Hey! I’m doing it! I’m reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West! Finally! And, oh, holy shit, this book is big!
So: why read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon?
In his introduction, which I’ve only skimmed, Christopher Hitchens suggests that West’s book is basically four books in one. It’s, first, “one of the great travel narratives of our time”; second, it’s “an account of the mentality and philosophy of a superbly intelligent woman”; third, it pulls us “into the vertiginous period between the two World Wars”; and, finally, it is a “meditation on the never-ending strife between the secular and the numinous, the faithful and the skeptical, the sacred and the profane.”
Which, okay: I am here for all of that. But I’m hardly going to delude myself into believing I’m suddenly a great student who is fully going to grok this time in history or this area of the world or the history of this time from a single epic-length piece of travel-slash-history writing that I am at best reading in fits and starts between work stresses and diaper changes. I got things going on, and there’s so much I don’t understand or won’t get or will outright miss as I make my way through this book; I’m trying to enjoy and absorb the ride without freaking out about the fact that I’m not cataloguing every single digression or historical figure or keen insight.
Which is to say, yes, I feel like an idiot trying to write about this thing. Suffice it to say, kids, I hope you’re not here for good essay prompts.
What I can say after a hundred or so pages is that I am unreservedly, unabashedly here for a fifth book that Hitchens alludes to without enumerating as such, the one that ties all these other books together, the one that’s basically a how-to-write-like-hell manual, the brick full of writing that “must be esteemed and shown to later generations, no matter what the subject.” I think I’ve already underlined more of Lamb than I have any book in quite some time; every page or every other page it feels like there’s some sentence or entire paragraph that makes me want to grab strangers off the street so I can read passages at them with wide-eyed ecstasy. Whip-smart phrases, crackly sentences, oh fuck yes paragraphs; if nothing else came of reading this book, if I could absorb even the slimmest fraction of her skill into my own writing, or whatever it is I do these days, I’d be a better human being for it.
“I was then very busy being an idiot, being a private person, and I had enough on my hands. But my idiocy was like my anaesthetic. During the blankness it dispensed I was cut about and felt nothing, but it could not annul the consequences. The pain came afterwards.”
The very opening of the prologue seems to anticipate the reader’s potential wonder at why this book, this trip, is of such importance, as West tells her husband, her traveling companion, who “did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all,” that he’ll understand what the fuss is all about once they get where they’re going. Through the brief history of violence related to the region that had occurred in her lifetime, winding around from the stabbing of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, to the murder of Alexander Obrenovitch, King of Serbia, and his wife Draga in 1903 (“But now I realize that when Alexander and Draga fell from the balcony the whole of the modern world fell with them. It took some time to reach the ground and break its neck, but its fall started then.”), to Franz Ferdinand, to the assassination of the King of Yugoslavia in 1934, West leads us in to her rationale for her trip to the Yugoslavia region, as rooted in the need to better understand the source all these deaths, of so much that could potentially rain hell down on her world:
“Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans: all I knew of the South Slavs…. 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.”
At which point we’re off on the train journey toward Croatia, during which we partake in the inscrutable company of West’s fellow passengers; “I realized again that I would never understand the German people,” she says, setting down one of the themes I expect to resurface throughout the book.
Me, I particularly liked the description of Slavic “dark and rich romantic soups.” That sounds awesome.
West’s time Croatia is spent mainly in Zagreb, in the company of three friends—friends of West’s, not necessarily of each other—who set the stage for the inter-social conflicts and tensions we’ll (again, I anticipate) see throughout the book. They also act as a brief refresher on the general state of affairs leading up to West’s present-day narrative. There’s Constantine, “a Serb, that is to say a Slav member of the Orthodox Church, from Serbia,” and Valetta, “a Croat, that is to say a Slav member of the Roman Catholic Church,” and Marko Gregorievitch, “a Croat from Croatia.” Their relationship to Yugoslavia is represented as generational, with Gregorievitch, a former revolutionary against Hungarian rule, seeing the younger Constantine as “impious in the way he takes Yuglosavia for granted,” and regarding Valetta as a “traitor” to the ideal of Yugoslavia.
Time and again throughout this section we’ll return to the history between Croatia and Austria and Hungary. Croatia is described as a nation without a heroic past, which gives its history a lack of a sense of purpose, standing in contrast, for example, to English or United States history. On the flip side, something I found fascinating was West’s observation that the Slavs “hold that the way to make life better is to add good things to it, whereas in the West we hold that the way to make life better is to take bad things away from it.” Chuckle if you must, but this bit provided me the brief insight I needed to get me through exactly one night of trying to get my kid, who would not eat his dinner, to eat his dinner. Though I’m not sure Panera’s chicken noodle soup would be described by anyone as dark or rich or romantic.
I do admire the way West works history in to her writing, the way an observation gives rise to the retelling of the history behind that observation, before flowing back in to the events she’s partaking in in the present tense. It’s all very engaging and generally makes dense subject matter into smooth reading. She’s conscious of her attempt to do so, and I’m not sure if she’s finding what she expected:
I had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood. I learned now that it might follow, because an empire passed, that a world full of strong men and women and rich food and heady wine might nevertheless seem like a shadow-show: that a man of every excellence might sit by a fire warming his hands in the vain hope of casting out a chill that lived not in the flesh.
She takes care in animating historical figures throughout, like “the great Croat patriot,” Bishop Strossmayer: “Out of the political confusion of Croatia which makes for the endless embitterment and impoverishment I have described, this creature had derived sweetness and well-being.”
It’s confusion and complexity she ultimately sees in her time in Croatia, confusion and complexity she foresees for its future. She also finds intense beauty here, as in the following vision from an automobile during a trip from Zagreb to the country to visit several castles; I might have to print and frame this one for myself so I can stare at it all the time:
“Thereafter the snow was so thick on the wooded hills that the treetrunks were mere lines and the branches were finer than any lines drawn by a human hand. No detail was visible in the houses of the villages at the base of the hills. They were blocks of soft black shadow edged with the pure white fur of the snow on the roofs. Above the hills there was a layer of mist that drew a dull white smudge between this pure black-and-white world and the dark-grey sky. There was no colour anywhere except certain notes of pale bright gold made by three things. So late was this snowfall that the willows were well on in bud; their branches were too frail to carry any weight of snow, and the buds were too small to be discernible, so each tree was a golden-green phantom against the white earth. There were also certain birds that were flying over the fields, bouncing in the air as if they were thrown by invisible giants at play; their breasts were pale gold. And where the snow had been thickest on the banks of the road it had fallen away in a thick crust, showing primroses. They were the same colour as the birds’ breasts. Sometimes the road ran over a stream, and we looked down on the willows at its edge. From this aspect the snow their green-gold branches supported looked like a white body prostrate in woe, an angel that had leaped down in suicide from the ramparts of the sky.”
I mean: oh fuck yes, right?
“Honour often seems a highly artificial convention, but life in any level of society where it has been abandoned astonishes by its tortuousness.”
“She had that vigorous young beauty that seems to carry its keen cold about with it. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks glowed as if she were not really here, as if she were running on her points up the cornices of a snow peak to a fairy ice-palace.”
“It is not comfortable to be an inhabitant of this globe. It never has been, except for brief periods. The Croats have been peculiarly uncomfortable.”