Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw: an unsentimental education. Eland Publishing Ltd, London, 2005. First published 1989.

This is another of those books that doesn’t sit neatly in the category ‘novel’ or ‘(auto)biography’, or even ‘(auto)fiction’. Sybille Bedford’s account (the title page has it as ‘a biographical novel) of her early family life – she was born in Germany in 1911 – until early adulthood in the 1930s is described in her Afterword:

Truth here was an artistic, not a moral requirement – truth to be presented in the terms of the novelist, not the biographer, terms that meant timing, selection, avoiding repetition.

Sybille Bedford Jigsaw coverShe goes on to account for the ‘sisters’ story’ –  of the two women originally from Berlin whose lives form ‘a counterweight, a link between the English and the French action of my jigsaw.’

This novel is then an artefact, assembled fragments to represent a likeness as the author saw it in ‘writing about myself, my feelings, my actions.’ Much as she was tempted to leave out the substantial part played in her early life by her mother (‘Did one have to have a parent?’ she enquires wistfully, playfully in this Afterword), her story inevitably lingers in most of its pages on the significant impact on those feelings and actions by her glamorous, impetuous, intelligent, exasperating mother.

The short first section is poignant and funny, mostly about her early childhood in Germany with her eccentric, solitary father, barely subsisting in the grand but desolate, threadbare castle he’d been left by his wife when she’d had enough of him and took off to pursue love affairs, exotic travels and a more stimulating life:

[My father] could not stand clever women. (My mother had been too beautiful for him to notice that she was one and when he did notice it was too late.)

This German part of his family is called Merz in Bedford’s excellent novel (published 1956) about them, A Legacy (my posts about it HERE). She’s sensitive and perceptive in portraying his character and how she portrayed it to suit her novelist’s purpose there:

Jules in the novel is a man by no means originally devoid of feeling, whose contact with reality is snapped by events at one or two points in his life. He protects himself by limiting his grasp. A man who has lost his nerve…in the context of a particular time and the changes in that time.

Subsequent sections of the novel follow the protagonist after the early death of her father. Her mother marries a handsome Italian much younger than herself, and has little time for the precocious, bookish little girl she hardly knows, so she is tolerated for a sequence of summer breaks in various rented villas in Europe, usually by the sea. Her mother is restless, romantic, feckless. The daughter is educated fitfully, mostly at home or with dubious tutors.

Much of the time she is farmed off with equally bohemian friends in England, living hand-to-mouth, but still spending summers in Italy. The most substantial part of the novel is set in the place where her mother finally settles: Sanary, on the coast of the (then unfashionable) south of France. It’s a quiet place, favoured by itinerant foreign artists and intellectuals, like Aldous Huxley and his wife, and the exotically glamorous couple called here the Desmirails (not their real name). Young Billi (as Sybil was called by those close to her) develops an adolescent crush on Oriane, the glacially beautiful, art deco wife.

The final section is very different in tone. Sybil’s mother develops a drug addiction, and her daughter and young husband struggle to cope with the demands this places on the household.

The novel is uneven in quality; at times I became frustrated with the ingenuous depiction of the sybaritic ways of people one wouldn’t really want to meet: they’re usually broke, but always seem to manage to employ a ‘femme de ménage’, and to eat out and drink in café-bars. I suppose the author is adopting the viewpoint of the inexperienced young woman who didn’t know that the behaviour of her mother and her circle was selfish and neglectful, as well as exciting and unpredictable. It’s a wonder Billi survived.

I have quibbles with the prose style, too. Mostly it’s well written – rather patrician and slightly dated (the novel was longlisted for the Booker the year it was published, when Bedford was 78). But there are defects, especially a feature that Orwell hated, and I found irritating: Bedford’s habit of using unnecessary and intrusive double negatives – there must be a dozen of them, like this one chosen at random: a friend of young Sybil is having an affair with a judge who is said to have ‘a not insubstantial private income.’ That would be a substantial one, then.

Another character spends a part – ‘a not unlively part’ – of his time at a particular artists’ haunt; maybe I’m just fastidious, but what’s wrong with calling it ‘a lively part’?

 

 

 

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend. Virago paperback, 2019. First published in the US 2018

This is a lovely novel.

I read it in a single day while recuperating from a medical procedure, so didn’t feel up to a demanding read. This is an easy read, but it’s not facile or trite: in fact it’s very profound, and very moving.

Sigrid Nunez The Friend coverThe unnamed narrator closely resembles the author: she’s a writer, university teacher of English and creative writing, and resident of New York City. When a former lover and lifelong friend unexpectedly commits suicide, she inherits his harlequin great Dane. Reluctantly, for she’s a cat person, and dogs aren’t allowed in her apartment building.

The central thread of the narrative is about the grief she and the gentle giant of a dog share for their lost friend. At first the dog is bereft and distant, barely tolerating her. Gradually they find themselves consoling and supporting each other – she’d say they fall in love.

That might not sound too compelling a summary, but believe me, there’s so much more in this novel. The narrator refracts her thoughts and experience through the lens of literature: Virginia Woolf and many other writers on writing, promiscuity (her late friend was a thrice-married womaniser, but charismatic and brilliant, so gets away with most of his dubious philandering), being a flâneur, and life itself. And all of those simultaneously.

Writing, for example, involves ‘self-doubt, shame, self-loathing’, and leads to embarrassment for the author. An epigraph quotes Natalia Ginzburg: ‘You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.’ This novel perhaps disproves that notion.

She often reflects on JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (on which I posted HERE). She adopts an intimate, conversational voice with the reader, aware early on that we’ll be worrying that ‘something bad happens to the dog’. Of course it does: Danes don’t live long. But she spares us the worst, and ends on an idyllic note, spending a happy time at a Long Island beach house with the elderly, ailing dog.

It’s an unusual form of autofiction. She often reflects, metafictionally, on the nature of her narrative, and of ‘fiction as autobiography, autobiography as fiction.’ And she’s not averse to poking fun at this kind of solipsism. A late chapter shifts dimensions and posits an alternative narrative, closer perhaps to ‘reality’, and upsets the living character on whom she’s based the dead friend and dog owner. He thinks she’s been presumptuous in purloining his story and disguising it slightly as fiction.

Maybe he had it coming.

‘It is curious,’ she suggests on this topic, ‘how the act of writing  leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.’

I like that demotic element in her style. She can talk like this while citing authors like Proust, Christa Wolf or Rilke. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace features quite largely. She’s skilful and intelligent enough to make it all cohere and entertain.

This literary allusion never became intrusive or ostentatious. She’s a literature professor, after all. Another American woman writer her fragmentary narrative approach reminds me of is Renata Adler – one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent years (my post on Speedboat is HERE.)

 

Authority: Maude Veilleux, ‘Prague’

Maude Veilleux, Prague. Translated from the French by Aleshia Jensen and Aimee Wall. QC Fiction, Montréal, 2019.

So far I’ve resisted reading the obvious candidates in the recently revived fashion for autofiction – the likes of Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner – and perhaps most egregiously Karl Ove Knausgård. When I first read this ARC of Montréal writer Maude Veilleux’s novel Prague I found myself deep in autofictional narrative, and felt uneasy.

It’s a genre that’s uncomfortable with third-person narrators, invented or ‘well rounded’, invented characters and, well, plots (by definition ‘untruthful’). I’m too old, I thought, for this kind of stuff. It’s for the social media generation.

Veilleux Prague coverAt one point our unnamed female narrator, who seems as far as I can tell a pretty close match (or alter ego) to what can be known about the real-life author, feeling depressed and in the throes of an existential crisis, writes that she ‘turned to Facebook to validate [her] existence’. Just as these shared online photos and words confirm her being ‘present in the world’, it’s a record of herself, so by making this novel similarly “authentic”, ‘I could also say: I have a book, I exist. It validated my pain.’ Elsewhere she says that writing alone could save her. Seems to me this is more than autofiction: more of a testament of fiction as personal Cartesian salvation.

The narrator self-consciously presents herself on stage, for performing at poetry readings for example, as

…vulnerable. I take care to look pretty. Perfectly groomed. Perfectly made up. Batting my eyelashes with timed grace…My fragility is my strength. But what they don’t know is that I’m a force of destruction, an enchantress. The prey and the predator.

When the boyfriend, Sébastien, sees pages of this novel in draft, and she’s afraid he’ll react badly:

He smiled, a little uncomfortable. He said: I sound like a jerk…like the boyfriend in that Nelly Arcan book, Hysteric. I hated that guy.

I smiled.

I told him I would be sad to lose him.

 

The novel opens with her and her soon-to-be lover joking about going to Prague largely because he likes Kundera. It ends with her visiting Kafka’s grave in that city, and a sort of manifesto emerges:

Maybe my interest in intimate stories lies in the encounter with the other. Without falsehood or façade.

She explains why she – this narrator – decided ‘to write autofiction in 2016, ten years after Nelly Arcan.’

I had to look her up. Sex, death and suicide; she killed herself in 2009 aged 36, as she predicted in her fiction (except there she said she wouldn’t make it to 31; Prague’s narrator is 31). These all feature prominently in Prague. The narrator admits to a ‘fascination with suicide’, even attempts it. There’s a lot of graphic sex; the narrator says she and her husband are bisexual; the affair with Sébastian is something of a departure for her. It all comes violently BDSM with him, to the point where the woman almost dies: ‘I wanted to believe he could kill me.’ He squeezes her neck harder: ‘I thought he must love me a little.’

Thanatos and Eros. The death drive and the sex instinct, destruction and creation. Maybe writing fiction is a kind of struggle with these drives, seems to be one message?

(Annie Ernaux, another exponent of a kind of confessional autofiction, is also quoted.)

When she worries that her life experience is being ruined because she writes it into her novel, and writing about it is destructive of life, the lines between reality and story are blurred. Like the enchanted (or cursed) Lady of Shalott the narrator can’t just observe the world; she has to participate, experience it, but to do so precludes artistic creativity and destroys her – life, for her, is destructive. But she enchants Lancelot with her ‘lovely face’.

So a novel about writing a novel is really a novel about living, as existentialists might say, authentically. Like all good novels? The story itself becomes the truth.

As I reread the novel I began to appreciate it more. Its choppy, curt sentences, the fragmented structure, non sequiturs and non-linear narrative, chronological shifts. It’s not an imitation of real life, after all, or stream of consciousness. It’s as much a construct, a fiction, as more conventional fiction. Hence all those literary allusions.

On p. 88 the narrator inserts this one line paragraph:

Lies are a device often used in fiction.

If all novels are lies (it’s the Cretan liar paradox) then so is autofiction. For all its apparent self-revelation, unveiling and demasking, its self-absorption, it’s still fiction. This is on p. 77:

The height of narcissism. To make a novel of yourself. To make yourself into a novel to give yourself a little meaning. Mostly, to be afraid of not existing.

I have no way of knowing if this is ‘true’ – but it’s as valid a form of fiction as Kafka’s tortured explorations of identity and reality, or Melville’s, Chaucer’s. In fact all fiction, as Philip Roth has kind of suggested, is a sort of autofiction – but it’s not autobiography.

No shaping, no representations. Creating characters didn’t really appeal to me anymore. What could I do with those invented lives?

Jonathan Gibbs at his blog Tiny Camels, wrote about autofiction last year here. He says (much more coherently than I’m doing in these ramblings) it’s possible to like this kind of fiction and the other, more conventional kind. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive – provided we don’t condemn the kind of narrative that adopts anything other than the ‘I am a camera’ kind of approach, subverting and disrupting the reader’s position. Who can tell how ‘invented’ the lives in any work of fiction can be? Look up the person’s biography and compare the fiction: they’re different, even if there’s a superficial resemblance in the detail. See how that phrase about batting the lashes ‘with timed grace’ works in a way that surely couldn’t in non-fiction.

This has turned out to be not so much a review as a musing. A muddle. Sorry about that. I’m still trying to figure out what I make of this exhilarating, baffling novel.

Kudos to Montréal publishers QC Fiction for continuing to turn out risky and unconventional translations of Canadian fiction.