- Geoff Dyer
- The Guardian,
The author of guide- books should have no artistic personality. Entirely at the mercy of the place being written about, 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, 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 the solipsistic Ackerman. The best travel writers may be of only limited reliability when it comes to bus times but they express timeless truths about the buses of a given country – or at least about their relationship with those buses. Take DH Lawrence, whose responsiveness to places was both instantaneous and profound. Editors and publishers were keenly aware of this gift and Lawrence was eager to turn it to financial advantage.
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 importance of this realisation on her own magnum opus is considerable. 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, bitchily put it 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 potentially profitable 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. To paraphrase Italo Calvino’s comment on The Ruins of Kasch by Roberto Calasso, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon takes up two subjects: the first is Yugoslavia, and the second is 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 one of the supreme 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 considered secondary to the 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 (“a self-indulgent old liberal with hardly a brain in his head,” as West sharply deemed him). Her best work is scattered among reportage, journalism and travel – the kind of things traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions.
The success of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is due in no small part to the ingenuity with which she contains this tendency to dispersal by giving it free rein. The book 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. (When I mentioned to a novelist friend that I was writing this introduction she asked if the book was set in Yugoslavia; it was assumed to be a novel.) Palpably inferior works – novels – sit far more securely on the literary syllabus than this awkward tome that seems to topple from the top canonical shelf as soon as it is placed there. Since it takes up so much room Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is stocked on a lower, less prominent shelf.
Even some commentators who claim the book as a masterpiece have little to say about why it is one. In Abroad, Paul Fussell’s highly regarded survey of “British literary travelling between the wars”, West, unlike Waugh, Lawrence or Greene does not get a chapter-compartment to herself and her book receives a mention more or less in passing. 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. Is the book doomed to repel attempts to articulate the awe that it inspires?
To try to make good this lack let’s begin, uncontentiously, by observing that it is a key book about Yugoslavia. I read it in 1993 after visiting Serbia (for the British Council, as it happens) to learn about Yugoslavia – or ex-Yugoslavia, as it had by then become. 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”. The book’s prophetic quality is hinted at as early as page 10, when West 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!'”
I can still remember how weirdly disorienting it was to read this in 1993, when the blaze of contemporary events was fierce enough to make one wonder if she was writing not about Franz Josef, but Tito. Much later in the book, 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.” Even in my own minuscule experience of Serbia and Montenegro there have been many times when the scene unfolding before my eyes seemed to have been faithfully enacted from the pages of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
As a book about Yugoslavia, then, it is of “extraordinary usefulness” – a kind of metaphysical Lonely Planet that never requires updating. (West herself observed, “sometimes it is necessary for us to know where we are in eternity as well as in time”.) The book’s practical worth is nicely suggested by the journalist Robert Kaplan, who remembers taking the book with him everywhere in Yugoslavia. “I would rather have lost my passport and money than my heavily thumbed and annotated copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.”
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 Ryszard Kapuscinski or Gabriel García Márquez. Take the extraordinary 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.
When Susan Sontag directed Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the siege it was widely felt that what was happening on stage offered some kind of absurdist commentary on events beyond the theatre. In a café in Mostar – a place which became stitched into international consciousness in the same way as Sarajevo – a comparable fable had unfolded before West’s eyes in the 1930s:
Young officers moved rhythmically through the beams of white light that poured down upon the acid green of the billiard tables, and the billiard balls gave out their sound of stoical shock. There was immanent the Balkan feeling of a shiftless yet just doom. It seemed possible that someone might come into the room, perhaps a man who would hang up his fez, and explain, in terms just comprehensible enough to make it certain they were not nonsensical, that all the people at the tables must stay there until the two officers who were playing billiards at the moment had played a million games, and that by the result their eternal fates would be decided; and that this would be accepted, and people would sit there quietly waiting and reading the newspapers.
West’s intention was “to show the past side by side with the present it created” and part of her achievement is to reveal how even 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”. Impatient readers tempted to skip the historical bits are taking a big risk because the past – the narrative history – can melt into the immediate present with zero notice. The most spectacular instance comes after a lengthy disquisition – a bit too long, I was thinking – on events in Pristina during the reign of Stephen Dushan in the 14th century. After 20 pages or so we learn of his death:
In the 49th year of his life, at a village so obscure that it is not now to be identified, he died, in great pain, as if he had been poisoned. Because of his death many disagreeable things happened. For example, we sat in Pristina, our elbows on a tablecloth stained brown and puce, with chicken drumsticks on our plates meagre as sparrow-bones, and there came towards us a man and a woman; and the woman was carrying on her back the better part of a plough.”
Isn’t that the boldest jump-cut – the most daring time-shift, the most outrageous deduction – ever? And West does not stop there. The sight of this 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.
And West does not stop there, either – she loops this vision back to the death of Stephen Dushan before leaving the table to go to “a lavatory of the Turkish kind”:
The dark hole in the floor, and something hieratic in the proportions of the place, made it seem as if dung, having been expelled by man, had set itself up as a new and hostile and magically powerful element that could cover the whole earth with dark ooze and sickly humidity … I felt as if the place were soiling me with filth which I would never be able to wash off because it was stronger in its essence than mere mild soap and water.
And West does not stop there, either. The book’s inexhaustible capacity for self-fuelling discussion, for examining the implications of everything that it touches upon, is central to West’s structural and stylistic method. Any conclusions she draws are tied to the process (a key word in the book) by which they are being teased out. Something catches West’s attention; the incident – a Mozart symphony coming on the radio in a restaurant on page 507, say – is conveyed with vivid immediacy. As West articulates and processes this experience, she takes us on a discursive journey into the furthest reaches of speculative thought before returning us to the exact 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.”
How, with this in mind, could Black Lamb and Grey Falcon have been anything other than a vast book? Even enthusiastic readers of Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation are likely to feel that its impressive bulk is due solely to accumulation, to the mass of material contained in it. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon earns its size as a work of art. Like WH Auden in his “Letter to Lord Byron” (1936), West 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 like an aesthetic violation. There is, in fact, something inappropriate about reducing such a book to its essentials. I suspect that some of the passages that most delight me are, by the kind of limiting definition West repeatedly decries, the bits that might be considered inessential.
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”, but while many of the parts I value have their origin in they are not unique to that part of the world. A few examples from hundreds: the “erotic panic” of a horse which “rolls the eyes not only in fear but in enjoyment, that seeks to be soothed with an appetite revealing that it plainly knows soothing to be possible, and pursues what it declares it dreads”; the woman who had “the beauty of a Burne-Jones, the same air of having rubbed holes in her lovely cheeks with her clenched knuckles”; the Muslims for whom “the reward for total abstinence from alcohol seems, illogically enough, to be the capacity for becoming intoxicated without it”.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is digressive and meandering – you never know what’s going to happen next – but this is not to say that it is shapeless. It may sprawl – it is sprawling – but remember, for a start, how what is offered as an account of a single journey has in fact been stitched seamlessly together from three separate trips. Over time we have grown familiar with the complex organisation of works such as Bleak House or Ulysses; in contemporary fiction we admire the intricate interweaving of plot, character and themes in the novels of Ian McEwan. 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. As with a saxophonist or trumpeter, the controlling factor, the thing that allows West to range so widely without ever losing her way, is tone. The book’s bold demonstration of the way that tone can take over some of the load-bearing work of structure is crucial to its innovatory importance. Within an overall constancy of tone West moves easily between registers.
She 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 t heir 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”. Most surprising of all in a book of such length West has the gift of brevity: “We fell again through Swissish country”; “A naked range as black as night, its high ridge starred with snow”; “the first heavy pennies of rain”.
A few years after Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was published West sat down to consider a proposal from her American editor, Ben Huebsch, that she write a book on the British empire. It was something she would like to have done, but “except for the fancy bits on religion and metaphysics that I would throw in in my demented way”, she decided, there was nothing new she could contribute to such a study. It is, of course, these “demented” bits that make Black Lamb and Grey Falcon a great book of ideas. (It sounds a little odd, that phrase, doesn’t it, compared with the way that “a novel of ideas” trips so unthinkingly off the tongue?) 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. As with Lawrence it is impossible to say where sensation stops and cogitation begins. Observation and metaphysics, thought and responsiveness to “the visibility of life”, are all the time flowing into each other.
The book’s biggest idea is also its simplest, so simple that it should be no more than a preference “for the agreeable over the disagreeable”. 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.
As West wrote this Europe was hurtling towards just such a catastrophe; in 1993, when I first read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, TV screens were full of images of the blackened foundations of houses in the very places she had described. West had enough of the disagreeable in her nature to realise that an affirmation of the agreeable is part of an ongoing personal and political struggle. Her faith in this idea is echoed by Auden in the commentary appended to his sonnet sequence In Time of War (published in 1938 while West was immersed in writing her book):
It’s better to be sane than mad, or liked than dreaded;
It’s better to sit down to nice meals than to nasty;
It’s better to sleep two than single; it’s better to be happy.
In both cases the modesty of the conclusion is proof of its wisdom – and vice-versa. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a vast, ambitious and complex book which repeatedly stresses the kinship between homely and universal truths. By making a cake for friends, West insists, “one is striking a low note on a scale that is struck higher up by Beethoven and Mozart”. 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”. And if, once or twice a century, a book like this appears, the wait will be only a fraction as long.