Signatures: A Nourishing Intellectual Feast

From The National Review:

There is a genre of book that constitutes the happiest — rather than guiltiest — pleasure for book-lovers: books about books. Books that seem to tap into the echt, the origin-pleasure of reading. Books that exemplify why reading remains the supreme vehicle for the transmission not just of facts or of history, but of memory.

Take an author who possesses the skill for capturing this essence and combines it with the spirit of a gentleman, the taste of a connoisseur, the eye of a gossip, and the knowledge of a historian, and you get near to what I think might be the perfect genre of book. “Belles lettres” may once have almost done justice to it, but, thanks to the sniffily pejorative ring of the term, I’m not sure it now does. Still, however you describe it, there remains a type of book that some of us dive for on the table as soon as we see it.

Whatever name you give this genre, David Pryce-Jones’s Signatures is a masterpiece in it. The premise is brilliantly simple. The author, a familiar presence to NR readers, selects 90 books from his considerable library, each signed by its author. Each book, of the many collected over the course of a long life, is awarded its own brief chapter, allowing Pryce-Jones to open his treasure chest of a memory, recall the circumstances in which he met or came to know the book’s author, and reflect on the author’s world and the impact this extraordinary cast had on their century.

The work forms more of a complement than a coda to Pryce-Jones’s 2015 autobiography, Fault Lines. As in that work, the cast is international, polyglot: British, continental, transatlantic, Middle Eastern, and more.

. . . .

There are figures from the world of literature, starting with people David met through his father, Alan Pryce-Jones (who had been the editor of the Times Literary Supplement), and progressing through many of his own contemporaries. So we have Cyril Connolly, Harold Acton, and W. H. Auden as well as John Fuller, Muriel Spark, and V. S. Naipaul. Not all his subjects are now remembered. Chapters such as that on Alasdair Clayre constitute moving tributes to friends now lost to a wider public. What unites almost all of them is that they are a reminder that there was almost no big subject of his day that Pryce-Jones did not apply his mind to.

The age of the dictators haunts the chapters on Svetlana Alliluyeva (daughter of Stalin), Arno Breker, and Albert Speer. The Cold War runs through the chapters on Oleg Gordievsky, Arthur Koestler, and Alexander Yakovlev. And of course the wars of the Middle East and their spillage run through the chapters on Mahmud Abu Shilbayah, Bernard Lewis, and Amos Elon. On each of these subjects Pryce-Jones has written books: Paris in the Third Reich (1981); The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (1995); and The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (1989). But Signatures allows Pryce-Jones to give us a backstage pass into these worlds he has written about. The view is not only suitably gossipy and anecdotal, but serious and occasionally devastating.

Speaking with Ernst Jünger in Paris several decades after the Nazis had vacated that city, Pryce-Jones posed a question about the First World War. How had Jünger been able to actually enjoy that war, as his classic memoir Storm of Steel makes it clear that he did? “Killing Frenchmen,” comes the reply. A verdict that seems in no way to blight Jünger’s enjoyment of post–Second World War Paris, or indeed of his Parisian girlfriend.

Link to the rest at The National Review

PG notes that one hundred years ago, 1920, the world had already seen a huge cataclysm, World War I. The beginnings of World War II were only seventeen years into the future.

The military conflicts during the 21st Century (the following come to mind), very fortunately, nothing has come close to equaling the enormous slaughter of the 20th Century.

  1. The Syrian Civil War – At least 470,000 deaths were caused directly or indirectly by the war. About 1 in 10 Syrians had been killed or wounded by the fighting.
  2. Darfur – At least 300,000 people nearly three million displaced.
  3. Afghanistan – 30,000 Afghan troops and police and 31,000 Afghan civilians were killed. More than 3,500 troops from the NATO-led coalition were killed.
  4. Iraq – 4,700 coalition troops killed; at least 85,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, possibly double that number
  5. Yemen and Ukraine – About 10,000 killed in each war

By way of horrendous contrast (without minimizing the losses of 21st Century wars) here is what the 20th Century looked like:

  1. World War I – 15-22 Million deaths (9-10 million military deaths, 8-13 million civilian deaths) plus 23 million wounded military personnel. Civilians wounded are unknown.
  2. World War II – Deaths directly caused by the war (including military and civilians killed) are estimated at 50–56 million people, while there were an additional estimated 19 to 28 million deaths from war-related disease and famine. Civilian deaths totaled 50-55 million. Military deaths from all causes totaled 21–25 million, including deaths in captivity of about 5 million prisoners of war. More than half of the total number of casualties are accounted for by the dead of the Republic of China and of the Soviet Union.
  3. Korean War – 5 million people died. More than half of these–about 10 percent of Korea’s prewar population–were civilians. 40,000 Americans died and more than 100,000 were wounded. South Korea – (217,000 military, 1,000,000 civilian deaths). North Korea – (406,000 military, 600,000 civilian deaths). China – (600,000 military deaths) (PG notes that these numbers don’t necessarily add up, but obtaining death and injury tolls for North Korea and China are impossible.)
  4. Vietnam – Total deaths – about 1.4 million. Allied military deaths 282,000, PAVN/VC military deaths 444,000, civilian deaths (North and South Vietnam) 627,000

8 thoughts on “Signatures: A Nourishing Intellectual Feast”

  1. I guess I’m not a book lover, even if my house is walled with books, because the book described doesn’t attract me at all. Nor can I come up with any major impact any of the named books had on their century, although they probably influenced those who like that sort of thing.

    • Yes, well, having a house walled with books doesn’t make you a book lover. Knowing the right names to drop at chic cocktail parties is what makes you a book lover. And frankly, if those books and their authors had had any impact that a peon like you (or me) would ever have heard of, they would obviously be Not Literary Enough to be the right names. One appeals to the snobs by being in on secrets, and it’s not much of a secret if everybody knows it.

  2. The toll of 20th-century wars would look a lot worse if you hadn’t parochially restricted your list to wars to those in which the U.S.A. was a major combatant. The Chinese and Russian civil wars, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Soviet–Afghan War, and the Nigerian Civil War all had death tolls in the millions, and there were many others more lethal than any on the 21st-century list.

    • Congo.
      Iran v Iraq.
      The french in indochina.
      There hasn’t been a year when somebody wasn’t killing somebody else in Job lots.

    • Very true, and Felix has already added quite a few of those I was thinking of. And then there are the wars that leaders launched against their own people: Holdomor, Great Leap Forward, Cambodia, for example.

      However, don’t write the current century off: there’s 80 more years of potential mayhem to look forward to.

      I sometimes feel nostalgic for the period from late 1815 to early 1914 (despite the ACW, Franco- Prussia War, Taiping Rebellion, the Hereo Genocide and a multitude of “small” wars).

      • Yup.
        The Chinese are just itching to take on somebody, anybody, even it it means getting into rock-throwing fights on the India border, attacking philipino or japanese fishermen, or crowding american ships in international waters. Their military high command speaks openly and publicly of sinking an american carrier and the CCP has an actual plan for invading Taiwan by 2025.
        They’ve also made noises against Australia.

        Whatever they’re going to do they’d better do it fast, because after a decade, the US has been rearming for three years and upgrading all systems for a new version of Shock and Awe™. And so are the Taiwanese, Japanese, and Australians.

        They have maybe three years before the thousands of missiles and hundreds or ships are rendered meaningless.

        Three of the US developments are already in deployment–detuned mini nukes, ground based Tomahawks, and SCRAM artillery shells with greater range and near hypersonic speed. Heading into production are a couple different hypersonic missiles. (It turns out that while China and Russia have been bragging about their oh-so-great hypersonic missiles meant to sink Aircraft carriers, the US had quietly developed their own. One of which fits by the dozen inside the B1 supersonic bomber.)

        What the US has been quite open about is the LASER and railguns in development. THE LASERS are a bit closer to deployment as tbey are in field testing. And they’re perfect matches for nuclear powered ships. Even subs.

        I doubt we’ll make it to 2050 without a major war or even 2030.
        And that is not going to be pretty because the US is no longer equipped for multiple simultaneous conflicts or a single long one. Which is what the mini-nukes are for: a near term conflict.

        Things look better past 2030 since there will be non-nuke alternatives, lije massive kinetic strikes, but if China’s military forces the issue the body count will be massive. They might be well advised to go after India, lije in tbe 60’s, which would be “merely” a ground war in Asia. (And we all know how those go.)

        Humans have learned nothing but to be more efficient. Especially at killing. No wonder Musk wants out.

        • I suspect those ambitious Chinese plans just hit a major problem. The economy backs up the war machine. Where’s that going? Who knows?

          • Well, they cancelled tbeir second carrier before the pandemic.
            (The design isn’t survivable without a viable carrier-based fighter).
            The bulk of their strategy is destroyers and land and sea based missiles by the thousand to saturate target defenses.
            (Which is why tbe US is moving to LASERS. Nothng beats the speed of light. And even a 30 kilowatt laser can disrupt or destroy a missile. If they can get a megawatt LASER going, a one second pulse would be tbe equivalent of a couple pounds of TNT. Bye-bye missile. Or plane.)

            They’re keenly aware they are a decade short of a self-sustaining economy which is why tbe orange guy’s protectionism and the ruckus from the pandemic has them so strident and aggressive diplomatically.

            They’ve even deployed tbeir wolf warrior diplomacy (normally reserved for neighbors and tbird world countries — like making a President publicly kiss tbe chinese flag “gratefully” to receive a shipment of paid face masks) against the EU wbich is looking increasingly counterproductive. The more they use their economic muscle to save face, the more they undercut their longer term “great power” ambitions.


            And if there is really a long recession coming, their economy (long tbought headed for tbe same “middle income trap” as Mexico and Indonesia, among others) may start to shrink as countries start to uncouple from their China supply chains. Nobody is going to leave China overnight but the name of tbe game is going to be Diversification, probably regionally based. So Mexico, Brazil, and the US will get a lot of the new Americas production that would’ve gone to China. Eastern europe and Malaysia will benefit. Maybe Indonesia. Somebody in Africa, maybe South Africa, maybe tbe proposed East African Federation.
            They have probably peaked as the “factory of the world”.

            We can see this and so can they.
            They can also see that their position is never going to be stronger as their targets beef up their militaries. They won’t be bullied.

            Xi has been under attack at home for revealing tbeir true goals *too early* and overextending their reach with the Belt and Road neocolonization strategy. Hindsight being 20/20, their best chance to move on Honk Kong or Taiwan was 2015, when Putin moved on Crimea. Then they woukd have gone uncontested. Now it’s iffy.

            If they’re serious they’re going to have to move soon, maybe before the pandemic ends, before the US, France, or UK unveil a certified vaccine. Their status as originators of tbe pandemic will be cast in concrete.

            Their “essential partner” status is history. Companies will still work in China but warily. They will protect their IP. They will hedge tbeir bets. And the business world will move to a “build where you sell” model.

            Which means they have nothing left to lose by letting the expansionists have tbeir way. China’s strategic imperatives are resources and economic growth and if tbe outside world won’t fund the later, they’ll take the first.

            For now they have the biggest navy and the biggest hoard of missiles to go with tbe biggest land Army. That’s eaten up a lot of what western cooperation has given them. If they wait much longer it’ll be for nought.

            And the “gift” of the one child policy is already blooming.
            They will be fighting pretty soon. The choice is externally or internally.
            I used to think civil war would be tbeir fate: coast vs interior.
            Now, I think Xi will try for a “short victorious war”.

            I hope I’m wrong but history is written in blood, right?

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