There is a genre of book that constitutes the happiest — rather than guiltiest — pleasure for book-lovers: books about books. Books that seem to tap into the echt, the origin-pleasure of reading. Books that exemplify why reading remains the supreme vehicle for the transmission not just of facts or of history, but of memory.
Take an author who possesses the skill for capturing this essence and combines it with the spirit of a gentleman, the taste of a connoisseur, the eye of a gossip, and the knowledge of a historian, and you get near to what I think might be the perfect genre of book. “Belles lettres” may once have almost done justice to it, but, thanks to the sniffily pejorative ring of the term, I’m not sure it now does. Still, however you describe it, there remains a type of book that some of us dive for on the table as soon as we see it.
Whatever name you give this genre, David Pryce-Jones’s Signatures is a masterpiece in it. The premise is brilliantly simple. The author, a familiar presence to NR readers, selects 90 books from his considerable library, each signed by its author. Each book, of the many collected over the course of a long life, is awarded its own brief chapter, allowing Pryce-Jones to open his treasure chest of a memory, recall the circumstances in which he met or came to know the book’s author, and reflect on the author’s world and the impact this extraordinary cast had on their century.
The work forms more of a complement than a coda to Pryce-Jones’s 2015 autobiography, Fault Lines. As in that work, the cast is international, polyglot: British, continental, transatlantic, Middle Eastern, and more.
The contents page alone presents a glimpse of the range and variety of the author’s life. There are figures from the world of literature, starting with people David met through his father, Alan Pryce-Jones (who had been the editor of the Times Literary Supplement), and progressing through many of his own contemporaries. So we have Cyril Connolly, Harold Acton, and W. H. Auden as well as John Fuller, Muriel Spark, and V. S. Naipaul. Not all his subjects are now remembered. Chapters such as that on Alasdair Clayre constitute moving tributes to friends now lost to a wider public. What unites almost all of them is that they are a reminder that there was almost no big subject of his day that Pryce-Jones did not apply his mind to.
The age of the dictators haunts the chapters on Svetlana Alliluyeva (daughter of Stalin), Arno Breker, and Albert Speer. The Cold War runs through the chapters on Oleg Gordievsky, Arthur Koestler, and Alexander Yakovlev. And of course the wars of the Middle East and their spillage run through the chapters on Mahmud Abu Shilbayah, Bernard Lewis, and Amos Elon. On each of these subjects Pryce-Jones has written books: Paris in the Third Reich (1981); The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (1995); and The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (1989). But Signatures allows Pryce-Jones to give us a backstage pass into these worlds he has written about. The view is not only suitably gossipy and anecdotal, but serious and occasionally devastating.
Speaking with Ernst Jünger in Paris several decades after the Nazis had vacated that city, Pryce-Jones posed a question about the First World War. How had Jünger been able to actually enjoy that war, as his classic memoir Storm of Steel makes it clear that he did? “Killing Frenchmen,” comes the reply. A verdict that seems in no way to blight Jünger’s enjoyment of post–Second World War Paris, or indeed of his Parisian girlfriend.
Sometimes Pryce-Jones uses his vantage point to make a summary of a subject. As a child in Paris, his mother had lived close to Aline de Gunzburg. The two became close friends, with the result that when Aline went on to marry Isaiah Berlin the couple became “as good as family to me.” But as well as surveying the brilliance and vanity of the man, Pryce-Jones is able to accurately summarize what Berlin was, and wasn’t. “Several times I heard him say that, all things considered, Stalin was worse than Hitler,” he records. And yet he never did what he could have done. “He might have been a Sovietologist as influential as Leonard Schapiro or Robert Conquest, but limited himself to anecdotes, for instance about his meeting in Leningrad with Anna Akhmatova or his trip out to Peredelkino to spend a day talking to Boris Pasternak about Doctor Zhivago.” Noting Berlin’s distaste for Hannah Arendt, he mentions the latter’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which Berlin thought “a bad book whose opening sentence contained two mistakes.” Nevertheless, it is Berlin who is judged here. “Had he used his gifts and his experience to write a comparable post-mortem of contemporary ideology, he might have exercised the kind of definitive moral and political influence in British national life that Raymond Aron enjoyed in France.”
Underneath each of these seams are a number of deeper themes. The question of how intelligent people can go so wildly wrong. The way ideas can destroy a person as well as a society. But also how better ideas, not least when held by brave and determined people, can win through.
The Mitford sisters feature in several chapters (inevitably, given Pryce-Jones’s biography of Unity). The bravery of Nancy and the vanity of Jessica shine through in their respective chapters. But it is the nauseating scent around Unity and Diana that most lingers: that reek so brilliantly summed up by Rebecca West, in her review of Pryce-Jones’s 1976 biography, as “the moral atmosphere . . . of a burnt-out fairground.” Wisps — and occasional gusts — from that world blow through here. They are there in the silly conciliatoriness to Oswald Mosley that A. J. P. Taylor was willing to express. And they howl through Raymond Carr’s account of how the ghoul Diana Mosley reacted to news of Julius Streicher’s execution.
Thankfully, alongside accounts like these and those of people who got the Soviets wrong, Pryce-Jones highlights an equal number of intellectual heroes who got things right. So here are Jean-François Revel and Elie Kedourie, but also the artists who managed to wrestle with the contents of their age and turn them into something greater. It seems amazing that anyone could still be living who could write firsthand about the monastic poverty in which the poet David Jones lived. But to do so alongside accounts of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Gregor von Rezzori?
All of which highlights the one downside of this book. The moment I received it I turned to the contents page and realized I was about to enter “eyes bigger than the stomach” territory. Seeing Kingsley Amis’s name just under that of Stalin’s daughter, I immediately hoped that Pryce-Jones had related his story of what happened at the dinner party when a lady guest seated next to Kingsley opened by saying she had just finished his new novel and didn’t think it was up to his previous work. Pryce-Jones does not disappoint.
The trouble is that the whole list appeals: all this difficult, cantankerous, brilliant cast from across the century. As a result, I devoured Signatures as a very greedy person might devour a box of chocolates. I tried not to do it all in one go, but restraint failed me. I envy readers opening the book for the first time. Fortunately, wolfing such a book down does not leave the aftereffect of a tray of chocolates. And though I wanted it to go on and on, after gorging I was left with exactly the sense a reader should have after finishing such a book. Not just the feeling of having been expertly nourished, but of having been gently reminded of just how much there is to know.
This article appears as “A Literary Feast” in the June 1, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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