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Her father was eccentric and withdrawn, her mother highly intelligent, highly cultivated, highly capricious, highly sexed, a captivating talker, a beauty photographed by Man Ray, and a bolter.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.

England was thought to offer the best education, so Billi was sent there as paying guest to a family called Robbins. Her mother had met them on a beach and found them charming, which they turned out to be. Unfortunately their intention to educate Billi and their own two daughters by engaging first-rate private tutors foundered on their tendency to get into debt and be forced to move on. Eventually they moved all the way to New Zealand. Billi—still only fifteen or sixteen—did not tell her mother but rented a furnished room in London and set about educating herself. Her mother was quite happy with this arrangement when Billi told her about it later.

Billi’s room in dreary Gloucester Place had been found for her by her older friend Rosie Falkenheim, who had a similar one nearby. Rosie was plain, German-Jewish, and worked in a bookshop, which was where Billi, a great haunter of bookshops, had made her acquaintance. Rosie had accompanied her pretty sister Toni to England, when Toni married an English bookseller called Jamie Nairn.

Billi’s spells in England coincide more or less with school terms, and they make a gritty ground bass to the molto vivace holidays at Sanary. In England, the Falkenheim sisters and Jamie are her mainstay, her family. The sisters are high-minded, cultivated, and musical. But they generate no gaiety. Their lives are narrow and bleak. Toni has no talent for happiness and breaks up her marriage to Jamie as a matter of principle because of a minor infidelity on his part. She ruins her life (not his) and her sister’s too, because Rosie feels obliged to give up her independence to look after Toni and save rent.

Rosie’s own life is led in the shadows. She is the clandestine lover of a handsome judge. The judge is unmarried, but has no intention of ever bringing her out of her bed-sitter, not even to the extent of taking her to a restaurant. Every day at dawn, Rosie emerges from the underground in evening dress (the judge insists they change for dinner) and returns home after spending the night in his flat. Rosie pays his gambling debts until they become too heavy. Then he shoots himself.


Life at Sanary is delectable. Except for a few artists and other exceptionally discerning people, it has not yet become the fashion to go to the Côte d’Azur in summer. There are few roads, few people except locals, who don’t swim, and the beaches are clean and empty. Billi loves the sun, the sea, the food, the wine (she is to become, among other things, a writer on food and wine, and—if this is supposed to be a novel—she pontificates a bit too much about it here). Most of all she loves the people. She adores her unpredictable, unboring mother, admires her beauty and style, delights in her brilliant conversation. Her mother treats her like a sister, only occasionally teasing her like a younger one. They are close and confidential. Alessandro is congenial and protective. And there are three sets of friends, all dazzling to the young girl: the Polish-French painter Moïse Kisling (much more highly considered in the middle Twenties than later) and his bohemian circle; Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria and their English intellectual visitors; and the pseudonymous Desmirails, a rich, exquisite young couple who look incestuously alike and give imaginative parties.

All these glamorous children of the sun are set off by the bourgeois Panigon family. Billi accidentally loses her virginity to their son Frédéric because they are forced to share a hotel room when their car breaks down after a party in Saint Tropez. Billi rather despises Frédéric, but going to bed with him leaves no trauma—satisfaction, rather, at having discovered what it’s like.

She is always in love with somebody, most calfishly with the elegant Oriane Desmirail, but also with the whole Desmirail set, the Kisling set—especially the painter’s earthy wife, Renée—and the Huxley set especially Maria Huxley, with her “face of a young El Greco saint.” Billi is a groupie, a member of the wedding, and it “became a pattern in my life: friendships, attachments to a group, a couple, a family not my own, friendships that lasted through the changing stages.” It seems to have been an excellent adjustment to her “unsentimental education” (the subtitle of her book).

The French idyll comes to an end when a young German girl falls in love with Alessandro and he with her. Billi’s mother goes to pieces with frightening speed: first sleeping pills, then drink, then morphine. Billi has to administer the shots. Alessandro gives up the girl; Billi’s mother agrees to go into a sanatorium and is better for a while, though her physical health and her looks are ruined. Then she’s back on the bottle and the needle. She becomes more and more hysterical, violent, and cruel to Alessandro. Eventually he can take no more and tells Billi so. The book ends with the girl left alone with her raving mother. One is not too worried for her. Her mother can’t last long, and Billi is optimistic and resilient by nature, and, owing to her upbringing, débrouillarde beyond her years.

One has got to know her very well. On the one hand she is a Backfisch—a peculiarly German kind of female adolescent, tomboy and bluestocking combined, and terribly prone to crushes. The other side of her character is a gentleman (definitely not a lady) of the old school: chivalrous, fond of the good things in life, which she takes as they come, generous and spunky. The two sides add up to a likable and entertaining heroine. With such a character, such varied and vivid milieus, and such a story, any book should be readable, and this one is compulsively so.

But so is The Constant Nymph. Jigsaw has a striking number of things in common with that best seller of the Twenties and Thirties: unconventional families, wit, speed, dizzy climaxes, and a Twenties sound. The sound is real, not synthetic or goût rétro: it is Bedford’s idiom and can be heard in A Legacy and her other novels. She writes as Sunday painters notoriously paint: in the manner of the generation before their own.

It is part of her charm, but also a weakness, especially because her technique is not as sophisticated as one might expect from someone so widely read in several languages (there are a great many references to her reading). Her style is lyrical, breathless, and jaunty by turns, with an occasional clipped, verbless sentence coming down like a stiff upper lip over boiling emotion. The conversations are another thing again, improbably witty and entertaining, with everyone picking up his or her cues like lightning and sounding like a cross between Disraeli, Wilde, and Noel Coward—especially Billi’s mother, who may or may not have been a model for Mrs. Amberley in Eyeless in Gaza.


Jigsaw has other aesthetic problems. One of them is bad joins between novel and biography. Bedford doesn’t seem to have thought out the amalgamation of the genres. There is no cross-fertilization, and the designation “a biographical novel” certainly doesn’t mean that these are “the facts” about her, or any kind of structural or philosophical exploration or picking at the interface of truth and fiction. Nor does she claim, as Philip Roth does, that she needs to write about herself for therapeutic reasons. Jigsaw is resolutely upbeat and not in the least introspective—more like the autobiography of a politician or an entertainer justifiably convinced that he or she has a good story to tell. “Biographical novel” simply means that some characters get pseudonyms and others do not. The Huxleys and the Kislings are real, and so is A.J.A. Symons, to whose literary circle at Finchingfield in Essex Billi is introduced by pseudonymous Jamie Nairn before he goes to bed with one of its pseudonymous members. There are walk on parts for other real people.

I cannot recall, for example, who else was at the Huxleys’ table. Which of their likely friends? Raymond Mortimer? Chronology says probably not. The ravishing young Yvonne Franchetti as she was then (later married to James Hamish Hamilton, the publisher)? Possibly. The Charles de Noailles? Again possibly, though I think not. Clive Bell over from Cassis? Drieu la Rochelle and (another beauty) his wife Olésia? Quite possibly. What is certain is that, when we got there, we found women who looked good and men who talked well.

Perhaps it’s unfair to quote this string of dropped names like a caption from W, especially since there are no other passages quite so absurd. But Bedford’s method excites frivolous social curiosity (can any of the pseudonyms be seen through?) and undermines one’s faith, not so much in the seriousness of her intentions—that is quite evident—as in her grasp of how to achieve them.

Billi herself is always struggling away at her first novel and observes her family and friends with her own vocation in mind: “I shall never cease to puzzle over that cat’s cradle of human sympathies, of attraction, non-attraction, revulsion. As a novelist I ought, at least sometimes, to get it right,” she thinks as she watches her mother not hitting it off with Philippe Desmirail. Her approach, then, appears to be psychological: but the end result, here and in Bedford’s other novels, is high romance: an old-fashioned genre with high morality built into it. Bedford is a moralist (though not, of course, a puritan). It is always clear who is behaving well and who is not, which is the right course of action and which the wrong one. She keeps assuring one that she/Billi never judges or condemns, but she protests too much: her own approval and disapproval come across quite powerfully.

This is most apparent in the Falkenheim episodes. They are in a different key from the rest of the book, and they add up to a telling parable of three kinds of loyalty. Both sisters destroy their lives through loyalty: Rosie through loyalty to her lover and her sister; Toni through loyalty to her rigid moral and aesthetic fastidiousness, imported, under seal as it were, from her high-minded German-Jewish background—a background as far removed as possible from the Merzes luxurious laissez-aller. The judge has his own loyalty. It is the least respectable, being to respectability itself. He cannot face acknowledging a Jewish mistress, especially a plain one; he certainly can’t marry her; and he can’t face the disgrace of bankruptcy. Rosie sees how pitiful he is, but she accepts it. Intransigent Toni and faithful Rosie are like a pair of Balzacian heroines, and their spare, dramatic story could stand on its own as a Balzacian novella.

Jigsaw begins with an epigraph by Robert Kee: “The way things looked before later events made them look different. And this is as much a part of history as the way things actually were.” The epigraph doesn’t really fit. It applies to a historian searching for “wie es eigentlich gewesen.” But Billi romanticizes the present as it happens, and Bedford, looking back sixty years later, reromanticizes it and Billi with it. So what you get in the end is double-distilled romance.

This Issue

April 27, 1989