David Pryce-Jones’s Forgotten 20th Century
His book recalls some of the lesser-known and odd figures who shaped, and were shaped by, our great ideological conflicts.
Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime, by David Pryce-Jones, Encounter Books, 2020, 272 pages
The essayist and novelist David Pryce-Jones was born in Meidling, a district of Austria, in the ominous year of 1936 to the British author and later editor of the Times Literary Supplement Alan Pryce-Jones and Therese “Poppy” Fould-Springer. The marriage gave the Pryce-Jones connections to some of the great families of Europe, among them the Rothschilds. In all, not a good year to be born in Vienna, especially with those connections.
Pryce-Jones has explored this early years in a previous book, Fault Lines, which Charles Moore called “a brilliant description of illusion, neurosis, high culture, sexual ambivalence, the destructive power of money…and the effect of persecution and war.” Now, we have Signatures, which includes sketches of some of the same figures featured in Fault Lines, but focuses primarily on authors who have signed books for him. Some are obscure, some well-known, but nearly all were witnesses to or affected by the brutalities and savageries of the last century that led to the collapse of the world as they’d come to know it.
In some ways, Pryce-Jones writes, such a collection is little more than an autograph album. But there’s more to it than that. The stories these writers tell and the lives they lived are, in some degree, his story, and the simple act of inscription is a reminder of this.
At his birth in Meidling on the eve of total war, he writes (no doubt as his father Alan Pryce-Jones remembered it): “Some who stood around my cradle said, David, that’s a lovely Welsh name, and others said, David, that’s a lovely Jewish name.” And what’s in a name? Essentially, given the nature of the storm about to break, the stuff of tragedy.
In Europe, his generation “had to deal with the fact that the whole continent had first almost gone Nazi and then almost gone Soviet Communist. By 1940, the Gestapo had expropriated Meidling, and Austria was occupied enemy territory. Nothing was ever again going to be what it had been.” He continues: “A good many of the authors who signed a book of theirs for me are survivors from the Age of Dictators and I wanted to know what they’d been through and how they’d survived.”
The vignettes in Signatures—some a short page, some several—are arranged alphabetically rather than thematically, although many of them come at the same themes from different directions. Some sketches focus on the signed works themselves, some on the circumstances under which they were produced, and all with spare but telling comments with occasional flashes of wit.
He describes a visit to Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose A Friend of Kafka, a collection of short stories, had just been published. “Unusually in a contemporary writer, Singer let the doings and sayings of his characters speak for themselves rather than be a medium for the author’s voice.” This prompts him to remember that when he taught creative writing for a year at the University of Iowa, he used some of the sketches in Singer’s memoir of a Polish Jewish childhood—In My Father’s Court—“to get it across that plain statement makes any and every character and context believable, even the most unfamiliar.”
He observes this principle in his own writing, and that largely accounts for the sketches of even the oddest subjects ringing true. One of the oddest was the sculptor Arno Breker, whose life and times “are a warning that bad art has the power to do great damage.” Born in northern Germany, he had a studio in Paris and called himself the successor to Rodin. He returned to Germany in 1934, quickly establishing himself as “Hitler’s favorite sculptor,” and playing a leading role in cleansing the Third Reich of “degenerate art,” along with the artists who produced it.
Thirty years after he had accompanied Hitler to Paris, “he saw it as the greatest compliment to his artistic gift as a sculptor. That same day, Hitler invited him to dine and awarded him the Nazi Party’s Golden Badge, its highest decoration.” In his studio in Germany,“busts and statues were assembled in some disorder. Hideous as ever, Nazi kitsch was on a support system in that studio.”
While doing research for his book on Unity Mitford, Pryce Jones visited Albert Speer, “Hitler’s favorite architect,” who cheated the hangman at Nuremberg and lived to write Inside the Third Reich. Unity, who worshipped Hitler, was perhaps the most unhinged of the Mitford sisters—one a dedicated Communist, another the wife of Oswald Mosely, founder of the British Union of Fascists.
It may have been Unity’s hope to become Mrs. Adolph Hitler, and the interview with the otherwise evasive Speer seems to suggest, as does much of the material collected for the book, that Hitler himself may not have been averse to the idea of a romance with a blonde English aristocrat, whom in several intimate notes he called Valkyrie. But when England went to war with Germany, she shot herself in the head.
Dame Rebecca West, author of The Meaning of Treason, a “marvelous portrayal of William Joyce, otherwise Lord Haw-Haw, hanged for broadcasting throughout the war from Berlin,” met Pryce-Jones in Austria at his parents’ home when he was a few days old. In her review of his Unity Mitford book, the concluding sentence—“The moral atmosphere in which these events took place is that of a burnt-out fairground”—Pryce-Jones writes, “illustrates the genial way she made her language rise to her subject.” For West, he continues, “Communism and Nazism were twin evils and she entered into close combat with apologists for either dogma.”
Nor were their philosophical progeny any less evil. She described a trip to the Middle East. In Jerusalem, then-Mayor Teddy Kollek gave a reception for her. “Next stop, Beirut. The telephone rang in her hotel room and a voice said, you have been fraternizing with the Zionist enemy and I am from the PLO with orders to shoot you.” Her response, he writes, was essentially that she’d lived a full and rewarding life, only old age lay ahead, so make sure his gun was loaded, and she’d leave the door unlocked. She heard no more from the PLO.
In all, a sampler of the ninety-one sketches included in Signatures, some of the subjects secure in their fame (like Muriel Spark), others much less so, but in large part linked by the Fascist-Communist experience, with its necessarily sad and often tragic endings, as when Arthur Koestler (The God That Failed) and his wife Cynthia ended their lives in a suicide pact.
Not all the sketches here end in tragedy. Nor would all the subjects seem to merit inclusion. But for the most part, their stories give us glimpses into a lost and nearly forgotten world. And as Pryce-Jones puts in his Afterword, “the personalities presented in Signatures at least deserve to be remembered by generations yet unborn”
This article has been amended to reflect that it was Diana Mitford and Oswald Mosely who were married at the home of Joseph Goebbels.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement.