Half a lifetime ago, on holiday in the south of France, my new boyfriend gave me Sybille Bedford's "biographical novel" Jigsaw to read. Much of the book is set in the French Riviera of the 1920s, a generation earlier than the Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Murphy iteration. The pages seem to exude the scent of pine trees and the chic of the early Riviera adopters in their sailor trousers and chalk-white espadrilles. I loved it at once, quite inordinately, and it has held a permanent position on my desert-island-books list. It is a reliable litmus test for friendship, an immediate shortcut with other Bedford devotees, and the perfect present for the carefully chosen uninitiated.
As a well-structured novel, Jigsaw falls at the first hurdle and deliciously proves that the best books can break all the rules. Subtitled An Unsentimental Education, it is the story of Bedford's first twenty years, which go roughly as follows: the only child of an elderly father and his much younger bride, Sybille (or Billi, as she is called) spends her early childhood in the ruined gothic splendor of a German castle, living in genteel poverty with her father and an old retainer.
Her beautiful, love-crazed mother has long since fled for a series of amorous adventures. Heirlooms are periodically sold in order to keep the castle's occupants fed, and Billi has no formal education. The library, wine cellar, and a dusty roulette wheel provide her only instruction. Eventually her mother sends for Billi, who is dispatched at age ten to Italy to meet the latest fiancé, a wealthy older man. By the time Billi arrives, the silver suitor has been supplanted by Alessandro, fifteen years her mother's junior. The lovers go on the run, leaving Billi at her mother's hotel in the care of Doris, a teenager who is herself called away for a film test.
Alone in the hotel, Billi adopts a lifestyle somewhere between Eloise at the Plaza and Death in Venice. "Living in an hotel was a fascinating experience," she writes gamely. Back in Germany, Billi's father has been operated on for appendicitis and dies from an asthma attack; "I knew that he had been much afraid of death," writes Bedford bluntly — we are not yet on page 50.
Billi is retrieved by her mother and Alessandro, and the next couple of sections describe how the mismatched threesome ricochet around Europe, beset with money troubles and the complications of Billi's guardianship. Billi's mother (never named in the book) casually sends her off to England to be educated in the care of a rackety couple she met once on a beach somewhere. Eventually, Alessandro and her mother marry and settle in France, while Billi finds herself a makeshift family in England with Toni and Rosie, German-refugee sisters, Toni's kindly English husband, Jamie, and Rosie's mysterious lover, known only as "the judge."
Billi's summers are spent in her mother's ménage in Sanary Sur Mer; a sensual world of fêtes champêtres, vintage cars, vivid Mediterranean food, and late-night sorties to Toulon for the cinema and cassoulet on the harbor. She is befriended by a gallery of local characters. The painter Moïse Kisling appears, as does the Brave New World author Aldous Huxley. Already Billi's literary hero when they meet, Huxley encourages her nascent writing ambitions ("As soon as I could speak, I wanted to be a writer").
But it is another couple, the wealthy, feckless, peerlessly glamorous Desmirails, or "heavenly twins," swanning around in their matching French-worker clothes, who capture Billi's heart as she moves out of spectator mode and takes her first faltering steps into the world of adult emotions.
So far, so picaresque. The story of the German sisters and their English men works brilliantly as a short story winched into the narrative jigsaw and provides a counterpoint to the French episodes. But Doris, the errant babysitter from Italy, reenters the picture with electrifying consequences, and this meandering, semi-fictional memoir changes gear with a cataclysmic final section before crashing into an abrupt and heart-stopping ending.