giving us a lot of italics for emphasis. Maybe it’s to add to the gossipy, half-conspiratorial air – ‘He had put me at my ease’ – or maybe it’s just a bit lazy: there are ways to avoid italics if you can be bothered.

But listen to me, Mr Style. I suppose I resent Bedford’s own style because – what? – I resent all this time I’m spending in her company. I rarely read memoirs or biographies, and nobody’s forcing me to read this… but this was nominated for a Booker prize and I’m interested in why. I’m guessing, about half-way through Part 4 and half-way through the book, that it’s because of the insights she’s able to offer us into a lost world rather than the way she writes. This is the wrong way round for me, I realise: I’m just not bothered enough about life on the edges of literary and artistic society between the wars. (A few years ago I visited the Bloomsbury Group’s place at Charleston and hated everything about it. Bedford has recently dropped a broad hint that she’ll know something of that lot later in her life. Ho-hum.)

But I’m supposed to be writing about Jigsaw, not about me. What’s she been up to in the three or four years since her mother moved to the South of France? ‘Anchorage’ is a relative term in Bedford-speak. Her mother is the most anchored, but even she moves house annually while her husband tries to make a life on the edge of art-dealership in Paris and her daughter tries to make a life on the edge of other people’s lives in England. I called it a lost world, but Bedford describes several lost worlds: Provence before everybody else in middle-class England discovered it, London when it was possible to rent a place for 21/6 a week, a post-WW1 Britain in which arty people could really believe that things might get better, and that nobody could allow another war to happen.

And Billi begins to grow up. (We haven’t heard her being called that – or anything else – for some time now.) At the point I’ve reached she’s telling us that she’s about to move up from the children’s end of the table in the French places they get invited to… and her mother is quite pleased with the companionship she offers her when Alessandro’s away or busy. In fact, her mother is somehow central, even when Bedford is in London. The girl isn’t getting any schooling beyond what she can provide for herself, but she’s happy with the British Library, the National Gallery and any lectures on offer. (It’s another What Maisie Knew moment: Maisie’s stepfather can’t afford school fees either.)

Bedford is happy to imply that this is better than anything else that might have been on offer. I suppose it’s the arrogance of the successful writer. She doesn’t have to claim that, following the good example of her mother, she must have been getting something right; just look how well she turned out. (Ok, she tells us that she’s a poor speller – but she’s not a bit ashamed of that, seems to see it as a mark of her free intellectual spirit. I’m not surprised, given the way she punctuates.) It’s her mother who has brought her up to be a self-sustaining, independent reader – long, cold mornings in a draughty summer villa in winter have seen to that – and her English friends always have access to the latest novels by Huxley and Waugh that they pass on to her. It’s a kind of intellectual name-dropping that Bedford is happy to indulge in, to go alongside the mentions of the Cyril Connollys who discovered their little town in the Midi some years after they did.

Anything else? Attitudes to sex and marriage, for a start. Bedford realises why she’s so non-judgemental: just look at the life she’s led with that mother of hers. When one of the sisters she relies on in London tells her of her long-term affair with a High Court Judge and asks her to sort out a French hotel for them, well, no problem. (It’s around this time that she admits that she’s changed most of the names in this memoir. I wouldn’t know any of them anyway.)

The subtitle of this memoir is ‘An Unsentimental Education’. The way Bedford tells it, it’s the best education anybody could ever have had. Ok. I just wish I could like her more.

25 April
Next couple of chapters
It’s no good, I just can’t. Like her more, I mean. In these chapters we get a particular stratum of French society as represented by the Derailment brothers, the weird couple who have wafted in and out of the town from time to time. In fact they’re a married couple, very much alike to look at, full of the sort of behaviour that Bedford finds so interesting. With his little cars and big open-top bus it’s like Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang all over again. And I’m going to give up for a while. I hate giving up on books, but I’ve got to think of my own sanity.

4 May
To the end of Part 4…
…which, apparently, is the end of our girl’s time in France. It seems to be mostly about playing, of one sort or another. There are actual games, like a properly organised tennis tournament – how seriously these leisured classes take their sports – and, well, fun: dressing up, the response of Sybille and her stepfather to the completion of the shell of the new house in the absense of Maman, with a coup de theatre involving pirate costumes; time at the beach; day trips. In this world, sex arises as an unintended outcome: the day trip to, er, somewhere ends up with Sybille in bed with the boy she’s not bothered about and her stepfather in bed with the boy’s sister.

Sex. Our girl has had exquisite sexual feelings before, and feels she ought to go through this particular rite of passage. It’s dull, and soon she’s decided that Oriane, aka Mme Derailment, is the real love of her life. And so on. The boy is jealous, the sister is besotted by Alessandro – who is relaxed about it, but doesn’t want to do anything to harm either the girl or his wife – and… I’m getting bored again. These chapters might be the nearest that Bedford has come to any sort of plot interest – the unplanned night in the hotel is almost like a novel – but Bedford only ever touches the surface of things. The possibility of pregnancy is only mentioned in order to highlight Sybille’s naivety, not to create any narrative tension. And she’s almost dismissive of her own feelings for Oriane, can only reassure us of the seriousness of the other girl’s feelings for Alessandro by telling us she’s felt similar things in her own life, really she has….

Anyway. Despite her stepfather’s warnings that she needs to be careful of her mother’s reputation – warnings which, along with most other aspects of the way society actually works, don’t mean anything to her – her behaviour around Oriane has become common knowledge and rumours have begun to reach the ears of Maman. She’s given no notice at all that next day – ok, the day after, since there are no trains on Sunday – she is going back to England.

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