- - Sunday, January 24, 2016



By David Pryce-Jones

Criterion Books, $24, 364 pages, illustrated

It does not surprise me that the British author David Pryce-Jones titled his amazing memoir as he did. To him, his long life (he will turn 80 in February), has involved a series of attempts to bridge the contradictions in his heritage and in the eclectic consistently admirable distinctive career he has pursued as novelist, biographer and journalist. This Eton and Magdalen College Oxford educated Englishman, commissioned in the Coldstream Guards, with the accent and manner associated with all that, was born in Vienna to a Welsh father and Austrian-Jewish mother. His family and other connections alone are a kind of personal Almanach de Gotha.

His mother Therese (but always called Poppy) belonged to a distinguished Franco-Austrian banking dynasty (her father was ennobled as a Baron by Emperor Franz-Josef, her sister Cecile married to Baron Elie de Rothschild). The actress Helena Bonham Carter is his cousin (her grandmother was his mother’s sister) and Lady Berlin (wife of Sir Isaiah) was a bridesmaid at his parents’ wedding. And his father-in-law Sir Harold (later Baron) Caccia was ambassador to the United States in the crucial years following the rupture caused by the Suez debacle.

To the reader, the book resembles not so much a series of fissures but a delicious storehouse of anecdotes and insights, personal revelations and views of great issues. It is a treasure trove of gossip and a name dropper’s dream, but Mr. Pryce-Jones is above all a serious writer, as anyone who has read his other work will know. He is also a passionate one with one of the truest moral compasses you’ll find, qualities which are as apparent everywhere in this page-turner as in his groundbreaking biography of Unity Mitford, which was the first book to cut through her family lore and expose just how monstrous a figure she was. So all those tidbits, fascinating and enjoyable as they are, play an essential part in making up a mosaic which is a testament not only to a life exceptionally well-lived, but an important portrait of a turbulent time by a witness with impeccable values, wisdom and judgment.

Whether Mr. Pryce-Jones is recounting his experiences as a journalist covering the Six-Day War in 1967 or his escape aged 4 with his indispensable British nanny from Nazi-occupied France thanks to a Spanish diplomat married to his mother’s sister, he is never less than superbly evocative of time and place. The same goes for his school and university days and those two years in the Coldstream Guards (where his paternal grandfather — there are connections galore on both sides — had put him down for a commission at birth.) Serving in Germany was only one of a series of milieus that stoked a natural lifelong interest in anti-Semitism, a leitmotiv in this book as in so much else of his worthy oeuvre.

But there were experiences few if any of his fellow guards officers could have shared, like this meeting, when on leave, with Greta Garbo in his Rothschild aunt’s Paris drawing room:

“A soldier! Garbo exclaimed when I was introduced. And what do soldiers do? She insisted I show her how we drilled on the barrack square, so I found myself demonstrating stand-at-ease and about-turn, stamping my feet in front of Cecile’s well-known Goya and early Picasso.”

You might think it’d be impossible to top this, but this book and the life of its author are those rare birds which can:

“My next encounter with Garbo was at Royaumont [a Rothschild country estate] Garbo and I knocked up on the tennis court. The day was so hot that she took off her shirt and played topless, so flat chested that she looked more masculine than ever.”

Their next meeting, when Garbo and his aunt descended on him almost immediately after his arrival at Oxford, only for the famously shy star to bolt, rather than meet actress Peggy Ashcroft and the president of the college (to his considerable ire), might seem tame compared to what preceded it.

There is lots of emotion in these pages too, a bittersweet love for a mother who died bravely of cancer when her son was barely 16. (There is a photograph of them skiing in the Austrian Tirol only three weeks before her death, made more poignant by the extracts from her letters showing how ill she was and the huge effort she was making.) Mr. Pryce-Jones is wonderful at conveying the bewilderment of a teenage schoolboy cast into such a position. Driving him to the airport to go to his mother’s funeral in Paris, his housemaster “imposing in every way” kindly told the lad that “‘grief ought to expressed and there’s nothing wrong or unmanly about crying’.But back at Eton I was straightway caught up in a compulsory game of football In the middle of the game I stopped. I stood still, struck by the realization that I was being compelled to behave as if nothing in my life had changed.” His relationship with his surviving parent, which had countless twists and turns, more downs than ups in the nearly 50 years before his father’s death, was infinitely more complex and seemingly still not fully resolved. Only one of the painful fissures which loomed so large in the author’s life and are reflected in what must quite understandably have seemed to him the perfect title.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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