Magazine November 2, 2015, Issue

The Lost Continent

Fault Lines, by David Pryce-Jones (Criterion, 368 pp., $25)

David Pryce-Jones is well known to readers of National Review for his pungent writings, but I suspect that few are fully aware of the complex and cosmopolitan background of this distinguished English man of letters. He was born in Vienna in 1936; his maternal ancestor was a Jewish banker, his paternal one a Welsh mail-order magnate. As a refugee from the Nazis, he had lived through more adventures by the age of six than most of us have in a lifetime. And he has continued to throw himself into the thick of global events ever since. All this he recounts in Fault Lines, which must surely rank among the liveliest, wittiest, and most colorful World War II memoirs ever written.

It may also be among the last. Now 79, Pryce-Jones belongs to a generation that was just old enough to be aware of the world-historical catastrophe unfolding around it. Nobody younger will have any firsthand knowledge of the earthquake that reshaped our world. The book’s title ingeniously evokes both the tectonic shifts that provide the background to the narrative and the author’s lifelong need to take principled positions on political issues.

All the characters in Fault Lines are known by their first names, and usually by nicknames or diminutives. “Poppy” is David’s mother (really Thérèse), “Mitzi” is her mother, the baronin, “Jessie” his nanny, and so on. What is depicted here is much more than an extended family: It is a cross-section of Europe’s pre-war aristocracy, both landed and intellectual; the financial elite, das Finanzkapital; and the haute bourgeoisie, das Grossbürgertum, the leisured class. Pryce-Jones sums up very well their unique combination of sophisticated entitlement and precarious vulnerability: “Not quite Jewish and not quite Christian, not quite Austrian and not quite French or English, not quite heterosexual and not quite homosexual, socially conventional but not quite secure, here were people not quite sure what their inheritance required of them.”

Much of the story he has to tell revolves around houses: the grand ones where his mother’s family, the Fould-Springers, had their establishments (chief among them Royaumont, a Cistercian abbot’s château near Paris; Meidling, a huge estate in Vienna adjoining the imperial palace of Schönbrunn; and Montreuil, the “dream house” near Le Touquet that ultimately became the Museum of Hope, on a whim of the baronin), but also more-modest villas and lodgings, where David and his nanny found refuge on their flight across the Continent. Pryce-Jones is good at evoking these contrasting ambiences; indeed, he seems to have an enviable, almost photographic recall of everything that happened in his childhood. Without this firsthand recollection of events with Proustian precision, his book would be a chronicle of faraway places of which most people now know nothing.

The memoir is based not only on personal knowledge — his own and that of his surviving cousins — but also on a large family archive, which has preserved copious quantities of letters, diaries, and other documents. The result is a kind of miracle of reconstruction as, before our eyes, the “world of yesterday” (as Stefan Zweig called it) rises again. With the painstaking technique of a novelist, Pryce-Jones assembles a mosaic of countless details that together build up an unforgettable portrait of a society unaware that it was in the final stages of disintegration.

Only in England, where David finally arrived in September 1941 after a two-year separation from his parents, did the owners of stately homes preserve vestiges of their pre-war idyll for a few more years. If the world of Downton Abbey simply faded away, that of Meidling, Royaumont, and their Jewish inhabitants was suddenly and brutally destroyed. Even the works of art carefully collected over generations and confiscated by the Gestapo vanished without trace: Only one of the pictures ever resurfaced — in Vienna’s famous public gallery, the Belvedere. Pryce-Jones tells us that when, after fighting his claim for decades, the curators were forced by the courts to return the painting, they added insult to injury by trying to persuade him that he had a moral obligation to let them keep it on loan.

David adored his dreamy mother, Poppy, who spoke and wrote in a delightful fusion of English, French, and German: “C’était très gemütlich.” She also adored the child she had so nearly lost to the Nazis: “David is very intelligent,” she wrote soon after his return. The book begins dramatically with the story of her death, soon after the 16-year-old boy had spent an Alpine vacation with her, blissfully unaware that her always delicate health had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. A photograph of her with David shows them smiling in the snow, the petite Poppy looking more like his elder sister than his mother. Three weeks later she had succumbed to cancer.

A maternal substitute who emerges with great credit from this story is Jessie, the faithful nanny who brought David home in 1940–41 from Vichy France via Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Tangier in Morocco, and the U-boat-infested Atlantic. A little old lady in an old-fashioned cloche, she wrote letters to Poppy that reveal an indomitable spirit, and she was evidently immensely resourceful in protecting her charge. They were helped by David’s uncle Eduardo, the Spanish consul in Bordeaux, who defied his own fascist government to issue thousands of visas to Jews and other refugees. He was later commemorated as a righteous gentile at Yad Vashem.

The most elusive of the dramatis personae is also the one most familiar to American readers: Alan Pryce-Jones, the author’s father and sometime editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Fault Lines passes over Alan’s own autobiography, The Bonus of Laughter, in silence, but the present volume is both a corrective and a reckoning. It is clear that David had a complex relationship with his father, not helped by the latter’s bisexuality, concealed all his life and even in his obituaries when he died 15 years ago, and their literary rivalry, which ended only when the Ford Foundation facilitated Alan’s emigration to the U.S. He settled in Rhode Island and spent the last four decades of his life there.

Pryce-Jones Senior seems to have been quite a chameleon: from youthful poseur, cruising around 1930s Paris in a milieu where makeup, drugs, and rent boys were de rigueur, to Bletchley Park codebreaker in wartime, to literary man-about-town in grim and grimy post-Blitz London, pursued by a duchess (“Midnight Mollie” Buccleuch) while secretly consorting with American sailors and rent boys.

David’s discovery of his father’s other life put an end to early hero worship. The poet John Betjeman, who knew Alan as well as anybody, compared him to an onion: “You peel off the skin and there’s always another skin. Those who don’t love him think that after the last skin there’ll be nothing. We who love him know there is something but what it is we shall never find out.” David did find out, however, that his father had paid a psychiatrist to write a report about him: “In this view I didn’t love Alan, and the reason was very simple: He wasn’t rich enough.” Another old friend, Noel Annan, told David: “You do realize, don’t you, that your father is madly jealous of you?” One of the many Rothschilds who surface here indiscreetly repeated to the author his father’s poignant question: “What have I done to David that he dislikes me so much?”

An English boy with a Jewish mother, David might not have survived if the Nazis had nabbed him; yet it never occurred to him that he might count as Jewish himself. Years later, when he went to school at Eton, he found a note on his desk: “Your mother is a dirty Jewess.” David recognized the handwriting as belonging to the son of a banker and complained to his housemaster, Oliver Van Oss (known as OVO), who had the sense to take both boys aside and tell them that there were now three people of Jewish origin in the room. The same teacher took David’s side when the school librarian reported him for requesting “filth.” He had asked for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which his father had just reviewed for the TLS. “That evening, OVO came to find me in my room to say, ‘You must forgive Mr. Cattley, he is a very simple soul.’”

Despite the angst that was the price he paid for growing up in such a world, the young David seems to have had unlimited confidence and a joie de vivre that enabled him to slay a few Goliaths and to woo the woman of his dreams. This was Clarissa Caccia, daughter of an Anglo-Italian diplomat. She, like David, had diced with death during the war (her ship was dive-bombed by the Germans off Greece), she had grown up in post-war Vienna, and David had known her brother at Eton. Clarissa proved to be the perfect wife for him and — despite losing a beloved daughter, Sonia, in infancy — they have been happily married ever since. The final chapters of this memoir chart their early years together and the vicissitudes that accompanied them. It ends with the death of the matriarch Mitzi, also known as Granny Wooster. She had been married to a man called Frank Wooster, a homosexual with whom she had lived more or less happily in a ménage à trois with his lover Paul Goldschmidt. The name “Wooster” is no coincidence: Frank played golf with P. G. Wodehouse.

An equally important theme, though, is the coming of age of David Pryce-Jones. This is only hinted at, but it is clear that he soon threw off the shackles of conventional liberalism on such matters as the Cold War and Israel. In the end, he was disillusioned by the experience of being cheated out of his inheritance by his uncle Elie de Rothschild. But that disappointment is far outweighed by the knowledge that he has lived the intellectual life at which his father was too feckless to persevere, that he and Clarissa plowed their own furrow, and that he has never tolerated the intolerable. Not a bad reckoning, all told. Bring on the sequel, Mr. Pryce-Jones.

– Mr. Johnson is the editor of Standpoint, a London-based political and cultural monthly magazine. This article has been amended since first posting.

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