SIGNATURES  – LITERARY ENCOUNTERS OF A LIFETIME

By David Pryce Jones

Encounter Books 2020

ISBN  (HB) 9781641770903

RRP: $43.50 (HB)

By Anne Henderson

It’s a plain looking hardback – dark red with gold lettering and no dust jacket. The kind of book you might dig out of your grandparents’ library a half a century and more ago. There are no photos, just copies here and there through the text of signed title pages – “To David”, and sometimes to Clarissa Pryce Jones as well, from some of the famous writers that make up this collection.

In an age of pictures – moving and otherwise – David Pryce-Jones’ Signatures is a memorial to a glorious gallery of wordsmiths, writers who captured the drama and nuance of their times, a good many of them as Pryce-Jones notes who were the survivors from the Age of the Dictators otherwise known as the twentieth century.

Most of these writers are well-known to Pryce-Jones, some as far back as from childhood, some are friends for life, others are of passing acquaintance. Signatures brings this gallery to life in reminisce – acts of raw courage in many, episodes of cant and humbug in others, their eccentricities, their demons, above all their collective legacy.

For David Pryce-Jones, growing up to be a writer and editor, with a writer father, also a literary editor for over a decade, life was one of books. Acknowledging that inheritance beginning with his father, he writes:

By the time I was born in Meidling in 1936, my father Alan Pryce-Jones had published five books … My generation in Europe had to deal with the fact that the whole continent had first gone Nazi and then almost gone Soviet Communist. … Alan became editor of the Times Literary Supplement and in one or two rooms of the house books piled up on the floor waiting to be read. Authors sent him their books for review, quite often writing something relevant and revealing on the title page. He introduced me to people I would never have met otherwise and by now these signed copies seem to me like tickets of admission to the select company attempting to make sense of this world.

Entering this literary establishment, and forging his own career from it over more than half a century, Pryce-Jones has now brought together Signatures  to make some sense of his own life. He writes: “I am looking at the story I tell myself about how I have come to be who I am.”

The authors are arranged alphabetically so the book is a smorgasbord to read. Early on comes Harold Acton, a friend of David’s parents who kept them distracted during air raids in the London blitz by singing Chinese songs he had learnt in his time in Peking in the 1930s.

One of the Bright Young Things, Evelyn Waugh’s Anthony Blanche of Brideshead Revisited’ is partly based on Acton. “Harold himself might have stepped straight out of a novel by Ronald Firbank His upper body swayed and teetered as if the balls of his feet were unbalancing him,” writes Pryce-Jones. From the age of 17, he began visiting Acton in his house in Florence, the visits “entertaining, wonderfully operatic … Every summer Princess Margaret invited herself to stay. … A demanding guest, she once said as she was leaving that Harold would now sing and dance for joy. ‘Oh no, ma’am,’ he answered, ‘much too tired.’”

These childhood acquaintances included art historian Bernard Berenson, a close friend of Mitzi, Pryce-Jones’ maternal grandmother and one of the Fould-Springer family. On one visit to BB (as he was called), he sat the young Pryce-Jones beside him at dinner and asked him about his entry to Eton and what he was writing for his literary group.

They chatted about the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906), which had affected the Fould family. Mitzi’s husband, Eugene Fould, had been cut by Parisian society as a result of the infamous and wrongful conviction of French Jew Captain Alfred Dreyfus for treason. All Jews had been stigmatised in a grotesque fashion by the press and society. BB knew it all. Writes Pryce-Jones, “He raised his voice. Everyone else was silent. A passage in his diaries Sunset and Twilight gives an impression of the passion in his voice. ‘I lived through the affaire … Anti-Semitism was rampant. Paris was reeking and drenched and soaked with it.’” BB was forced into exile for his safety.

Back at Eton, at the time not known for its tolerance of non-Anglos, when Pryce-Jones wrote up and read out what he had learned from such a valuable primary source, his group reacted in an uncomfortable silence and Pryce-Jones was told by the headmaster (a kindly man) “that it wasn’t done to write about one’s friends, and besides, if they were famous it was snobbish”.

The famous, would be famous and sections of upper middle and aristocratic literary achievers surrounded the young Pryce-Jones as he grew. This bubble of the upper and intellectual classes might easily have bred in him elitism and ignorance, something he suggests in his recollection of writer Alan Sillitoe. Pryce-Jones admits that Sillitoe, son of a Nottingham labourer, is one of the few novelists who have influenced him. He reflects on the shallow and privileged graduates from Oxford, channeling their feelings of guilt into denouncing such privilege while continuing to enjoy its benefits. In a confessional style assessment of Sillitoe’s achievement, he writes:

My early novel The Sands of Summer is indebted to early Sillitoe, except that he had lived what he wrote and I had to imagine everything. Put in its real light, he was a genuine protester, I was merely patronising.

As a child, Pryce-Jones recalls the aristocratic, ex-military writer Noel Annan coming to give him a goodnight kiss on the forehead. “Years were to pass,” he writes, “before I realised how fortunate I had been that he had done nothing more to me.” Of Annan, Pryce-Jones reflects that, after heaping praise on Cyril Connolly in private while he lived, Annan rubbished Connolly after his death in a long piece for the New York Review of Books as “a failure in life and literature”. Adds Pryce-Jones, “The toadying and back-to-back duplicity is all anyone needs to know about the man.” Of Cyril Connolly, he writes, “[He] took opinions from the left and dined on the right.”

Cyril Connolly, his amours, wives and despondency are captured amusingly in the Connolly chapter titled “Previous Convictions”. A lead reviewer for The Sunday Times for more than 20 years and editor of the highly regarded literary magazine The Horizon, Connolly was a contemporary of George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh.  Pryce-Jones quotes his much repeated putdown of himself, written in a friend’s visitors’ book, “At Eton with Orwell/ at Oxford with Waugh,/ He was nobody after/ and nothing before.”

The literary relationship between Waugh and Connolly ran hot and cold in stages while George Orwell intended to write about Waugh just before he died, with Connolly arranging for Waugh to make a visit to the hospital. Of the threesome, Pryce-Jones writes:

Only a few months separate the publication of Animal Farm, Brideshead Revisited and The Unquiet Grave. Orwell and Waugh both had their conception of the way the world should turn out; Cyril was lamenting the way he turned out.

Literary connections are just some of the threads that piece together Signatures. Over decades, as a writer and journalist, Pryce-Jones has produced articles on foreign affairs and political upheavals with an interest in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and intelligence matters.

A prolific author of both novels and non-fiction, his Paris In The Third Reich (1981), a biography of Unity Mitford (1976) and The Closed Circle (1989) on the lack of modernisation of the Arab world, along with The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire (1995) mark Pryce-Jones out as not only a conservative but also as a writer influenced by a revulsion at the major tyrannies of the twentieth century – anti-semitism, Nazisim and Communism. Writes Pryce-Jones, “Communism was to the twentieth century what sorcery was to the Middle Ages.… pure witchcraft.” Many of his authors are similarly focused.

Some of these are scholars who began on the left only to discover ugly secrets behind the Soviet curtain. Writers like Robert Conquest – whose two closest friends were Kingsley Amis and Robert Larkin. Pryce-Jones came to know Conquest in 1963 when he was foreign editor of The Spectator.  As a member of the Communist Party, Conquest spent 1944 in Bulgaria as a liaison officer to units fighting under Soviet orders but by the 1960s was studying Soviet demographic statistics “to measure as accurately as possible the drastic fall in population brought about by Stalin’s criminal policies”. His monumental The Great Terror came out in 1968.

Pryce-Jones records Conquest’s counter truth to British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s propaganda falsifying Soviet reality. Hobsbawm could see no wrong in the Soviet Union, agreeing in 1995 to an interviewer’s somewhat astonished rhetorical question that the loss of 15-20 million lives was justified in creating the Soviet “radiant tomorrow”. Pryce-Jones records ironically how Hobsbawm had at least ten honorary doctorates from well-known universities and was awarded the Companion of Honour by Prime Minister Tony Blair. Conquest held just two honorary doctorates and no British civic awards.

It is historian A J P Taylor who captures much of the naivety and denial among many of the intelligentsia when assessing totalitarian leaders, left or right. Pryce-Jones sums up Taylor as one who “all his life … remained the daftest sort of fellow traveller”. Of Stalin, Taylor opined: “In the end, Stalin was a rather endearing character.” Of Hitler, in Taylor’s book The Origins of The Second World War, Pryce-Jones writes:

[He] argued that Hitler was a politician like any other, taking his chances where he found them. Nazism, then, was a set of accidents, not a deliberate program of conquest and mass murder.

Pryce-Jones recalls how he once accepted an invitation to join Taylor at one of his regular dinners with the old fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. Pryce-Jones was writing his book on one-time friend of Hitler Unity Mitford, Mosley’s sister-in-law. The experience left Pryce-Jones speechless. “It takes a very clever man to be quite such an idiot,” writes Pryce-Jones of Taylor.

The 91 authors in Signatures make it a feast of personality and talent – along with Pryce-Jones’ sentiments and recollections. Rebecca West, he tells us, “idealised the Serbs of Yugoslavia as magnificently and misleadingly as T E Lawrence did with the Sherifian Arabs.” Alan Bennett, he concludes, was a “master presenter of social grudge as art”. Kingsley Amis was “opinionated and vain”; Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, was a “dumpy, grumpy, feisty old thing”.

George Weidenfeld who “disturbed the stagnant pond of literary London by publishing Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy and Vladimar Nabokov” became a good friend as well as his publisher. Educated in Vienna, Pryce-Jones recalls how Clarissa would speak to Weidenfeld in German with an Austrian vocabulary and accent: “George could never have enough of this unexpected return to the past. Among those whose delivery he mimicked were Adolf Hitler and Friedrich Herr, an eminent professor who comically made learned historical points in the same pidgin German.”

Pryce-Jones remembers the poet W H Auden from a 1966 visit to him in Kirchstetten, Austria where he was living with his partner Chester Kallman. “Arthur Koestler, me no like-ee,” he told Pryce-Jones. When asked why, Auden responded, “Underdog!” Writes Pryce-Jones, “His was a face like nobody else’s, wrinkled and deeply furrowed all over like some animal’s hide.” After plying him with martinis, Kallman put Auden to bed around 7.30pm sucking on a flask of Chianti “like a baby with a bottle”.

Assessing the work of Saul Bellow, Pryce-Jones opines that Bellow had never done justice to his experience of being Jewish for fear of what critics might say. Meeting Paul Bowles in Tangier in 1968, there is a sense that Bowles has become like his characters with a lost sense of who he was. J B Priestly is described as a socialist with a gentleman’s lifestyle while quoting him saying: “The Soviet Union shows a wisdom in dealing with its own peoples.” Muriel Spark is seen as a conservative as well as a revolutionary with her Scottish and Jewish inheritance. The blackmail, betrayal and violence in her novels, to her, was merely the way of the world.

Then there is Elie Kedourie, working at the London School of Economics and holding soirees at his house in Hampstead. His dark background as an Iraqi Jew who, at age 15 in 1941, witnessed the murder and destruction of property of hundreds of Jews in Baghdad while British troops stood by was something he refused to speak of. Later, however, his England and The Middle East became required reading. In similar style, Arthur Koestler passed himself off as an English gentleman in his mansion in London’s Kensington after experiencing prison and detention camps and exposing the Soviet show trials in Darkness at Noon.

While researching his book on Unity Mitford, Pryce-Jones visited Albert Speer, his house having “the feel of a sepulchre, the windows apparently designed to keep the daylight out”. He writes:

In common with all Hitler’s cronies, his adjuncts and his staff, he was so impressed by the British peerage that he could not find the way through its class distinctions, referring to Lady Unity and sometimes Lady Mitford. As we went over details in her diaries, he became a different person.

Signatures is a feast for the literary reader. Great works, human endeavour and weakness alongside impressions left by Pryce-Jones’ meetings and contact with the acclaimed. Eccentricities abound; there is dissipation with some, heroic courage with others. Olivia Manning, her six novels on Guy and Harriet Pringle recreated in film for television, could be upset by trifles: “At one dinner at our house, Clarissa accidentally spilled some water in Olivia’s lap, and she got up at once and left without a word.”

Pryce-Jones recalls how Eric Segal, author of Love Story was regarded by academics as not really a scholar since he was a best selling author. V S Naipaul believed in British culture opining that, “the British had created a society that is open and available to everyone.” Then there is Iraqi Kanan Makiya informing the world about the genocide (Anfal) perpetuated by Saddam Hussein on Iraqi Shi’ites and Kurds: “He familiarised Anfal the way that Solzhenitsyn had familiarised the gulag.”

Signatures is not only a reader’s treat, it is also an astute peek into a century and more of human triumph and tragedy, not to mention some lively peccadillos, to be found in the works and the lives of twentieth century writers.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.