Emotional geography

Jigsaw: an unsentimental education

Sybille Bedford <em>Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 351pp,

"I was conceived at Cadiz: sherry and the Armada." This simple line of self-origin - a parenthesis buried within Sybille Bedford's autobiographical novel, Jigsaw: an unsentimental education - is characteristic of the author in its worldly brevity, its light-handed humour. Two reissues of Bedford's fiction, A Legacy (1956) and the Booker-shortlisted Jigsaw (1989), give new readers a chance to swoon over this multifaceted writer's gracious felicities - and to come to share Bruce Chatwin's assessment that, "when the history of modern prose in English comes to be written, Mrs Bedford will have to appear in any list of its most dazzling practitioners".

Bedford's language is vibrant with an awareness of people and their manners and the countries that shape them. Born in Germany in 1911, the daughter of a German aristocrat and an Englishwoman, and raised in southern Germany, Italy, England and France, Bedford moves in and out of European sensibilities with a natural ease - a rare quality in an English writer and one that is crucial to the fluidity of her work. She is endlessly intrigued by cultural differences, able to write of them deftly, often comically, and without portentousness.

Jigsaw's protagonist, Billi, is introduced to English culture in her early teens, having weathered her childhood years in a gloomy Rhineland chateau with her ageing father - from whom she learnt how to play roulette and enjoy a good claret - followed by a sunlit, peripatetic spell in Italy with her mother and her mother's young lover, Alessandro. When the couple travel to Tunisia, Billi's mother sends her to England to be "educated", after a fashion, by a pair of struggling painters she once met on a beach. (The story is scattered with benign acquaintances helping out with such casual generosity: a different time, or an especially lucky family?) Bedford records her adolescent response to the country's heavy new foods, its foreign religion (though she rejected her German Catholicism) and the cheerful couple's English use of humour "to dilute the anguish of existence with its infinite possibilities of disaster".

Billi's mother soon moves with Alessandro to Sanary in the south of France; thereafter begins the adolescent's back-and-forth existence, periodically summoned to enjoy the intellectual companionship of her mother - a beautiful, charismatic woman once photographed by Man Ray - then returning to London to be greeted with equanimity by her guardians. "Susan and Jack were as friendly and unconcerned as ever. Marmite flowed." In her late teens, Billi befriends two German Jewish sisters whose trials in love and marriage become another significant aspect of her education. Indeed, eventually it is domestic crises at either end - the suicide of one sister's illicit lover, a prominent English judge; Billi's mother's later, terrible addiction to morphine - that propel Billi back and forth across the Channel.

Bedford's chief aim in this later work is to recreate her evolution as a writer, which, given that English is her chosen literary language, parallels her evolution as an Englishwoman. Inevitably, French literature shapes Billi's sensibility: Gustave Flaubert, as the novel's subtitle suggests, casts his influence; and when she becomes helplessly infatuated with their neighbour's wife, it is Stendhal's Julien Sorel who comes to mind. "Il etait eperdument amoureux . . . Lost in love." If Bloomsbury made little mark on Bedford, her imagination was galvanised by the early fictions of Evelyn Waugh and especially of Aldous Huxley. That the Huxleys came to Sanary was a brilliant accident that led to a lifelong friendship, and in due course to Bedford writing her much-praised biography of Huxley. Bedford's brisk self-assessment of a first novel attempted in the late 1920s is: "Not unpredictably, it was diluted Aldous Huxley - Aldous Huxley and plain water." It would be over 20 years before Bedford published her first book, the Mexican travelogue A Visit to Don Otavio (1953), which has also been reissued.

A virtue of these Penguin editions is their inclusion of new introductions by Bedford - spryly entertaining excursions into the original circumstances of her writing and reflections on the balance of memory and invention in both books. If Jigsaw shows the family story that lay behind and beyond A Legacy, her first novel is more purely a fiction that attempts to make sense of Bedford's complex German childhood, spent not only in her father's chateau but also in the Berlin home of her father's first wife's Jewish family.

A Legacy reimagines her father as Baron Julius Felden. It tells of his family's baffled encounters with the Prussian military; with the strongly Catholic aristocracy, when Julius marries into the Jewish Merzes; and with the press, when a scandal follows one son's accidental shooting. In her book on European law, The Faces of Justice (1960), Bedford characterised the second half of the 19th century in Germany as one "of struggle between German liberalism and German absolutism". A Legacy subtly advances the thesis that this struggle finally led to the rise of German nationalism. Such an intimate and, in its way, affectionate study of prewar German manners might have made for uneasy reading in England in 1956, but the novel found an important champion in Waugh - convinced though he was that "Mrs Bedford" had to be a cover for some "cosmopolitan military man".

A Legacy shows off Bedford's more traditional novelistic skills: her fascination with character, her tart observations of people's interactions in marriages or in families - a mother watching her young daughters, "prospecting their evolving looks as one scans a company report". She finds comedy in Julius's eccentric series of pets, which include several monkeys, introduced as if they were children, and an Egyptian donkey who puffs on Julius's cigars. And Bedford sketches the Merzes' opulence with a lavish hand, including elaborate culinary details that tastily betray the author's lifelong passion for food and wine. (Jigsaw is also a feast of food memories, whether of cold bacon and cider in Feldkirch or a Sanary New Year's spread of fruits de mer served with a dry Cassis.)

Both novels show Bedford to be a sensual, impressionistic writer rather than a natural storyteller - which is fitting given the powerful light that Provence casts over much of her work. In noticing how people negotiate each other and their social environment, Bedford is a moralist - not in the Murdochian vein of exploring her characters' relation to the good, but rather in a melancholic, perhaps inherently European way of describing her characters' quest for some truth.

In A Legacy, this takes a conventional shape of family communications given or withheld, with dramatic and ultimately tragic consequences. In Jigsaw, Bedford seeks a more internal truth: the truth of her own multinational identity and the emotional geographies that made her the writer she became. And although she lightens this moving, coming-of-age story with humour and quiet humanism, a painful solitude runs through the novel - the salt that draws out its distinctive flavour.

Sylvia Brownrigg's "The Metaphysical Touch" is published by Phoenix

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - How we have lost the joy of sex