Our Man of Letters

Signatures consists of a series of short essays about writers. They are people whom David Pryce-Jones has interviewed or been friends with or known through a family connection, and whose own books he has asked them to sign. This is a neat and attractive idea, one that could only be thought of and brought off so successfully by that ever-dying phenomenon, the man of letters. Pryce-Jones might easily feature in it, were he not the author of Signatures.

Fifty years ago, John Gross, himself one of Pryce-Jones’s signatories, published The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. In the pages of this magazine Renee Winegarten described Gross as “a man of sound sense who recognizes that literature is supposed to be a pleasure, not a discipline nor a substitute religion.” The same might be said of Pryce-Jones. He has worked as a journalist and as an academic, written novels and biographies and works of scholarship. He is an expert on the Middle East. His family background includes both a homosexual father of ancestrally Welsh origin and a mother whose family featured Central European Jewish industrial magnates. Not only a man of letters, Pryce-Jones is also a man of the world. He has the charm that often comes with urbanity.

There is never a dull moment. Since the subjects are listed alphabetically, the reader is constantly racing back and forth, from age to age, and around the world. We may at one moment be in Zagreb and the next in Berkeley, in 2002, but are soon shuttled back to 1966. There are unlikely juxtapositions. Albert Speer follows Muriel Spark, David Jones is followed by Ernst Junger, after the author of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite appears the author of Love Story (the latter, Erich Segal, was both a Yale classicist and the co-screenwriter of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine).

Another charm is the abundance of good stories about famous people: Isaiah Berlin and Nicholas Nabokov turfed out of a Paris cinema for singing; the penniless student-author finding himself at lunch with Ignazio Silone and Gian Carlo Menotti; Martha Gellhorn purposefully wrecking Hemingway’s new model Lincoln; Robert Graves explaining to Queen Elizabeth that they are both descended from the Prophet Muhammad; Arthur Koestler consuming complimentary midair brews en route to Fischer vs. Spassky in Reykjavik.

The bias is perhaps slightly toward the British and European, but there are American luminaries, too: Paul Bowles, Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Pryce-Jones is more honored in the United States than in his homeland, where his robustness of opinion, especially with regard to the Middle East, is perhaps regarded as a little too much by a traditionally Arabist establishment and its liberal-left fellow travellers.

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