I first read Jigsaw years ago, on the warm recommendation of a friend, and picked it up again when another friend mentioned how much she was loving it. I wasn’t sure that I’d still appreciate what I’d found so compelling 15 years ago, but I did. And then I began wondering why.
It’s very hard to put your finger on what it is that Sybille Bedford does right in this book. She calls it “A Biographical Novel” which I take to mean that she has changed some details and/or names either to protect people or to smooth out the narrative. I never doubted, on either reading, that the hair-raising goings-on had occured more or less as told. The book’s opening scene has Sybille, aged two, parked in a pram in the hall of her mother’s Danish lover. “Please be good, please keep quiet, he hates to have a baby in the hall.” I should just about think so — surely “a baby in the hall” is a pretty serious check on the libido. But looking at it more closely, I think perhaps the way Bedford has written this is a key to the book’s subtle grip on you. “He hates…” Not “he will hate,” which would be a more predictable structure. This is a settled thing with the Dane, a situation he has encountered before and has an opinion about. Has Sybille been previously parked in the hall? All that meaning, packed into one verb tense.
So expand that authorial care to the structure, which covers Sybille’s childhood up to the age of about twenty. Then factor in the extremely eventful youth this woman had: early years with her parents until her mother left. Then she lived with her father on an estate in the Grand Duchy of Baden, rich before WWI, poor afterward. This portion is reminiscent of Gregor von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear. Then there were a few unsettled years in Italy, with educational interludes (more or less unchaperoned) in England. Most of the book is set in a tiny village on the French Mediterranean, in the later 1920s, before that area was “discovered.”
This French section is indelibly vivid. Light, wind, sea, the houses, the food, the inhabitants, both local and “summer people…” Sybille continues to spend chunks of time in London, while her mother and much-younger stepfather Alessandro make a life in France. (The English life is pretty colorful emotionally, though rather dingy.) Throughout, her mother is the center around which all else revolves — a narcissistic, tempestuous beauty who commands allegiance at a very high cost. Conflict (the essence of drama for the reader) is never distant. The emotional stakes are high for everyone. I had remembered the harrowing final section when Sybille’s mother’s behavior starts to present moral as well as emotional dilemmas. In fact, it’s less than a quarter of the book but the generosity and frankness with which Bedford handles this is a life lesson.
Bedford’s own life was the source for most of her fiction, and certain episodes or characters recur throughout her work, but she never becomes tedious. Actually, you feel privileged to share her life with her — though I also admit to a great deal of relief that I didn’t have to live through all the drama.