The Brahmin’s Bookshelf

Signatures by David Pryce-Jones ~

David Pryce-Jones describes a summer trip with his father Alan, then editor of the Times Literary Supplement, to visit Max Beerbohm, W. Somerset Maugham, and other literary worthies living in expatriate splendor in the south of France. Back at Eton, the essay he wrote about his experience earned him the displeasure of his instructor. “It wasn’t done,” he was told, “to write about one’s friends, and besides, if they were famous it was snobbish.”

And it is a bit snobbish. But at 84 years old David Pryce-Jones doesn’t care about that now, which is a happy thing for the rest of us because his Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime elevates name-dropping to something like a public service. It’s an education on the order of Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and, like John Aubrey’s Brief Lives (to stretch for a comparison), it captures in its portraiture and gossipy interludes the spirit of an age – in this case, a 20th century that feels already irrecoverably forgotten.

Pryce-Jones knew everyone. Open the Contents page of Signatures and admire the list of friends and acquaintances: Kingsley Amis, W.H. Auden, Saul Bellow, Isaiah Berlin, Paul Bowles, Cyril Connolly, Robert Conquest, Lawrence Durrell, Martha Gellhorn, Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley, Ernst Junger, Alfred Kazin, Arthur Koestler, Rose Macaulay, two of the Mitford sisters (Jessica and Nancy), V.S. Naipaul, Iris Origo, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Muriel Spark, Wilfrid Thesiger, Rebecca West – and plenty more besides.

Of Paul Bowles (the American writer who marinated himself in vice for decades in Tangier and whose short stories I enjoyed in my twenties) Pryce-Jones writes, “He seemed not to realize the lengths to which he had gone in order to prevent himself from becoming the great writer he might have been.” Of Cyril Connolly: “Orwell and Waugh both had their conception of the way the world should turn out; Cyril was lamenting the way he had turned out.” Of Muriel Spark: “[Her] wit and independent mind set were conservative as well as revolutionary, that strange combination that surfaces when things go wrong.”

Pryce-Jones tells an amusing story about Arthur Koestler, the former Communist Party insider who fled to the West and wrote Darkness at Noon, a novel that might single-handedly have discredited the Soviet illusion even if nothing else were on offer. “I could never quite make out why this quintessential central European intellectual tried to pass himself off as an English gentleman,” he writes. The too-perfect suit of clothes and Hungarian accent always gave Koestler away. Once, at the Scrabble board, “Arthur put down ‘vince.’ Surprised that Cynthia [his English wife] should question this, he explained to her that it meant flinching slightly with pain.”

Of Robert Conquest, the great historian of the Soviet Union who might have had more honorary acronyms appended to his name than any scholar before or since (OBE, CMG, FBA, FRSL) and who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this side of the Atlantic, Pryce-Jones tell us that “[he] felt the limerick was a literary form with unexplored potential, especially suited for taking pretentious persons down a peg or two.” Then he quotes the following example:

There was an old Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

There’s a healthy serving of politics in Pryce-Jones’s book but the conservatism of Signatures is one of philosophy rather than party. He learned the lessons of the Cold War, lessons today’s young would-be Jacobins seem never to have been properly taught. In Pryce-Jones’s judgment, “Communism was to the twentieth century what sorcery had been to the Middle Ages.” That is, a false science, a dream that warped the minds of many who ought to have known better. He defines the “credo of the genuine conservative” as the unfortunately too reasonable conviction “that the veneer of civilization is frighteningly thin, hard to create but easy to destroy.”


~ Montaigne by Stefan Zweig ~

In the Essays Montaigne sought, as he says on more than one occasion, to present nothing more or less than himself. He is the book; the book is Montaigne. And yet the Essays is a sort of mirror in which every reader finds his own image reflected. Perhaps it says something about the essential likeness of people that such varied readers can find in a book written by a leisured aristocrat in a stone tower 500 years ago a record of their own private self.

Stefan Zweig’s biography illustrates the point. Zweig was a Romantic (if you ask me), and so is his Montaigne. I never would have thought to compare Montaigne to Goethe but Zweig does it again and again. I recognize elements of the Montaigne I know in the portrait Zweig paints, but the features are curiously altered. I felt the same way reading Sarah Bakewell’s biography ten years ago. But things get awkward when Zweig praises the sage of Périgord in such hagiographical fashion. Whom does he praise, really? Montaigne as he was? Montaigne as he imagines him? Or does Zweig obliquely praise himself?

Will the real Michel de Montaigne please stand up?

But there’s a pathos to Zweig’s book. He wrote it in 1941 while living in exile near Rio de Janeiro, sunk in depression and horror at the barbarism of the war in Europe. It was here, late in life, that he read Montaigne for the first time. And it may have been the essay “A Custom of the Isle of Cea” that inspired his final act. In it Montaigne writes:

“[D]eath is not the remedy for just one malady, but the remedy for all ills. It is a very sure haven, which is never to be feared, and often to be sought… The most voluntary death is the fairest.”

It was not the path that Montaigne himself would take; he was slowly tortured to death by complications from kidney stones and on his deathbed received the last rites of the Church. Death was “voluntary” for him only in as much as he accepted it with gratitude for all his life had been. But not long after returning the volumes of Montaigne which he’d borrowed from a friend, Zweig and his wife Lotte took an overdose of barbiturates and committed suicide in their bed, holding hands.

Among the Iconoclasts

As a Catholic by conviction and a conservative by temperament I feel like a relict these days, like I belong to another century. When I was a young man I wanted nothing more than to feel at home in the world, to participate in its life and concerns. Now I want nothing to do with it. The best course, I imagine, is to keep your nose down, live privately, avoid civic engagement as far as possible, and evade as long as you honorably can the day when principle and faith demand you declare yourself.

It’s a stale observation now to say there’s something religious in the rampant “wokeness” (for lack of a better term) that’s turning the western world upside down. The slow retreat of Christianity gives place not to the satisfied humanism envisioned by nineteenth- and twentieth-century secularists but to new myths of original sin, new rites of public worship, new ethics, and new visions of salvation. Most men cannot do without a religion of some sort; the vacuum of longing must be filled. Blind with convert zeal, the woke iconoclasts run riot and topple the monuments of the past. An imperfect history, they seem to say, is unworthy of us.

I do wonder how much of the civil unrest we’re witnessing is driven by sincere (if misdirected) indignation and how much by three months of pandemic lockdown. You can only hold back the tide of social intercourse so long, after all. But there are sharks in the water: race and politics, disease and economics, sexual identity and so-called social justice. Whether or not the outrage is justified on any given point hardly matters anymore. It’s like arguing over Fort Sumter on the morning of Gettysburg. Fury, like money, is for spending; the only question is what’s left when it’s gone.

You can see that the battle is already lost in the rising generation of ideologues: kids chanting slogans and marching lockstep round the elementary school; college sophomores spitting on a cultural inheritance they don’t understand; younger members of the newspaper editorial staff booting old-school liberals out the door for the impertinence of still believing, a little, in free speech and open debate. Rather than being educated into a sense of common purpose and shared endeavor, the young today are indoctrinated into faction and grievance.

There’s sparse refuge in the American church (Catholic or otherwise). Now the Evangelicals are falling for the sleight of hand. They increasingly discard the foundational metaphysics of the faith while imagining they can still cling to its unsupported ethics – and so they end, like the mainline Protestant denominations, by trimming their creed to their politics. They make concessions to secular culture hoping to win souls, perhaps: If we grant A and B, they say (and for reasons that have a sheen of Christianity), we can make the church attractive to those attacking her. But that’s not how it works. You cannot Christianize the culture by secularizing the church.

According to my wife’s diagnosis of our predicament, the trouble is that we’ve given up the idea of an objective reality which competing subjective accounts might submit to for judgment. All appeals to facts, to the thus-ness of things, are discounted. A man feels himself a woman, and so he is. A man feels himself oppressed, and so he is. Certain delusions must be humored, certain facts ignored. But on the contrary, truth does not belong to any of us. There is no “my truth” or “your truth,” only the truth. Our task is to search it out rather than dictate it. St Basil described it like a wild beast of the woods, “a quarry hard to hunt.” Truth is that which, once found, we must conform ourselves to; it is no one’s lapdog.

Bad Dog

~ Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland ~

The best bit of trivia I picked up from this book: When the ancient Gauls sacked Rome in 390BC, the Roman guard dogs that might have warned the populace were silent; only the geese residing at Juno’s temple sounded the alarm. For centuries thereafter, the ritual supplicia canum (punishment of the dogs) was enacted each year. Guard dogs were crucified and paraded through the streets while temple geese were set on pillows and draped in purple to enjoy the spectacle.

Though his most recent book, Dominion, received some notable reviews this side of the Atlantic, few Americans are familiar with Tom Holland, who has sidelined as a TV documentarian in the UK. Rubicon (2003) was his first volume of popular classical history, charting the slow collapse of the Roman Republic from the civil war of Sulla to the ascendancy of Octavian.

Holland helped me fill in some gaps in my knowledge and I’ll feel more prepared next time I reach for my Plutarch. Unfortunately, Rubicon is a smidge too scattershot to be really satisfying. It presents an adequate and well written survey of the period, but I think it might have been improved with more compelling portraiture of the key figures. Working with a comparably large cast of characters, James Romm (our American version of Tom Holland) did a better job in his Ghost on the Throne.

Poor dogs.

Life as a Scofflaw

It all started when, age five or so, I joined a neighborhood friend tossing clods of dirt into the street for cars to run over. It seemed like a good idea until an elderly woman stepped out of her house to scold us. Couldn’t she see it was fun? But I liked grandmother types and didn’t want them thinking poorly of me. I felt awful about the whole thing.

Forty-odd years later, here I am breaking the rules like a seasoned pro. If I wear a mask at the grocery store now it’s only because I hate to offend the grandmas, but I refuse to wear one outdoors. The other day I walked the dog after curfew (imposed for the riots) because, well, the dog needed it, and I delight in antisocial behavior.

Worse, the fam and I recently drove to the mountains and hiked a verboten trail. The trailhead parking lot was blocked but we left the car beside the highway and clambered over the barricades like dizzy-headed revolutionaries from Les Miserables. Sure, bloodthirsty coronavirus animalcules were no doubt lurking in the woods, but thug life is the only life for us.

Percy Fawcettesque

Heraclitus said you can’t step into the same river twice but I find I can’t even walk down the same street a second time. I’ve lived in this neighborhood five years now and imagined I knew it like the proverbial back of my hand (which, joy, has a couple age spots and begins to look unfamiliar). This spring has taught me otherwise. The houses, all built circa 1890-1930, are little changed; it’s the sun-drunk trees and manic front gardens that alter the prospect: in every direction new shapes, colors, textures. Walking down the same old streets I’m suddenly disoriented, like a vintage explorer lost in boiling jungles of alien flora.

A Chill in the Air

A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver ~

Sometimes I lie in bed and think about the recent ice age. I imagine what it might have been like right here, fifteen thousand years ago, on the spot where my house stands in northwest Oregon. It was a tundra landscape then, or taiga. The southern terminus of the North American ice cap was just 80 miles northward and the mountains to the east were locked in glaciers. In the lowlands were mastodons and mammoths, dire wolves and saber-toothed cats, herds of bison and elk. The valleys flooded periodically. My house might have looked out on a vast frozen lake in wintertime, or it might have been encased within that ice rink.

My little bungalow was built in 1929 on a lot fifty feet wide and one hundred deep. It was almost certainly the first human habitation ever to occupy this space. Ninety-one years is old for a house but no time at all in geology, so it’s unlikely this patch of land returns my feeling of fond attachment. It never imagined that anyone like me would ever plant himself here. Fifteen thousand years ago there were no humans in Oregon or, arguably, in all of North America. As the ice retreated, tribes of people came over the Bering land bridge, wandered south, and eventually settled along the river not far from here, but those were not my people.

My people were six thousand miles away chasing megafauna around what was then the peninsula of Britain – peopling it anew after the ice had pushed their ancestors south long before. They would go on to do strange things, my tribe: raise circles of standing stones, learn to farm and cast bronze, sail the world, establish empires, and ship out their extra children, felons and social misfits in a diaspora to the far-flung corners of the world – to places like northwest Oregon, gray and rainy like the old ancestral island.

I’m not entirely sure how it happened but my ice age musings led me to read Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain, which covers a period from roughly half a million years ago to the Roman conquest. Oliver’s book is essentially an archaeological survey knit together by educated guesswork. It’s the companion piece to his 2011 television series for BBC Two, which I haven’t seen. Some bits are out of date (e.g. DNA analyses now prove that Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans interbred, an idea Oliver was inclined to doubt), but I especially enjoyed the two thirds of the book covering the period before the Iron Age, when human beings got uppity and troublesome.

People worry a lot these days about global warming, if they’re not too busy worrying about pandemic viruses. When I was a kid in the 1970s, people worried instead that another ice age was just around the corner. I don’t care much about the debate or the science behind it all, but on the whole I prefer winter to summer. The thought of one big endless August of heat waves, wildfires, and withering sun I find miserably demoralizing. By contrast a new ice age – though it might wreak just as much havoc – sounds bracing, exciting, and full of adventure! Given the chance to pick my own dystopian climate future, I’ll take the ice every time.

Springeth Eternal

Springeth EternalPortland, Oregon – April 2020

The first warm and sunny days of spring each year the neighborhood comes alive. Trees and flowerbeds explode with color while people who’ve been hibernating for six gray, wet months step pale and blinking into the sunlight to rediscover their neighbors. There’s work to do in the garden; children are playing in the school field; smiles are cheap again. Even with invisible Death stalking the land, job losses to rival the Great Depression, and a dim future awaiting us, there’s no stopping the spring – and that’s true of people no less than of daffodils.

When the sun comes out these days, people throw lockdown block parties in the neighborhood. They close off the street, set out lawn chairs, drink beer and eat their respective suppers outdoors, talking and laughing with each other from a distance. Last weekend there was an impromptu parade of neighbors who had decorated their cars and drove by in a long procession that wound for blocks, honking, waiving and blowing kisses from their windows as they passed. A young man in clown costume set up in the school field one afternoon, with a big perimeter taped off around him. People brought out their kids and sat in little family groups fifteen feet apart from one another to watch him juggle and tell bad jokes.

Nature delights in contrasts, and so do we. The world has come to a halt but the world is bustling. People are scared and so they want to laugh; they’re all homebound and so must get out to walk in the evening; they’re afraid of each other and so can’t bear to be apart – not when it’s warm and sunny out and summer seems like a real possibility again. It’s anyone’s guess, I suppose, what the social repercussions of the pandemic will look like two years on. Right here and now in the midst of it, it’s troubling and magical in equal measure.

Epidemical Family Lore

It’s not a name you hear much anymore, Mahlon. The original holder of the name (which apparently means “sickly” in Hebrew) was the short-lived husband of the Biblical Ruth. It was also the given name of my great-great-great-great grandfather, who, according to family lore, died in a cholera epidemic in the early 1830s. My grandpa told me the story a few times when I was a boy. As the designated family historian of my generation, and with access (thanks, internet) to resources my grandpa never had, I’ve been able to fill in some of the details.

Mahlon was born about 1793 in western New Jersey, the fourth child of a Revolutionary War veteran. It appears that Mahlon himself served in the War of 1812, after which he moved west into the Ohio River Valley, possibly on receipt of a military land grant. There in 1827 he married my great-great-great-great grandmother Mary and in 1831 she gave birth to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. The boy, my thrice-great grandfather, they named James Monroe after the Founding Father and fifth president.

The story goes that Mahlon and wife Mary and their two small children lived in some seclusion. They were farmers and practically (but not entirely) self-sufficient. In 1833, when cholera raged through the settlements on the Kentucky side of the river, where they lived, they went into even deeper “social isolation.” Finally, however, Mahlon saw they needed supplies. He made the long trip to town (probably Lexington, which at the time had a population of about 6,000), assuring his wife he’d return within a week.

According to an 1857 history of Lexington by George Ranck, the cholera plague of ’33 was a truly apocalyptic affair, worse by far than anything we’re witnessing today:

“The streets were silent and deserted by everything but horses and dead-carts… Business houses were closed, factories stopped, and men passed their most intimate friends in silence and afar off, staring like lunatics, for fear the contagion was upon them. The dead could not be buried fast enough, nor could coffins be had to meet half the demand. Many of the victims were consigned to trunks and boxes, or wrapped in the bedclothes upon which they had just expired… The grave-yards were choked. Coffined and uncoffined dead were laid at the gates in confused heaps to wait their turn to be deposited in the long, shallow trenches, which were hastily dug for the necessities of the occasion.”

The days passed and Mahlon did not return. Finally, Mary received word from him (it’s not clear how or by whom) that he had fallen ill in the town and was not well enough to return to her. He told Mary to take the children and leave the farm, which could no longer support them in his absence, and travel to Indiana where they could find safety with family. He would meet them there as soon as he had recovered. But they never saw or heard from him again and it was presumed (though never certain) that he died in the cholera epidemic.

Mahlon’s son James Monroe likely had no memory of his father. He died an old man in Clay County, Indiana in 1918.