The Magazine

A Small Legacy

The revival of Sybille Bedford.

Apr 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 31 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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AND LIKE BEDFORD Herself, Billi is drawn particularly to Aldous Huxley and his family. Huxley, "all six foot two of him," is vividly portrayed. We learn of his "regular working hours" and the Beethoven records he "listened to in hammocks in the garden and under the stars." Huxley's wife, we're told, is an "eccentric" cook and "the soul of tact." The Huxleys "were far less touched by gossip than most people"--although it's not quite clear why.

But then, various names and characters drift through "Jigsaw" with little or no direct connection to each other, or to its larger design. The book is nearly half over before the narrator admits that "it occurred to me--a little late--that I have not said what my mother looked like." This is particularly curious since Billi's mother dominates the novel. "Jigsaw" shows how a single individual can powerfully affect the lives of those around her, for good or ill, and for a very long time. Billi, it's clear, will spend the rest of her creative life coming to grips with a commanding parent who was both stimulating and slighting, inspiring and remote. "Ma mere," she admits, "est une femme impossible."

IN HER INTRODUCTION to "Jigsaw," Bedford notes that she found "the freedom of fiction" bracing after long stints of writing nonfiction prose. This is completely understandable, of course, for narrating facts can be tedious, and it's almost always more amusing to just make things up. But "Jigsaw" sticks so closely to the known events of Sybille Bedford's life that it hardly seems fair to call it a novel at all. It's a personal narrative with some imagined dialogue and other fictional bits thrown in. In other words, it's a memoir.

Of course, mixing fact and fiction is as old as print. Moreover, it's a practice that, over the past decade or so, has grown so commonplace (consider only V.S. Naipaul's "The Enigma of Arrival" and Saul Bellow's "Ravelstein") that almost no one bothers to complain anymore of its ethical or aesthetic implications.

But at a very minimum, what a book is called affects the way it's read. As a novel, "Jigsaw" seems pretentious and slack: The author is both intrusive and coy. "The Kislings and the Aldous Huxleys are the Kislings and the Aldous Huxleys," she explains in a prefatory note. "My mother and I are a percentage of ourselves"; other characters are "to a large extent themselves." Inevitably, readers are left wondering which parts of the book are "true," and which are imagined. Bedford, tellingly, admits to "a puzzled sense about the relativity of given truth."

In a memoir, however, one expects a looser structure, a string of lively if unrelated episodes, and the chance to watch an intriguing mind at play. "Jigsaw" makes an often fascinating memoir, effectively recalling a period in European history that, more than a half century later, seems both prescient and quaint. "Jigsaw" isn't social criticism of any kind. But it recalls a time when summering in the South of France was still a privilege; when a writer like Colette was still considered shocking; and when an "instinctive" hedonist like Renee Kisling could still fancy herself a pioneer of the new morality, striking her own blow against "bourgeois sexual orthodoxy."

At the time of her Booker nomination, Bedford was compared to other recent writers who came to fame late in their careers. Both Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald, for example, wrote dark, oddly comic novels that languished for years before attracting large and avid followings. Pym was living quietly as a pensioner in Oxford, her books long out of print, when in 1977 Philip Larkin called her the most underrated novelist of the twentieth century. Suddenly Pym became a literary celebrity, the subject of books, articles, and at least one television film. Even now her more ardent fans pore over "Excellent Women" and "Quartet in Autumn" at annual meetings of the Barbara Pym Society.

Like Fitzgerald, Pym possessed a shrewd understanding of human nature that was belied somewhat by the clarity and directness of her style. Pym's characters can be complex, contradictory, like the people we know; they're quirky, and psychologically convincing. They're attractively ordinary too. Pym's characters contend with loss and dullness and disappointment. And they visit the dentist and attend flower shows. Pym is no Jane Austen, to whom she is sometimes compared; but her novels are deft without being pretentious, displaying a very English sort of sturdiness that retains its own appeal, perhaps particularly among American readers.

BEDFORD TOO will have her champions, particularly among fellow writers drawn to the careful grace and luster of her prose. Still, Bedford's novels are too aloof, fatalistic, and mandarin to attract large numbers of readers; they're oddly inconsistent too. Thus "A Favourite of the Gods" alludes to Gibbon, Byron, and Stendhal and includes the sort of characters who collect books and hang about villas and who could tell you the difference between a Pomerol and a Pauillac. And yet, in one scene, a character "flung herself into a chair"; another "succumbed to Rome at sight." In brief, it's a high-brow romance that, although published in the 1960s, retains the flavor of prose published thirty years before--as if Cyril Connolly were collaborating with Elinor Wylie.

Still, you don't have to like Bedford's novels to admire her nonfiction. In fact, her American publishers would do well to reissue "As It Was," which first appeared in English and American magazines during the 1950s and '60s. "As It Was" features Bedford's coverage of the trials of both Jack Ruby and Lady Chatterly's lover. It also includes "The Worst that Ever Happened," a particularly memorable account of the 1963 trial, in Frankfurt, of 22 Germans who abetted the horrors at Auschwitz during the Second World War. In these eight essays Bedford emerges as an innovative and idiosyncratic reporter and writer whose best work retains its power and relevance still.

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.