by David Pryce-Jones
I rode in the limousine with David Pryce-Jones and other speakers going to the conference titled “Is It 1938 Again?” held at Queens College of The City University of New York. We were among the passengers only because of an old connection to the College President, who in this way kindly enhanced the conference experience for Jerry and me.
Pryce-Jones impressed me as a very interesting guy, exceptionally well-traveled, multi-lingual and thoughtful.
This book is put together on a basis new to me. It’s a succession of vignettes, or short portraits, of men and women writers whose only common trait is their having autographed Pryce-Jones’s copies of their books.
So Pryce-Jones has made the acquaintance of a great many glittering names and this book could be discounted as an outsized exercise in name-dropping. Except that each vignette is of someone who strikes a personal balance while standing on a hinge of history. That’s not common. I’ll pick out just two examples.
Svetlana Alliluyeva was Stalin’s daughter. Imagine being Stalin’s daughter! On the one hand, you love your Daddy. On the other hand, at least 20 million dead … ?
Svetlana Alliluyeva defected to the West and was the object of much curiosity. Some time after autographing her book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, she accepted an invitation from the Pryce-Joneses to visit them in Wales. He gives an account of her visit.
While not as paranoid as her father, she did not have a trusting nature. Though she angrily rejected initial inquiries about her father, in the end she couldn’t stop talking about him.
She was still incensed about the bungling way Stalin was cared for when he was dying. The old nurse assigned to spoon glucose into his mouth was blind. Accidentally, she broke the ampoule holding the glucose and so broken glass was added to the stuff she was putting in Stalin’s mouth.
She recalled that her father had very much trusted Hitler and was so shocked when Hitler invaded Russia, breaking the Hitler-Stalin Pact, that he shut himself away for three days.
“Throughout, she talked of him as small, insecure and nervous about his health; his ears hurt in an aeroplane and he didn’t like flying.”
What comes to mind, reading his daughter’s portrayal of Stalin? The figures who scar the human landscape, sending millions to their death, are human.
the next time you encounter a world-historical monster.
A quite different encounter, with Bernard Berenson, inspires another kind of portrait. Pryce-Jones was a schoolboy of seventeen at the time of their meeting.
“Until I was in Florence,” he writes, “I had never heard of Berenson, though he was then at the height of his fame. Every door was open to him. He had identified great artists, authenticated their works and been involved in the selling of masterpieces to the best collections, in the process of building his own fortune. His library was one of the finest in Europe, and according to rumor he had read all the books in it.”
There was a time when visits to Berenson would be preserved in photographic articles, in Look or Life Magazine. He would be shown seated at an elegant garden table on the terrace of his villa, overlooking the terraced Italian landscape, exemplifying the lost art of leisured, contemplative conversation.
“Small, neat and very tidily dressed, he had the sharply defined features of someone accustomed to command.”
Pryce-Jones was asked about his school projects by BB and said that he was thinking of writing an essay about the Dreyfus affair for the Eton College Literary Society.
Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jew and a captain in the French Army who, in 1894, was falsely accused of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Though eventually exonerated, and found to have been a victim of evidence fabricated for anti-semitic purposes, his case tore French Society apart.
Berenson was a Jew who had converted to Christianity. When he heard what the young Pryce-Jones was going to write about, his whole manner changed.
“BB turned red with anger. He raised his voice. Everyone else was silent. … ‘I lived through the affaire, and was in Paris off and on through most of it. Anti-Semitism was rampant. Paris was reeking and drenched and soaked with it, and most Academicians and other writers were anti … . High society was rabidly anti-Jewish. Never have I encountered such expressions of hatred, of loathing, as I used to hear against Jews from the mouths of Parisians.’ ”
I don’t know what lessons others might draw from this story, but for me the lesson is simple.
No matter what ideal heights you occupy,
no matter what terraced gardens lie beneath you –
in the battle of life,
never think you have risen