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 portrait.
At this point it might be useful to line up fact and fiction side by side. Baron Gustav Springer, like Baron Gustav Ellingen, had an only child, a daughter. Both motherless little girls were brought up by Scots nannies in their father’s Viennese St. Simeon (its galleried hall is described with awe-struck amusement in both books and illustrated by a photograph in the autobiography). Both children are made to learn about finance and act as hostesses for their fathers. Fictional Henriette marries Rudi Hechter, an upper-class Jewish Viennese dilettante not too well-bred to draw attention to the fact that she is less so. The real Marie Cäcilie married Eugene Fould, member of a distinguished French Jewish family which had given Napoleon III his finance minister Achille Fould. Both husbands were rich but married for money. Fould was ennobled by the Emperor Franz Josef so that the brand-new Springer title should not go into abeyance: so he became Baron Fould-Springer.
Fictional Rudi Hechter and real-life Eugene Fould-Springer both died on holiday in exotic places, each in the company of a handsome English male friend. Fould-Springer’s bore the Wodehouseian name of Frank Wooster, which may have predestined him for the life of a drone. David Pryce-Jones calls Wooster’s counterpart Rex Smail-Turner, a name with exactly the right sound of hovering caddishly on the fringes of society. (David Pryce-Jones has a knack for names so apt that it saves him pages of character delineation.) The two widows, Henriette and Marie-Cäcilie, married, respectively, Rex Smail-Turner and Frank Wooster.
Here the family trees diverge. Rudi Hechter, patently gay, manages only one child before he dies, a boy he called Jules. The Fould-Springers had four children. The third was Thérèse, who became Mrs. Alan Pryce-Jones in 1934 and the mother of David in 1936. Alan Pryce-Jones compares the Fould-Springer/Wooster ménage to Carrington’s relations with Lytton Strachey and Ralph Partridge. “It evoked,” he says, “an emotional confusion which Bloomsbury would have understood.” Still, socially and spiritually, it was light-years away. Besides, Carrington was gentle, whereas Henriette/Marie-Cäcilie sounds a holy terror. Apart from the narrator, Henriette is the only character in the novel with whom empathy is possible: when she takes to her bed in jealousy, or—more regularly—anger at betrayal or ingratitude, her rages rattle the reader’s bones.
After their marriage the Woosters lived mainly in Normandy while the four Fould-Springer children formed a separate establishment with their nanny, governess, and servants. This establishment moved seasonally between Paris, Vienna, and Hungary. The arrangement is too eccentric for use in a novel, and David Pryce-Jones discards it and sends his third-generation Ellingen first to an English boarding school, then to the Vienna Conservatory. Jules is a musical prodigy. But he chooses to make nothing of his gift, preferring the life of an exceedingly rich playboy—Gatsby to a group of international bright young things on his Hungarian estate at Sagodvar. His frivolity seems rooted in despair: his soul has been damaged in childhood.
At the time of the Anschluss, the Smail-Turners happen to be in England. Rex rushes to Austria and manages to save Henriette’s capital and personal possessions, though not, of course, her factories and real estate. Jules remains at Sagodvar:
He neither waited on events nor tried to escape. On the contrary, towards the end of March or early April 1941, he chose instead to return to Austria.
He is arrested and dies in a concentration camp. The same fate befalls the pretty, sophisticated Jewish mistress from Budapest whom he leaves behind. But first she gives birth to Jules’ son, Julius. The child is saved by the Sagodvar bailiff and his wife. After the war the Smail-Turners collect him and bring him up in England at his father’s old school. He is the narrator of the novel and—since Alan Pryce-Jones has blown his cover—one must suppose that to a certain extent he is David Pryce-Jones as well.
Julius is a difficult little boy, and in one of the funniest episodes in the book the Smail-Turners furtively send him to a psychiatrist masquerading as “Uncle Dickie,” a family friend. Julius discovers less about his subconscious than about the part played by Rex in the Ellingen family romance; and begins to see why Jules might have quarreled with his mother and stepfather and shut himself up at Sagodvar instead of following them out of reach of the Nazis. With his money and his influence he would still have been able to escape in early 1941 when he made the opposite—suicidal—decision.
Julius becomes obsessed with this decision and with his parents’ death in the gas ovens. In 1961 he sets out to retrace their last months. The only person to encourage him is Oscar Webber, one of the “owl-eyed” orphans in the 1909 photograph. Webber has prospered in Chicago. During the war he sends food parcels to the Smail-Turners. Afterward he comes over on the Queen Mary to visit them, loaded with presents: “You have no idea what it means to me to be able to do something for the family, it was the family of Vienna.” He insists on staying at the village pub rather than Perry’s Ridge, the Smail-Turner house: “I couldn’t presume to accept the gracious lady’s hospitality.” His idea of Julius’s mission to Austria is that he should “become a witness, write a book, find a way to provide a grave for your parents.” Faithful, generous, and chronically dazzled by the Ellingens, he wants a monument to them rather than a record of the Jewish fate.
Julius’s journey to Austria and Hungary occupies the last chapters of The Afternoon Sun. The tone has changed: man-of-the-world cool before, it is now intense. Julius seeks out a number of witnesses. Each proposes a different motive for Julius’s choice of death at the hands of the Nazis. One thinks it was a death wish springing from fear of becoming a homosexual like his father; another that his will to live had been sapped by his mother’s ruthless exercise of power. A third feels he was “longing to go through the experience of his people.” Julius looks for the bailiff who saved him. The man died in a Hungarian prison as a “class enemy”: but his daughter, survivor of two totalitarian regimes, interprets Jules’s act not as Jewish solidarity, but as defiance of tyranny in general: “You have to show them what’s what. Deep down, there’s an urge to turn yourself into a living example. Even when fear takes control, there is exhilaration and excitement about it.” For a moment it seems as though the novel might be turning down the old existentialist path to the acte gratuit. After all, Jules is not at all a typical, helpless Jewish victim. He chooses the death camps. Why?
The novel doesn’t say. Instead, it gets back onto the main road and addresses itself to the matter of guilt for the Holocaust. The bailiff’s daughter is the only witness to bear none. All the rest are implicated, if only for turning a blind eye or for the greed with which they fell upon the spoils (Alan Pryce-Jones, writing of the prewar period, allows himself almost the only savage remark in his amiable memoirs when he speaks of Austrian “treachery…and leech-like cupidity”). Guiltiest of all is Paul Solkovsky, the son of the old prince. He visited Theresienstadt during the war and happened to see Jules among the prisoners. They pretended not to recognize each other. “The nation has to answer for its crimes. That’s clear,” Paul Solkovsky pontificates. “But each of us cannot sit in sackcloth and ashes…. I could no more have stepped forward to save Jules than he could have stepped out of the column towards me. Hitlerism was dictated to us both…. Had I made a martyr of myself, how would that have helped him?” Julius seethes with Ellingen anger: “Actually he pities himself,” he thinks; “probably started doing so the very afternoon when Jules and the column disappeared into the fortress prison of Theresienstadt, to leave behind a stain on his conscience. Push that logic to its conclusion, and it was Jules who did him an injury by being in that column.”
At this point a dea ex machina has already appeared and become Julius’s first lover. Mira is young, attractive, and Israeli. She is a gifted violinist whose playing is praised by the critics for “the mature and rounded personality” it displays; she even gets on excellently with her agreeable, cosmopolitan father. “There’s nowhere we can live except in our own country,” she proclaims, “among ourselves. Maybe it’s wrong to be so nationalistic, but when I play I feel I do so for our own people.” No wonder Julius decides to go to Israel, turning “his back to the afternoon sun,” which was how his great-grandfather described his walk, as a small boy, eastward from Nuremberg to Vienna. (The metaphor is ambiguous: the death camps also lay to the east.) Henriette is shocked into one of her black rages: “Join our people?… What can you mean?… This [she means Perry’s Ridge] is where we are now.”
The reader too may be shocked by Mira, who seems to have marched in from some more naive genre of fiction; or even, with her suntan and white cotton clothes, from a travel poster. Or perhaps one is meant to think she shines so bright and unproblematical only in the eyes of the disturbed, angry narrator. Either way, the novel’s main theme has now become an open argument: Jewishness and Zionism versus assimilation. Old Gustav Ellingen’s attitude has been handed down as a family motto: “Jude muss man sein aber nicht zum Abattoir“: “one must be a Jew but not go to the slaughter-house for it.” Julius now rejects this halfway position. His father went to the slaughterhouse.
Henriette is a person with no historical imagination or compassion; she cannot feel for groups, only for persons:
She mourns for Jules…as his own victim, as a tragic individual, a man who made a series of mistakes, who had no need to put himself in the way of that destiny. Blame in her eyes is beside the point. She does not visualize the prisoner in that column, nor hear the train wheels.
To her Julius is a fanatic, a crazed avenger. “It wasn’t decent, it wasn’t healthy.”
Julius counters: “Everything about Perry’s Ridge is a falsehood…or if that’s exaggerated, it’s artificial. Altogether an alibi, quite transparent. No use thinking because she was called Smail-Turner other people were deceived. The Germans hadn’t stopped to inquire whether Jules was properly Orthodox.” In the end Henriette is reconciled to Julius’s departure, but only because it happens to coincide with the news that a looted Ellingen painting has turned up in the Stuttgart art gallery and is on its way to Surrey. This is balm to Henriette’s pride in the family and its possessions. So she bids Julius a genial farewell, and he acknowledges her worth: “Nothing lasts like courage. Nothing lasts except courage.” It’s generous of him, and of David Pryce-Jones, too, who seems to side with Julius. Unfortunately it makes a rather corny ending.
But not corny enough to spoil this gripping, astonishingly compact novel, which is not nearly as schematic as a summary must make it seem. Pryce-Jones has proceeded along Balzacian rather than Proustian lines: his main characters have to manage with a minimum of self-awareness and two or three striking characteristics each. Social mobility and economic change take the place of psychological development. The technique is cinematographic: a series of sharp takes, they print themselves on the mind’s eye as firmly as Henriette’s birthday photograph. The prose is clipped, laconic, impatient almost, and tending to epigram. The characters are fond of epigrams too: theirs seem to carry the authentic patina of family use. Perhaps the author’s father heard some of them from “the Todescos, Halphens, Heims, Rothschilds, Scheys” among whom he found himself shooting, picnicking, and skating in the Thirties.
The Pryce-Joneses, père et fils, appear both delighted and shocked by this milieu with its baroque combination of glamour and absurdity, sophistication and vulgar naivete, vitality and world-weariness. David Pryce-Jones does an insider’s job. He knows what kind of sweater a rich young man would wear in the country circa 1937, who would have painted a Viennese banker in 1870 (von Alt) or a K&K Venetian countess before World War I (no, not Boldini: Sargent). There’s not enough of this (how could there be in 214 pages? the novel is a tour de force of concision) to be show-off; just enough to give confidence that this is how it really was. And like his father, David Pryce-Jones provides “a bonus of laughter” and sees the funny side of a society which, doomed and tragic though it was, is also a rich subject for a comedy of manners.
There is no present shortage of novels about the Holocaust, Jewish identity, and Jewish destiny. The background of this one is more entertaining and startling than most, but what really makes it different is Jules’s free choice to die in the camps. That is what intrigues the narrator. One wishes he could have found out more about it before going off after Mira into the Zionist sunrise.
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.↩
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.↩