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.
- 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.
- Darfur – At least 300,000 people nearly three million displaced.
- 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.
- Iraq – 4,700 coalition troops killed; at least 85,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, possibly double that number
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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