High Romance

Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education

by Sybille Bedford
Knopf, 328 pp., $18.95

Sybille Bedford
Sybille Bedford; drawing by David Levine

Sybille Bedford calls her new book a biographical novel. At first glance, it seems simply her autobiography up to the age of twenty. Bedford is an English writer living in England, but she was born of a German father, Maximilian von Schoenebeck, in 1911. These facts come from Who’s Who; the rest from Jigsaw. Her father belonged to the Catholic minor nobility of Baden; her mother was half Jewish. She was his second wife; the first, completely Jewish, had died young. In those days rich, well brought-up Jewish girls rather expected to marry into the aristocracy. What happened when they did is a principal theme in Bedford’s most successful novel, A Legacy (1956). It is really more of a “biographical novel” than Jigsaw, which most people would call autobiographical, though both cover some of the same ground.

A Legacy begins with the marriage of a Soviet German nobleman, Julius von Felden, to Melanie Merz, a mindless, spineless, poor little rich Jewish girl from Berlin. When Melanie dies of TB, Julius marries a tempestuous fox-hunting English beauty, and A Legacy goes with the wind toward horizons of high romance and political intrigue. It only comes down to earth when members of the Merz family appear on the scene: their padded, benevolent complacency is brilliantly connected but with great good humor.

So their reprise in Jigsaw is good news. Their name is still Merz, and they take four-year-old Sybille Bedford into their opulent home in Berlin in 1915 and keep her until the end of the war. She is no blood relation; her father is their ex-son-in-law but that is no obstacle to their large if slapdash generosity. Bedford is very good with milieus and she hits this one off particularly well.

Her father was eccentric and withdrawn, her mother highly intelligent, highly cultivated, highly capricious, highly sexed, a captivating talker, a beauty photographed by Man Ray, and a bolter. Her last bolt was into marriage with an Italian fifteen years her junior. Alessandro was no kind of gigolo, though, but a decent, responsible, not very forceful young man.

By this time Billi was living in her father’s custody deep in the rural German south near the French border. His small, beautiful, but decrepit Schloss had been bought for him by her mother. They lived with one village servant in a style part rustic, part austerely stylish, and fairly down at heel. Billi’s father died while she was on holiday with her mother in Florence, and a new, cosmopolitan life began, with the child shunting about between Italy, France, and England, mostly enjoying it very much but sometimes overwhelmed by a superabundance of freedom, like being dumped alone in a hotel while her mother followed impulses elsewhere. Eventually the three of them, Billi, her mother, and Alessandro, left Italy altogether to get away from Mussolini, and settled on the Côte d’Azur at Sanary.

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