Rebecca West – Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
Rebecca West‘s vast, complex book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is to my mind less so a timeless guide to Yugoslavia – but more of a portrait of the author’s soul and of European thinking on the brink of war. Nowadays, the author of guide-books should have no artistic personality. He or she is ideally an anonymous conduit of reliable information about bus times, places to stay and museum opening hours. At the other end of the spectrum rests the constructivism, like in his book Fiction, photographer Michael Ackerman claims that “places do not exist. A place is just my idea of it.”
Literary travel writing thrives between the extremes represented by the travel guide and Ackerman’s solipsism . The best travel writers may be of only limited reliability when it comes to bus times but they may express timeless truths about the buses of a given country – or at least about their relationship with those buses.
When Rebecca West visited Norman Douglas in Florence in 1921 he joked that although Lawrence had been in town only a few hours he was probably already hammering out an article, “vehemently and exhaustively describing the temperament of the people”. To West this seemed “obviously a silly thing to do”, but Douglas was right: they turned up at Lawrence’s hotel to find him doing just that. At the time West thought that Lawrence did not know enough about Florence “to make his views of real value”. It was only after his death that she appreciated that he “was writing about the state of his own soul at that moment” and could only do so in symbolic terms. For this purpose “the city of Florence was as good a symbol as any other”.
West wrote this in 1931. She had not yet made the first of the trips to Yugoslavia that would form the basis of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon but the impact of this realisation on her own magnum opus is obvious. Indeed, relative to the size of the finished book, her experience of Yugoslavia was pretty skimpy. As Edith Durham, a noted authority on the Balkans, put it somewhat bitchily at the time, “The novelist Miss West has written an immense book on the strength of one pleasure trip to Yugoslavia, but with no previous knowledge of land or people.” For the record, Miss West had made three trips to Yugoslavia: the first, at the invitation of the British Council, to give lectures in the spring of 1936; a second with her husband, Henry Andrews, in the spring of 1937; the third in early summer of the following year.
Initially she had hoped quickly to write “a snap book”; four months after the second trip this venture had grown into a “wretched, complicated book that won’t interest anybody”.
In the course of researching its “long and complicated history” West learned and clarified her ideas about Yugoslavia – and about much else besides. Hence, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon takes up two subjects: the first is West’s ideas about Yugoslavia, and the second is her opinions about everything else. By the time it was published – in two volumes totalling half a million words – West was somewhat at a loss to discover why she had been moved “in 1936 to devote five years of my life, at great financial sacrifice and to the utter exhaustion of my mind and body, to take an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view”. As the “mass of [her] material” swelled and changed, so this “inventory” became an immense and immensely complicated picture not simply of her own soul but that of Europe on the brink of the second world war. The result, which she feared “hardly anyone will read by reason of its length”, is now considered to be one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.
Like the book itself its reputation is rather odd. West is considered a major British writer. If she is not regarded as a writer quite of the first rank that is largely because so much of the work on which her reputation should rest is rather belonging to journalism than to forms in which greatness is expected to manifest itself, namely the novel. As a novelist West is clearly less important than James Joyce, Lawrence or EM Forster. Her best work – reportage, journalism and travel – is traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is manifestly a work of literature, but since literature in English (at least as far as prose is concerned) is synonymous with the novel – with an agreed upon form of writing rather than a certain quality of writing – it is removed from the company in which it belongs.
Even some commentators who claim the book as a masterpiece have little to say about why it is one. Victoria Glendinning, in her biography of West, has no doubt that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is “the central book of her life … the work in which Rebecca West formulated her views on religion, ethics, art, myth and gender”. Beyond that, she has almost nothing to say about it. And I agree with her. That is what the book conveys most certainly. On anything else i find its reliability rather doubtful, particularly on its claimed subject “Yugoslavia” or historical processes. Rebecca West is clearly no historian, not even a scientist. But she is a splendid and honest writer.
The book had been reissued a few years earlier in response to the outbreak of a conflict West had, in some ways, foreseen. In the prologue, West remembers herself “peering” at old film footage of the king of Yugoslavia, “like an old woman reading the tea-leaves in her cup”. West’s prophetic gift is hinted at as early as page 10, when she writes that “it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!'”
In Kosovo, West’s chauffeur, Dragutin, grabs a Croat boy by the ear and says with a mixture of irony and threat, “We’ll kill you all some day.” It is weirdly disorienting to read it now, when the blaze of contemporary events was fierce enough to make one wonder about West’s emphasis on the influence of Austria, Venice or Turkey on Balcan history. I got this book as a gift from a friend born from this corner of Europe, who earlier gifted me with Ivo Andrić’ “Die Brücke über die Drina”, or Milorad Pavić’ “Landschaft in Tee gemalt”. Hence while I was expecting to learn more about the “Balcan”, I could not help to notice, that even in my own distant opinion about Serbia and Montenegro there have been many times when the recent history seemed to be nothing short of a distorted and discombobulated sequel to the weird and prophetic pages of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
As a book about Yugoslavia, then, it is, to my mind not of “extraordinary usefulness”. The book’s practical worth is nill, I would say. But as West herself observed, “sometimes it is necessary for us to know where we are in eternity as well as in time”.
If you are not in – or interested in – the Balkan peninsula the number of pages devoted to the history of the region can seem off-putting. Except this is history as it might have been written by Gabriel García Márquez – a thrilling narrative rather than science. Take the scene from Sarajevo in 1914 when, shortly before his assassination, Archduke Franz Ferdinand finds the reception hall he is standing in crammed with the half-million beasts he has killed in his career as a hunter:
One can conceive the space of this room stuffed all the way up to the crimson and gold vaults and stalactites with the furred and feathered ghosts, set close, because there were so many of them: stags with the air between their antlers stuffed with woodcock, quail, pheasant, partridge, capercaillie, and the like; boars standing bristling flank to flank, the breadth under their broad bellies packed with layer upon layer of hares and rabbits. Their animal eyes, clear and dark as water, would brightly watch the approach of their slayer to an end that exactly resembled their own.
West’s intention was “to show the past side by side with the present it created”. This is not to be taken philosophically, but subjectively – and it fits nicely into a Proust-ian understanding of time. As such West can reveal even how an apparently ahistorical sensation – the scent of a plucked flower, say – is saturated with the smell of the past. Geography and history, to make the same point rather more sweepingly, cannot always be distinguished from one another – hence the way that certain places “imprint the same stamp on whatever inhabitants history brings them, even if conquest spills out one population and pours in another wholly different in race and philosophy”.
As here, the book is full of the most daring time-shifts and the most outrageous deductions, hardly reliable as objective fact, but always as subjective truth told with straightforwardness (except perhaps, where Gerda is concerned). Naturally, West does never stop. The sight of a man and woman prompts her to return to one of the major themes of the book, the vexed relations of men and women.
Any area of unrestricted masculinism, where the women are made to do all the work and are refused the right to use their wills, is in fact disgusting, not so much because of the effect on the women, who are always taught something by the work they do, but because of the nullification of the men.
The book’s interminable self-fuelling discussions are central to West’s structural and stylistic method. Any conclusions she draws are tied to the her personal view of a process (despite “process” figuring as the key word in the book). Something catches West’s attention; the incident – a Mozart symphony coming on the radio in a restaurant, say – and is conveyed with vivid immediacy. As West articulates and processes in her personal experience, she takes us on a discursive journey into the furthest reaches of speculative thought before returning us to the spot or occasion from which we started. Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, Princip, is in this way the active representative of the author’s own purpose: “He offered himself wholly to each event in order that he might learn in full what revelation it had to make about the nature of the universe.”
Not surprisingly, even enthusiastic readers of “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” are likely to feel that its impressive bulk is due solely to accumulation, to the mass of material contained in it. But Black Lamb and Grey Falcon earns its size as a work of art too. West seems to have needed “a form that’s large enough to swim in”. The scale of its conception is imprinted internally in its syntax and composition. Ostensibly convenient and alluring, the edited selection offered in The Essential Rebecca West feels nonetheless as enough to me. Particularly, as the reducing such a book to its essentials, was done by the author herself.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as a book about Yugoslavia; it is predicated on “a coincidence between the natural forms and colours of the western and southern parts of Yugoslavia and the innate forms and colours of [West’s] imagination”.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is digressive and meandering like Balcan history. Making different demands on the reader’s expectations of order, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has the unity and fluidity of a sustained improvisation in prose.
West can be witty: “The visit had been extraordinarily pleasant, though it had been nothing at all, and least of all a visit.”
She can be playful: “Then why did we not bring the book?” asked my husband. “Well, it weighs just over a stone,” I said. “I weighed it once on the bathroom scales.” “Why did you do that?” asked my husband. “Because it occurred to me one day that I knew the weight of nothing except myself and joints of meat,” I said, “and I just picked that up to give me an idea of something else.”
She can be lyrical: “As we drew nearer the shore the water under the keel was pale emerald where the diving sunlight had found sand”;
and fantastical at the same time:
“Beyond the bridge the river widened out into a curd of yellow water-lilies, edged with a streak of mirror at each bank, in which willow trees, standing above their exact reflections, amazed us by their shrill green and cat-o’-thousand tails forms; they were like static fireworks.”
As happens when she dismisses a woman she meets in a hotel in Bosnia, West can be abusive and intemperate: “she was cruelty; she was filth”.
In the epilogue, West comments on the way that, in her teens, Ibsen “corrected the chief flaw in English literature, which is a failure to recognise the dynamism of ideas”. With characteristic vehemence she later decided that “Ibsen cried out for ideas for the same reason that men call out for water, because he had not got any.”
To say that West has them by the gallon is an understatement. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is, along with everything else, a great flood of ideas, at times completely undisturbed by factual limitations. Sensation, observation, reflection and responsiveness to “the visibility of life”, are all the time flowing into each other.
The book’s biggest idea is also its simplest – “The problem is that:
only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”
Despite its extreme subjectivity, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is vast, ambitious and brilliant. In Montenegro, West encounters a woman who is trying to understand the many hard things that have befallen her. The meeting persuades West that if “during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe”.
It is nothing but a dream. But, “It is the soul’s duty to be loyal to its own desires. It must abandon itself to its master passion.”