The Afternoon Sun
David Pryce-Jones’s fierce new novel is a four-generation family saga. It begins with the narrator’s great-grandfather, a foundling born “either in 1839 or 1840,” and brought up in the Jewish orphanage at Nuremberg. At the age of ten or so he runs away to Vienna and is taken in by a childless banker and his wife: “They wanted an errand-boy but really it was a son they were after.” Gustav turns out to be good at finance (David Pryce-Jones is too, dealing efficiently with matters like the Gründerzeit expansion of the 1860s, the Austrian stock exchange collapse of 1873, how to open foreign bank accounts, postwar inflation, and several momentous board meetings). Gustav is taken into partnership by his patron, buys into the new railways to the east (in 1873, precisely), from that position into rolling stock, and finally comes to own the Concordia steelworks which “in the following century would rival the Ruhr concerns.”
Gustav is the archetypal nouveau riche tycoon. He builds a monstrous château in the Vienna suburbs, and acquires country properties in Austria and Hungary, with shoots and a stud where he breeds a Derby winner. Even his tomb, when it comes to be built according to his instructions in the Jewish section of the Vienna cemetery, is bigger than that of other ennobled Jews. Gustav gets his barony in 1904, the emperor being solicited on his behalf by his partner Prince Solkovsky who has “a hundred and twenty-eight quarterings…enough for us both.” Gustav and Solkovsky are cronies, calling each other “mein Hausjude” and “mein Renommiergoy“—my house Jew and my prestige goy.
Gustav married upward, not in fortune, but in culture and assimilation. His wife, the daughter of a distinguished Jewish archaeologist, dies in childbirth, leaving him with an only child, Henriette. In 1909, when Henriette is eighteen, her father makes over to her his shares in the Concordia steelworks. A group photograph commemorates the celebration of that occasion: Henriette, her father, Prince Solkovsky, and other directors sit in the front row, with two tiers of managers and executives standing behind them. The last row is made up of servants from the various estates, including Hungarian foresters and keepers in national dress; “to one side…had been shepherded a flock of owl-eyed children” from a Jewish orphanage founded by Gustav Ellingen. The photograph sums up the Ellingen family situation as it was in 1909; it plays an emblematic part in the novel and figures as a milestone.
Alan Pryce-Jones is an English man of letters who used to edit the Times Literary Supplement but now lives in Rhode Island. If you open his recent autobiography, The Bonus of Laughter, at the centerfold, you will see the photograph of Henriette and her retainers exactly as it is described in The Afternoon Sun. It is captioned, “AP-J’s mother-in-law, Marie-Cäcilie Springer, with her Viennese court, c. 1904.” Alan Pryce-Jones is David Pryce-Jones’s father; so Marie-Cäcilie is the novelist’s grandmother, Henriette her fictionalized …