Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education is the first book by Sybille Bedford which I have picked up. It straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction, presenting as it does an exaggerated version of Bedford’s own childhood and young adulthood. Jigsaw was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1989.
Bedford was born in Germany, and educated in Italy, England, and France. Jigsaw subsequently takes place in each of these countries. The novel-cum-memoir has been split into five sections, which largely follow the author’s geographical journey. It begins with a series of her earliest memories. Whilst in the Danish seaside town of Skagen as a toddler, the narrator recollects: ‘What I wanted was to get into the water. But between the sand and the water there lay a thick band of small fish, dead, wet, glistening fish. The whole of me shrivelled with disgust. Nanny, who wore boots and stockings, picked me up and lifted me over the fish. I was in the water – coolness, lightness, dissolving, bliss: this is the sea, I am the sea, here is where I belong. For ever.’
We move from Denmark to a southern corner of Germany, where the three-year-old narrator is living with her parents in 1914. The uncertainty of war forces the family to stay with relatives in Berlin the following year, in a ‘large, dark house, over-upholstered and over-heated; the inhabitants never stopped eating. Some were exceedingly kind, some were critical of our presence.’ The context, both historical and social, has been woven in well, and it proved to be the element which I was most interested in within Jigsaw; the inflation of German currency, convoluted train journeys during wartime, moving around a lot due to money troubles, and being sent away to school particularly fascinated me. I also enjoyed reading about the differences which the narrator discusses between places which she had lived in. I took in, with interest, the allusions Bedford made of not feeling as though she had a homeland, as she moved around so much as a child. However, the emphasis upon this element was spoken about far too briefly for my personal taste.
The narrator is open about her relationships with her parents. She realises that her father loved her in retrospect, ‘but – this is the unhappy part – he could not show his affection, only his anxieties, his fretting, his prohibitions… And I with some curious callousness, with the arrogance of a lively, ignorant, if intelligent child, felt impatience with him and contempt. He also created fear; perhaps because he was not reachable by any give and take of talk, perhaps because of the aura of solitariness about him. Today we might call it alienation.’ Her interactions with her mother too are far from what she would have liked: ‘I was interested – and influenced – by my mother’s general opinions, but dreaded being alone with her. She could be ironical and often impatient; she did not suffer little fools gladly. That I was her own made not a scrap of difference… Compassionate in her principles, she was high-handed even harsh in her daily dealings. Between her and my father there had come much open ill feeling… So in my early years (our rapport came later) I was afraid of my mother, more afraid of her, and in a different way, than I was of my father.’ Her parents go on to divorce when she is quite young, and she has to deal with the consequences.
There is a warmth, even a chattiness, to the narrative voice in Jigsaw. Whilst compelling in its way, it never became something that I did not want to put down. Not knowing what was true and what was fabricated, or exaggerated, was something that niggled at me. Some of the scenes in Jigsaw seemed far too strange to be real, but there was no way of being sure. Another thing which I really did not enjoy about the book was the continuous name-dropping which Bedford embarks upon rather early on. I do not feel as though these people, most of whom were mentioned only as asides and not part of the current scenes or plot, added a great deal to proceedings. This, like other parts of the book, felt rather superficial.
Jigsaw is not a badly written piece, but I cannot say that I enjoyed Bedford’s prose. The phrasing and descriptions which she employed were largely fine, but there was no vividness or vivacity to the things which she described. There was less description in Jigsaw than I was expecting, as it is far more focused upon people than place; the latter often quickly becomes a dull background, and is barely discussed. Some elements were sped through; others were talked about at length, and therefore felt repetitive.
With a slightly different approach taken by the author, or a clear delineation between what is real or imagined, I feel as though I could have really admired this book. As it was, I found it a little off and jarring; I would have personally preferred to read a straight biography, and not some strange, unknown mixture of biography and novel. Jigsaw simply failed to stand out for me. On the face of it, it sounded like a fascinating concept, but its execution left something to be desired for me as a reader.