CounterpointShe had the growing up that you and I would die for. Born in 1911, lived in southeast Germany until 1918, taken away by her mother to Italy and, finally, settled in the south of France. Summers in England. Spoke four languages. Her father courtly, her mother a charmer.
Most of their time was spent in the fishing village of Sanary. Great simple Provençale meals. Wine with lunch and supper. Days spent on the beach, or sailing. Reading Flaubert, Zola, Chateaubriand, George Sand, Stendhal --- and Aldous Huxley. Even knew the Huxleys, Roy Campbell, and countless less-famous artists, idle-rich, those who chose not to live in Paris or Berlin, people who chose to winter alongside the Mediterranean, at a time when cars were just coming into use, when they could drive over near-empty roads to Nice for lunch at a Michelin approved restaurant or a night at the movies. A charmed golden cultured easy life among those who had enough money to not be worried about money.
The mystery of Jigsaw at least for me --- is how Sybille Bedford can make it so interesting. Here we have luncheons, tennis matches, junkets in boats and cars and trains and buses from eighty years back. Costume parties where they dress up as sailors. Seductions along the quiet coves. Her mother --- her father had died some years earlier --- taking up with the lovely Italian Alessandro who designed houses for those who wanted to get away from the cities, and had the money for the antiques and to remodel old villas or farmhouses.
All so easy so genteel: listening to old scratchy 78s of Beethoven symphonies, falling in love with the lovely Oriane, who, along with husband Phillippe, were the lovely Parisian fixtures of the village. My god it was all so tan and languid and French intellectual --- so Jules et Jim --- that it makes you want to weep for what they had; for what we didn't have; for what we have lost. Maybe this is what keeps us on plowing ahead in Jigsaw: to find out what's going to happen to these golden children of the golden, courtly gods.
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One of my English teachers said that every novel worthy of the name novel has a "watershed." Where suddenly things change --- the action, the characters --- and you know that they (and you) can never go back again. It comes here when Mother, always a lousy sleeper, a nervous type, finds a local doctor who will prescribe morphine for her. At first she makes Alessandro administer them (she can't stand the sight of needles.) Then it falls to our narrator. Eventually, she overcomes her squeamishness, so twice, then three times, and finally five or six times a day she gives them to herself.
The previous chic and casual and easy life turns real and harsh and gritty. Sybille and Alessandro go through what family of all addicts must go through: disapproving, but --- at the same time, out of kindness, or family loyalty, or fear --- making it possible for the habit to feed on itself. They turn secretive, hide from former friends, going further and further afield to fill the prescriptions, until, finally, it's too much, and after endless temporizing, they get Mother into a clinic in Nice to cure her. Temporarily. This, and Sybille's first love affair, turn the novel around; she stops being child; the story takes hold. We didn't want to put it down before; now, we cannot do so.
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It is a puzzle to me --- let's say, a "Jigsaw puzzle" --- how Bedford is able to keep us going with what could be such thin material. Perhaps it is her writing style --- simple and honest. Perhaps it is our knowledge that these sweet years from 1918 - 1930 were charmed; that within a very short time, she and her family and friends will be plunged into a financial maelstrom which, in turn, will lead to unprecedentedly cruel upheaval of their world, and of even the simplest human values that they, so classically, represent. Perhaps this sense of impending nightmare keeps us moving ahead with the maturation and love and passion and easy life of one who, in truth, we would have given our right arm to have known and lived with --- certainly to have loved --- in those wonderful days.--- L. W. Milam