Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

“I record a wonder. The work of the bank was well done. That, with my cold inner eye that trusts nothing, least of all my own likings, I checked later.”

‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A journey through Yugoslavia’ is a book written by Rebecca West. In the copy I have from my local library it runs to 1150 pages and contains maps on both the front and rear inner-covers. It is one of very few books of high literature that is not only improved by maps but could probably do with a few more.

The journey upon which the book is based took place in the mid 1930’s, it took about ten more years to research and complete and was published in the heart of a near-apocalypse in 1942. Anyone who actually read it in full at this point may become so preoccupied (a regrettable choice of words) that they would have missed a large section of the war, however, the book is exceedingly bulky and would provide a good protection against shrapnel, perhaps increasing its utility in those circumstances.

It is one of the great works of English literature during the 20th century and the only two reasons it is not better known and fully accorded the status it deserves in the public mind are that it is 1150 pages long and about Yugoslavia. If anyone is willing to devote the month or so it takes to read it they will find themselves fully regretting their previous view that Yugoslavia is boring, tiresome, violent and best not considered at all. I certainly have. Unfortunately very few people are going to take a month off to find out about a place they do not like and to which they do not intend to go. What follows is my attempt to correct this situation and to persuade you to read this book.

We have the Kindle now, so technology has finally caught up with it.

(This is long.)

The Books Inside The Book

Before considering an analysis this difficult, we must build a kind of map of the territory to be surveyed. In this case we will begin by considering the smaller books that could theoretically extracted from the whole.

I do not mean that Black Lamb & Grey Falcon is separated into sections based on theme, or that I will be looking at its chapters in sequence. I mean only that it is composed of such richness and density that if one were to grab at a single thread of subject and thought and somehow separate it from the whole, one could do this several times (ten times I think) and end up with an entire stack of smaller books, each one worthy of consideration on its own.

These ideas or subjects to not act singly within BL&GF, they are part of an organic whole, but I must consider them singly so that I may them re-assemble them. They are;

1. A Travelogue.
2. A History of Yugoslavia.
3. A Work of art criticism.
4. A feminist analysis.
5. A comedy of manners.
6. A negative-image portrait of its author.
7. A tragic Hampstead novel/horror story.
8. A Stunning piece of anti-German propaganda.
9. A spiritual investigation into the nature of man.
10. A transmission from an apocalyptic world.

 We will begin with part one.

1. Travelogue

West, at one point, describes a city as ‘like a city on a coin’, and the towns and cities as she describes them are very like that, they are bounded neatly and effectively within a paragraph or two, as correctly arranged and neatly considered as cities on coins, and like coins they come stamped with their history. West cannot transit human geography without travelling through history in the same movement and when she sees a city she must see it through time. On the front of the coin is a description of the physical arrangement and sensation of the place, and, as the coin spins in her mind, we see its history flickering on the obverse side.

“Split, alone of all cities in Dalmatia, has a Neapolitan air. Except for a few courtyards in its private houses, it does not exhibit the spirit of Venice, which is at once so stately and materialist, like a proud ghost who has come back to remind men that he failed for a million. It recalls Naples, because it also is a tragic and architecturally magnificent sausage-machine, where a harried people of mixed race have been forced by history to run for centuries through the walls and cellars and sewers of ruined palaces, and have now been evicted by a turn of events into the open day, neat and slick and uniform, taking to modern clothes and manners with the adaptability of oil, though at the same time they are set apart for ever from the rest of the world by the arcana of language and thoughts they learned to share while they scurried for generations close-pressed through the darkness.”

The land we see through Wests eyes on leaving the city or the town, awakens her to poetry, reminds her of the existence of colour and light, which she sometimes half-forgets in the densely human environment of the urban zone, and distracts her so much that she sometimes even forgets her irony, which she minds as closely as a knight holds his sword. In the quote below I have added a line break at every comma and a new line and space at every full stop. There is nothing exceptional about the passage when compared to the rest of the book, it is typical.

“There is a mystery.

It is formulated also in stone,
But not in worked stone,
In the terrible naked stone of Dalmatia,
In the terrible earth that here lies shallow and infirm of purpose as dust,
And in the terrible faces of the people,
Who are all like crucified Christs.

Everywhere there are terraces.

High up on the bare mountains there are olive terraces;
In the trough of the valleys there are walled fields where an ordinary crop of springing corn or grass strikes one as an abnormal profusion like a flood.

On these enclosures black figures work frenetically.

From a grey sky reflected light pours down and makes of every terrace and field a stage on which these black figures play each their special drama of toil,
Of frustration,
Of anguish.

As we passed by on the stony causeway,
Women looked up at us,
From the fields,
Their faces furrowed with all known distresses.

By their sides lambs skipped in gaiety and innocence,
And goats skipped in gaiety but without innocence,
And at their feet the cyclamens shone mauve;”

I unpack this sentence not to highlight its mild pretension (when considered as poetry it may be so, it was written as prose and bound up in that arrangement, noting could be further from the truth.) but to show the extreme density and fluidity of Wests prose. She is this good, this precise and this expressive all the way through and she flies in the open country.

So, at the most basic level the book is simply a description of a journey through Yugoslavia and if we exhibited only the purely visual descriptions of things directly seen and left out everything else then it would still be a remarkable and notable work.

2. History

Rebecca West’s time machine is always on but when she visits a place of numinous quality or historical importance she can kick it into high gear, and the way in which she does this is reminiscent of the onion-skin method of oral history.

I will now describe this method so you can understand the analogy.

The teller uses a list of concrete physical actions which must logically proceed one after the other, goes through them to a central point of transformation where something changes, then proceeds back outwards to where they began, going in reverse sequence and altering the physical information as necessary. It goes like this;


I will explain this by creating lines in a purely imaginary ballad so you can see how it runs.

 So Generical Hero, he woke in his home with the three-cornered tower.
His wife said “The Pasha of Tears, he calls, do not go.”
The hero, he laughed, and girded his sword in its scabbard of blue.
He mounted his horse with the shaking white plume.
He took the black road that leads to Main Town.
And the Pasha of Tears took his eyes in that place.
So Generical Hero rode blind the black road.
He clung to his horse with the shaking white plume.
His eyes wept red blood on his scabbard of blue.
His wife cried to see him, “how can you defend me?”
And he leapt to his death from the three-cornered tower.

It’s useful  as the balladeer only needs to remember one list of concrete actions to perform, and they can only go in one direction, the hero cannot ride the black road before mounting his horse, and once the central point is reached they can simply proceed backwards through the same list.

But it is also creatively interesting, the audience knows, once the list begins again in the second part, which things will be encountered, but they do not know what the nature of the changed encounter will be. The simultaneous structural awareness and the fact that they may know, but must wait, for the full nature of the story to be completed and exposed, releases an interesting cognitive charge.

West uses a similar onion-ring method to divulge dense knots of historical information. This is often related to place. West ends up visiting a great number of monasteries and churches, as well as ruins and other ancient places, they are where she burrows through time. The approaches to these sacred spaces are very like the lines of the onion-skin ballad. They begin with simple, practical and amusing observations, then gradually get more and more serious, until the central point of the place is reached and history incarnates itself on the page.  Often in a rather long description of the doings of kings. Then, once this is done, West leaves the place in the same order, often encountering last what she encountered first on the way in, with her perspective, and ours, changed by the information imparted.

The result of this is that I know more about the medieval kingdom of the South Slavs and the tragic defeat at Kossovo of Tsar Lazar than I ever suspected I would wish to know. I am also certain that the Slavic school of fresco painting has been unjustly overlooked by the artistic community. I have never seen the Slavic fresco’s, and the artistic community in question was probably liquidated by somebody horrid during WWII, but with the information now in my head I can assume nothing else. Which brings us to three.

(I would tell you some of this history but there is too much, there is really too much and I think if I began there would be no way to stop. There is a picture of the world in there. (And I have forgotten much of it.)

3. Art Criticism

West likes art a great deal. She has cultivated the kind of calm attention that makes her own mind a gallery and anything that passes through it becomes a subject for original contemplation, but she regards also the art left for her by past ages.

“It was so dark that even by candlelight one could see little: but the best way to see sculpture is not with the eyes but with the finger-tips. I mounted on the plinth and ran my hands over the god and the bull. Strength welled out of the carving. The grip of the gods legs on the bull recalled all the pleasure to be derived from balance, riding and rock-climbing and skiing; the hilt of the dagger all but tingled, the bulls throat was tense with the emerging life. My hands passed on from the central tableau. Right and left were the torch-bearers, one holding his torch uplifted, as symbol of dawn and spring and birth, the other letting it droop, as symbol of dusk and winter and death. How did this faith alter the morning? How did it improve the evening? What explanation of birth could it furnish, what mitigation of death? My finger-tips could not find the answer.”

The peasants of the old valleys assume stilted and heraldic body language that makes her think the arrangement of Byzantine characters on walls is more representational than generally thought. Rarely does an image pass her by without assessment, either good (most Byzantine style art) or bad (the tastes of Harem owners and Austrians are most often called into question.)

In several of the churches, the peasants suffering under the centuries of Turkish rule have covered the deep and soul-wracked frescos of the medieval Serbs with cheery pink people, well-fed, doing happy and constructive things. Now, the new fresco’s are being removed to expose the ancient past and in many places the old and new are left there next to each other, the fat pink angels created by the desperate poor and the arched hieratic saints made by the sainted Nemanya kings.

All things are attended to, the contents of a room, the way a wall holds light, the construction of a national dress;

“The costume is as stirring to the imagination and as idiotically unpractical as any I have ever seen … It consists of a man’s coat made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the women who is going to wear it. It is cut with a stiff military collar, very high, perhaps as much as eight or ten inches, which is embroidered inside, not outside, with gold thread. It is never worn as a coat. The woman slips it over her, drawing the shoulders above her head, so that the stiff collar falls forward and projects in front of her like a visor, and she can hide her face if she clutches the edges together, so that she need not wear a veil. The sleeves are allowed to hang loose or are stitched together at the back but nothing can be done with the skirts, which drag on the ground.
It has the power of a dream or a work of art that has several interpretations, that explains several aspects of reality at one and the same time.”

West pays more attention to clothes and to the constructions of women than I imagine any other traveller of the same period (or today) would have done. She believes that the embroidery aesthetic of the Slavic peasants is a cultural descendant of Byzantium and looks for the echoes of that civilisation in the goods women hold for sale in the village fairs. This brings us to four.

4. A Feminist Analysis

West seems to be a feminist simply by virtue of thinking for herself and then writing it down. It’s not clear how well she would do in the modern age, she is rather too interesting and creaky and brilliant to fit into any of the boxes provided for thinking in the connected world, and she has a number of unfortunate prejudices, against homosexuality and (unsurprising given the location or date) she is not a huge fan of either  Islam or Germany.

Nevertheless, she is clearly a feminist of her own particular type.

“I will believe that the battle of feminism is over, and that the female has reached a position of equality with the male, when I hear that a country has allowed itself to be turned upside-down and lead to the brink of war by its passion for a totally bald woman writer. Years ago, in Florence, I had marvelled over the singular example of male privilege afforded by d’Annunzio. Leaning from a balcony in the Lung’ arno I had looked down on a triumphal procession. Bells rang, flags were waved; flowers were thrown, voices swelled in ecstasy: and far below an egg reflected the rays of the May sunshine. Here in Fiume the bald author had been allowed to ruin a city: a bald-headed authoress would never be allowed to build one.”

West is interested in women. She makes friends with the belly-dancer in the club, and with the academic and speaks to every woman in between if she can. She notices women with a fullness that very few male writers could match.

It’s difficult to tell which gender has the worst position in the bloody history of the Balkans. The women are horribly oppressed, sometimes enslaved, trapped. They do seem to die at a slightly lower rate than the men but possibly many of them would rather have the chance to end things violently in battle or banditry if they could. In any event, their survival can simply lead to a life of wandering and the contemplation of loss.

“She laughed a little, lifted her ball of wool to her mouth, sucked the thin thread between her lips, and stood rocking herself, her eyebrows arching in misery. “It is a long story. I am sixty now.” She said. “Before the war I was married over there, by Durmitor. I had a husband whom I liked very much, and I had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1914 my husband was killed by the Austrians. Not in battle. They took him out of our house and shot him. My son went off and was a soldier and was killed, and my daughter and I were sent to a camp. There she died. In the camp it was terrible, many people died. At the end of the war I came out and I was alone. So I married a man twenty years older than myself. I did not like him as I liked my first husband, but he was very kind to me, and I had two children of his. But they both died, as was natural, for he was too old, and I was too old, and also I was weak from the camp. And now my husband is eighty, and he has lost his wits, and he is not kind to me any more. He is angry with everybody; he sits in his house and rages, and I cannot do anything right for him. So I have nothing.” “Are you poor?” asked Constantine. “Not at all,” she said. “My husbands son by his first wife is a judge in Old Serbia, and he sends me three hundred dinars a month to hire a man to work our land, so we want nothing. Oh that is all right but the rest is so wrong.”

It is lucky for us that we see the sadness of the Balkans through the eyes or a woman who almost never makes jokes but for whom the ironic moment is never far away. In her own way, West is like the half-and-half frescos on the church walls, part pained deep mystic, part happy fat peasant.

5. A Comedy of Manners.

“He belonged to that pathetic order of minor historical characters who say, “Evil, be thou my good,” but receive from evil only a tart toss of the head, since Mephistopheles makes it a rule to put back all Fausts under a certain size.”

Everything is funny but nothing is a joke.

“But our boatman plainly wished us to make a move, he kept looking over his shoulder at the other island, and explaining that the baroque church over there was very beautiful, and that many miracles had been performed in it. “He does not like us being here,” I said; “perhaps there are snakes.” But when we rowed to the other island we found he had wished to take us to it simply because he lived there, and his dog had been wearying for his company. He had been quite right in thinking this important, for it was a unique animal. Its coat, which was a drab tow, struck one as uncoiffed. Apparently dogs must pay some attention to their toilet, since it could be seen at a glance that this one paid none, being preoccupied with holy things. It had fervent sherry-coloured eyes and was the very dog for miraculous shrine, for it had such a rich capacity for emotional life that it could hardly have retained any critical sense of evidence.”

West encounters and is accompanied in her journey by a series of characters made remarkable and amusing both by a native heroic impulse to wildness and by the fineness of her observation. Even the smallest character receives a (broadly) sympathetic illumination, and in the things noticed and the noticing of them, we are lead to six.

6. A Negative-Image Portrait of its Author.

West tells us relatively little about herself. She goes to Yugoslavia because, as she puts it;

“I had to admit that I quite simply and flatly knew nothing at all about the south-eastern corner of Europe; and since there proceeds steadily from that place a stream of events which are a source of danger to me, which indeed for four years threatened my safety and during that time deprived me for ever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.”

And she returns because she finds something there, a way of living, a pattern of seeing the world, that gives her something she needs, and that she thinks we need.

But everything we see and experience is through her, and this gives us a deep picture of her character, her marriage, her class and the nation that produced it. She speaks of England very little but everything she notices and everything she says and does not say and even the way she constructs her sentences and the placement of humour in her paragraphs, reeks of a particular kind of Englishness. At once tolerant, compassionate and hypocritically judgemental, her silence lending power to both qualities, sometimes wisely passive, sometimes shamefully and dangerously so.

West can understand Serbian to some level for most of her journey, she conceals this from both her guide and chauffer. She can hear what they say to her, she can also hear what they say about her, and they do not know this. This tells us a great deal about her opinion of her, and something of her opinion of them.

She is never sucked in. She cares for the country, she is interested in it, her compassion is real, her interest is deep, but she skates, a little, over its surface. It is a combination of her class, she is upper middle-class, travelling with her banker husband on government-approved business, her nation, at one point her guide, in a state of anger calls the English silent and superior, and there is some truth to this, and her natural character. She observes, this makes her a better, deeper and less-prejudiced writer, and slightly less human. In a complex polity where everybody takes a side of some kind, to move through it and take no side, shows you a great deal, but guarantees there are things you will never see. History will never let you see it in one panoramic view, if you see the whole, like an emperor surveying a map, you miss the meat and flesh that makes it up, you see what people do but your calculations of them will always have some missing part, if you live it win you flesh, you see only what is before you, and you miss the whole.

West is an Emperor of history. She is a kind and humane Emperor, but she hangs above it none the less, most of the time.

7. A Tragic Hampstead Novel/Horror Story.

A ‘Hampstead Novel’ is a line, I think by Ian Banks. It describes a particular kind of story where everyone is educated, middle class, polite and a series of important career and family events take place which put subtle pressures on the cast.

One of the engines of the Hampstead novel is that because everyone is very polite and very repressed and keen to get on, the writer can layer horrors upon them without crushing the sense of normality which the story requires. At first gently, the careful crystalline structure of middle-class relations can show more clearly and subtly the tiny shifts in relations. But then the writer may continue, heaping up unspoken resentments and kebabing the cast with mortal insults to a much greater degree than they could with any other group of people. 

There is an aspect to BL&GF that is almost a Hampstead novel. West and her husband are guided on their journey by a man named Constantine. This adventuresome, whimsical, heroic, plump Jewish Slav is one of the key characters of the book. He is funny, informative, boastful, extrovert, intelligent, sensitive and ‘the best companion imaginable.’ By the time we reach the mid-point of the book the audience has almost certainly fallen in love with him, as have the narrator and her husband.

And then we meet his wife. Gerda.

Gerda is perhaps one of the most monstrous discoveries in all of modern literature. She would make an able wife to the character of the Judge from Blood Meridian. Her evil is not operatic, it is subtle, slow, stupid, mediocre, a little like the devil from the Brothers Karazomov. Gerda is an insensitive self-assured, smug, bovine German racist. She hates both Slavs and Jews. She hates the English. She wants very much to be friends with the narrator and her husband. She feels she deserves their respect, she manipulates her way into joining the expedition. She subtly ruins and destroys everything around her.

I won’t give you any quotes about her, here is her index entry.

Gerda, 457 ff., 484 ff., 496 ff., 615 ff.,
   633 ff., 749 ff., 897 ff., 972, 1099; point
   of view of, 800; symbol that is, 801 ff.

Constantine loves her and we watch this love corrode and destroy him. It is truly horrible. It is a situation that could only take place amongst very polite, well educated people. Only a high level of refinement could expose Gerdas shrivelling horror of non-comprehension. If almost any of the events described took place amongst the working class members of any country, the story would last about five minutes, someone would call someone else a cunt and then someone else would get punched. It is a deeply sad revelation in the book that this keeps not happening. No-one punches Gerda, Gerda punches no-one, the horror drags on and on and on. It is almost as bad as the history of the Balkans. It kind of is the history of the Balkans. Which brings us to book eight.

8. A Stunning Piece of Anti-German Propaganda.

My god the Germans do not come out well from this book. It’s true that at the time of writing they are invading the world and killing a large number of the people in it, but still.

We meet firstly the Germans on the train to Yugoslavia, they exult West’s husband for his knowledge and experience, they then force a dark skinned Italian boy out of the carriage on the basis that he does not have a first class ticket. It later emerges that none of them have first class tickets either.

For a while we sense Germany only through its semi-regular attempts to invade places and kill large number of people, when we do meet a live one, we get Gerda. Once Gerda is disposed of we finish off with an evil impudent blonde monk who chases West through a church and tries to take her passport, a;

“Chauffeur who always served us during our visits, a thick-set man in his early thirties, with yellow hair and blue eyes that looked blind, like Gerda’s”

Whom, it turns out, has been driving around the head of the local ethnic cleansing brigade. Then finally another golden-haired girl, an Austrian student who is studying Rebecca West,

“It disconcerted her when I reported that as a young person I had tried to write like Mark Twain, that he still seemed to me more fortunate than the princes of the earth in his invariably happy relationship with his medium. “But is not Mark Twain an American?” she asked doubtfully. “And a humorous writer?” It was instantly clear to me, as it would have been to any writer, that literature was a closed territory to her and that she would never be able to read a single book.”

It then emerges that the student is an Austrianised Slav, who also hates Slavs.

As well as having an excitingly poor view of Germans and Austrians, West has a very high opinion of Serbs, she acknowledges that they are occasionally terrifying, ungovernable violent murderers but she regards them as deeply-souled spiritual wanderers.

All of this may be true but we might question the recounting of a public assassination if we are left with more sympathy for the assassins than the person they actually shot to death. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand may have been a horrible person from an oppressive empire and Gavrillo Princip may have been an innocent boy but it is still true that one of these people shot the other one.

I suppose this takes us to nine.

9. A Spiritual Investigation into the Nature of Man.

This is the keystone of the book and two elements of a spiritual nature provide it’s title. The Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

The Black Lamb

The Lamb is a sacrifice on a bloody rock whose death the author sees, and fears. On the Macedonian border, West observes the enactment of a primitive rite. Locals take live animals, lambs and chickens, to a black rock in the centre of a field. They kill the animals in order to ensure they, or their  wives, can become pregnant and have children. It is an exchange, a life for a life. We get the feeling that this particular rite may have been going on a very very long time indeed, with no interruption.

West sees this and hates it. It revolts her on a physical level, but, much more importantly, she loathes what she calls ‘the logic of sacrifice’. This is something she thinks of as a terrible tendency in mankind, the basic and deeply rooted assumption that good things must be paid for with terrible bloody things. That both the strong, who wield the knife, and the weak, who are to be killed are far far too willing to accept the rightness and correctness of the act of redeeming violence, regardless on which side of that act they stand.

It’s difficult to speak of this idea as consideration of it runs through the entire book from beginning to end, we must say either too little, and ignore its significance, or too much and risk mistaking some complexity of West’s point of view.

The Grey Falcon

The Grey Falcon appears in a poem about the Serbs defeat by the Turks at Kossovo. The falcon flues from Jerusalem and delivers an offer to Tsar Lazar, who leads the Christian forces.  Shall he have an eternal heavenly kingdom, in which case he and his army must be destroyed? Or shall he have a brief earthly kingdom, for which he must gird on his sword and ‘drive out every Turkish soldier’.

This is a complex poem and like all poetry it probably means a variety of things to the people who speak it. West sees it as the deep tendency to defeat in the mind of those with high ideals. (I hope I am not mis-representing her). In particular she relates it first to the nature of the Left, with which she is quite familiar. West came up through the British Left wing and was quietly ostracised because she kept saying complicated difficult things like ‘Communism is a bag of shit’. Eventually, everybody decided that communism was a bag of shit, but West decided too early and this upset people, she could have at least gone along with them for a bit longer for decencies sake.

West thinks that very large numbers of idealistic people with the best possible ideas, really, really do not want to win. They want to oppose, and they want to lose. I agree with her.

But the Grey Falcon is about more than just a social group, it is a quality in the heart of mankind. The hidden but powerful desire for a noble, tragic and morally perfect defeat, over a brutal, sneaky, problematic and guilt-inducing victory. The ‘Sainted’ Nemayan kings who preserved Slavic independence for hundreds of years were murdering conniving little shits, the Tzar Lazar, who lost it, was a tragic hero torn from one of his own frescos.

These two wounds in the nature of humanity are the things West is writing about and writing against. They are what she sees at every level in the Balkans and in Balkan history and what she sees growing like a cancer in her own time. Do you want life, or do you want death? Do not assume that you fully understand what is signified by either of those.

“The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length. Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.”

This is what the book is about. And that brings us to the end.

10. A Transmission from an Apocalyptic World.

“After a moment when I believed I was thinking of nothing, only watching the woman pick up her sheets and the girl call her pupils and heavily quicken her steps when they paid no heed, my heart turned over. I must, in fact, have been thinking of many things, all of them disagreeable. I said to myself, “my civilisation must not die. It need not die. My national faith was valid, as the Ottoman faith was not. I know that the English are as unhealthy as lepers compared with perfect health. They do not give themselves up to feeling or to work as they should, they lack readiness to sacrifice their individual rights for the sake of the corporate good, they do not bid the right welcome to the other mans soul. But they are on the side of life, they love justice, they hate violence, and they respect the truth. It is not always so when they deal with India or Burma; but that is not their fault*, It is the fault of Empire, which makes a man own things outside his power to control. But among themselves, in dealing with things within their reach, the have learned some part of the Christian lesson that it is our disposition to crucify what is good, and that we must therefore circumvent our barbarity. This measure of wisdom makes it right that my civilisation should not perish.”

West journeys through what she regards as the near-ruins of a culture oppressed for centuries by an alien invasion. She is writing after the first world war, Fascism is rising around her like a tide. In true onion-ring fashion, she both begins and ends with the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia on the streets of Marseille, he was killed by fascists and his death is a little bell ringing in herald of the Apocalypse. (This construction also makes the whole book one of her time machines.)

For West, we, the English, are the Serbs, the Nazis are the Turks. The Falcon is our hidden will to die. To die for real. She is writing as bombs fall around her. This is our Kossovo. Remember, this is happening as she writes. She does not know how it will end. She does know that many of the people she wrote about are certainly dead. And that is the dedication of the book.


At the time of writing, Yugoslavia has made a brilliant, futile, stupid last-minute resistance to the Nazis. Its practical stupidity only highlights it’s pointless courage. There is no way for them to win, they depose their government and fight anyway.

“Belgrade woke again from the sleep in which she had spent the last few years and was possessed by the genius of her history, harsh, potent, realistic, demonic, furtive and nocturnal.

Late on the night of march the twenty-sixth the wife of General Dushan Simovitch, Chief of the Air Force, was puzzled because he was so wide-awake. He expressed the opinion that perhaps he had drunk too much coffee. At half-past two in the morning he was still awake, and showed no surprise when there was a knock on his front door. “What does all this mean?” she asked. “Only,” said the General, “that there has broken out a revolution and I am the leader of it.” She answered, in a wifely spirit, “Nonsense, it’s no use telling me that you are the leader of a revolution.””

So this is a woman writing in the heart of an unfinished Apocalypse, and that makes the considerations of life, and death, of the will to live and the hunger for sacrifice, much more than academic. She is writing of death in the teeth of death. She is writing against it, literally, right against it. We peel back the last onion skin and emerge, not into a quixotic scene of Slavic life, with the brave chauffer Dragutin trying to teach a tortoise to eat chocolate and Constantine following the movements of an observed bird with his expressive fat hands. We emerge into the blitz, Dragutin is probably dead. Constantine, and his children are probably dead. Even Gerda may be dead. The Pasha of Tears is on the outside of the song, not the inside, the history is now.

Except, of course, for us, it’s not. We are free of the terror by a margin of sixty years. For the modern reader, the song is once again, just a song, with a handy lesson, to be taken only as you wish in the quiet hours of the day.

But the fact that it was not so when it was made, and the huge constellation of everything inside it, and the fact that it is about Europe, Empire, Identity, Women, Men, Art, Religion, Life and the hinges of death and even its dark ribbon of prejudice, makes it one of the books of the 20th century. If we consider England only it may be the book of the 20th century.

(The Kindle version is £8.23.)

*I (Patrick Stuart) simply have to interject at this point. I think it is.


  1. Okay, I almost read this when you posted the quotations before, but now I really will read it.

  2. been reading it, Patrick's dead on (though some of the dialogue is so operatic as to be uneblievable and distracting) but still, wellllll worth it. very very good

  3. I needed something substantive and beautiful to read. Thank you.

  4. Does it work to comment on a post this old?

    Anyway, another recommendation:


    1. It does, blogger emails me with every comment

  5. God, Rebecca West is great. So, so great.

    A couple of notes. She grew up in Circumstances, middle class but very strapped for cash -- IMS her father either died or skipped out when she was a young girl. At 18 she became the mistress of H.G. Wells, who was 40 at the time. Which sounds sketchy AF and kinda was but the affair lasted over a decade and produced a kid; later she became critical of Wells but in a literary / intellectual way and without hard feelings. Meanwhile she carved out a name for herself in journalism and essay writing. There's an essay she wrote around 1910 where she rips up G.K. Chesterton for doing his Fun Jolly Fat Man act while actually being a raving anti-Semite and aahhh, she's just so wonderful.

    She had her blind spots and hangups -- you nailed several of the biggest ones, gays and Germans and Islam -- and she was a terrible mother. But she never stopped thinking about stuff, thinking hard, and she changed her mind. She attended the Nuremberg Trials and her essays on them are terrific. (She was sleeping with one of the American judges.) Really, all her nonfiction is at least worth reading and much of it is excellent. (Her novels, oddly, don't seem to be as good. Go figure.) There are two or three collections of her essays floating around out there; pick them up. You won't be sorry.

    Doug M.

    1. "But I loathe this anti-Semitism as I loathe the devil. I think the ferment of Celt and Saxon that makes up our British blood is so wonderful a thing that we need fear no other race alive. I have an insular pride in the fact that those who are responsible for the revival of this insane cowardice – Mr. Belloc and Mr. Chesterton – are both of French Blood." - Classic. https://www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/clarion/1913/chesterton.htm