2018-07: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West

An open letter to Rebecca West

Dear Rebecca West,

There’s a moment I hope to remember, for when I need to remember it: I was reading some of the final pages of your book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in a chain sandwich shop in a sliver of American exurbia, a bit of placelessness that feels like American nowhere and everywhere all at once, a place I would never care to render with the care you applied to the lands you traveled through, and I ran out of lunch hour before I ran out of pages, and I put your book into my bag, and I realized I was likely performing this particular action that I’d been repeating almost daily for nearly two months for the last time in my life.

I wondered if, as you left Yugoslavia at the end of your Easter journey, you knew, or could guess, you’d never return. I suspect so. I wonder what that meant to you.

I’ve been carrying your book around for almost two months, coincidentally paralleling the length of your journey. The next day, when your book wasn’t there, after I’d finished it at home the night before, my bag felt perceptibly lighter, and I missed the weight of those pages tucked against my side. Your book has been a great comfort to me, these last weeks. I mean, February’s tough, but it was more than that. Because like you had to end your book during a time of terrible global upheaval—”its record of pain and violence and bloodshed…while there rages round me vileness equal to that which I describe”—I’ve had to look up from your book at an America that seems increasingly mired in its own horrors, rushing toward utterly needless self-sacrifice, commingling societal despair with gross intellectual and political oversimplification, and I’m realizing how comforting the literal weight of those pages has been, a constant reminder that, yes, history is full of pain and stupidity and selfishness and death, but that also there are those among us who treat it with the subtlety and the appreciation for complexity it demands and deserves, and who seek out the beauty in it, and who have found a belief in the abilities of humans and art and the unpredictable nature of all of it to put forth ideas and times of value and honor, in spite of, or because of, all they must live through and deal with. You found reason to believe things can and will get better, that in our control and our lack of control, we can find our way steadily toward a world that’s worth it.

You’re right; history does not breed true. Yet I wonder how much of this you might have seen coming. And I wish you were still here to help me get a better idea of what to think about all of it. Of course, I don’t really know you, just an impressionistic version sketched out by the pages of your book and through drips and drops of information gathered from various half-skimmed articles. But the version of you I know, I like, and I appreciate; you seem like a cool chick. And I want to thank you, for making me want to scream and laugh and pound the table next to my sandwich (which was neither dark nor romantic) as I saw all these threads coming together into a complex, rich knot. I admit, I have often felt like an unworthy reader, in your deeply researched, intently lived presence. I can’t begin to image what you’d think to say to that. It doesn’t matter. I still thank you for writing your book, and for the opportunity to read it, and that I hope I can pass it along, nudge a few more people to read it, today.

Here’s to hoping we find today the courage we need to live the lives we ought.

Yours across time,

Dispatches from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Dalmatia

Ed. note: I wasn’t going to publish this, because I’m not sure I like it, and I suspect I’m wrong and displaying ignorance more than once. But I also kind of detest seeing a post stuck in draft form that I spent some time on. And also this is just a blog and nobody’s probably going to read it, so, what the hell. For what it’s worth I wish I’d done all the sections of the book this way, but better. But the book got away from me and I wasn’t willing to spend the rest of the year on one book alone, however brilliant and compelling it may have been, all the way through. Maybe someday I’ll try again. Maybe someday I’ll live forever. – dmd3

“Bare hills, and young men that shout, both the product of human incompetence, of misgovernment. That is the immediate impression given by North Dalmatia.”

For various reasons, not least of which is the realization that I’m trying to settle into reading a 1100+ page travelogue and history about a region and a time I have next-to-no real context for or recognizable personal relationship with, my reading throughout this section became a bit more scattershot, a chapter here, a chapter there, with little sense that I was synthesizing the various histories and events into a recognizable set of consistent themes or convenient take-aways. But I think this worked fairly well for this section, in which West and her husband move around much more more than they did in the Croatia section, with nearly every chapter of the Dalmatia section taking place in a new city, each with its own more self-contained history.

It’s also a polite reminder that if a 1100+ book could be easily summarized, there’d be no point in reading the damn thing. So!

Still, a few themes carried through. If the Croatia section focused on the historical influence of Austria and Hungary, we see more references to Italy and Turkey in the Dalmatian region. In general, this region, to West, feels like one that been left not well served by its history, and I’m not particularly certain, even when she’s describing the beauty of the region, or bringing strains of its history to life, that she particularly enjoyed her time here. (Of Fiume: “[A] town that has the quality of a dream, a bad headachy dream.” Of Gruzh, near Dubrovnik: “[H]ere the Dalmatian coast utterly loses the barrenness which the traveller from the North might have thought its essential quality.”)

While I didn’t call them out specifically earlier in the book, her concerns with gender roles and class struggles do surface several times throughout her time in the Dalmatian region. Her response to the occupation of Fiume (which she only actually passes through, briefly, in the book) by the writer-turned-self-made-dictator Gabriele D’Annunzio (“an adventure which, in mindlessness, violence, and futility exactly matched his deplorable literary works”) makes for some icy burn:

“All this is embittering history for a woman to contemplate. 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 led to the brink of war by its passion for a totally bald woman writer…. Here in Fiume the bald author has been allowed to ruin a city: a bald-headed authoress would never be allowed to build one.”

On the flip side, she compares, in Korchula, a certain kind of masculinity that she sees in three men working in a shipyard (“These were men, they could beget children on women, they could shape certain kinds of materials for purposes that made them masters of their worlds.”) with what she suggests is prevalent back home in England (“…overweight and puffy, who can drive a car but knows no other mastery over material, who presses buttons and turns switches without comprehending the result…”).

Her visit to Rab highlights the contrast between the rich and the poor, and she goes into exhaustive detail about the historical caste and governmental systems of Dubrovnik. (Though it’s also in Dubrovnik she notes the passage of some of the earliest anti-slavery legislation in history, in 1417.) Her time in Split, while recognize the critical importance of Slav nationalism, also highlights the difficult relationship between people and the very concept of central authority, which stands in contrast to English attitudes; as West’s husband says, of the people they’ve met in Split, and their relationship to the rule of Yugoslavia from Belgrade: “These people are born and trained rebels. They cry out when they see a government as if it were a poisonous snake, and seize a stick to kill it with, and in that they are not being fanciful. All the governments they have known till now have been, so far as they are concerned, poisonous snakes.”

A couple of other odd observations I’d like to throw down without going to too much trouble over just yet:

  • If there’s a theme that starts to tie these various threads and histories together—and there’s plenty of fantastically related histories I’ve not even begun to allude to here—it’s West’s sense that the “quality of visibility…makes the Balkans so specially enchanting.” Which, at least, on the surface, is an odd observation, from someone who uses every bit of sculpture work she can find to launch into the exhaustive histories of the people she’s meeting.
  • The above feels tied to an ongoing interest in peasantry: “There is nothing precious about this Dalmatian civilization. It rests on a basis of good peasant sense.”
  • If she’s come to Yugoslavia to see “what history meant in flesh and blood,” what I think she’s finding is history in the act of repairing itself, history that’s responding to the endless history that’s come before it. It feels a bit like what I imagine America might be like today if we weren’t working so hard to forget that some of the most fucked up shit we’ve been involved in or done to ourselves has happened a literal/historical eye-blink ago.
  • Maybe this is just me, but I find a bit of amazement in insight that comes from seeing what isn’t present, not just what is, and I found quite fascinating West’s observation, in Korchula, of the fact (assuming its a true one) that, set against all the natural advantages of the people of this area of the world, is the disadvantage that the “ideas of the French Revolution had never been talked out in this part of the world.”

Miscellaneous Quotables

On history:

“It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of skunk.”

On Rab:

“Imagine finding a place where one heard perpetually a musical phrase which was different every time one moved a few steps, and was always exquisite. At Rab something comparable happens to the sight.”

Of rule by the sword:

“A society which is ruled by the sword can never be stable, if only because the sword is always passing from hand to hand, from the ageing to the young.”

Dispatches from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Somewhere around two-thirds through

Okay, so much for the “blog about every section as I read it” plan. Er…whoops, I guess? It’s cool. It’s 2018. I have a job and a kid and I’m not very good at much of any of this. Though, I did do a entire post about the Dalmatia section; I’m pretty sure I didn’t much like what I said. So that got stuck in the drafts folder. And then the next thing I knew, a month had gone by, and, well, here I am. Story of my life: I was too busy reading the book to write about it.

Yet: yes, I’m still reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and I’m still enjoying it, I’m overall engaged with it, wrapped up in it, even as I’ve shifted back and forth on how intensely I’ve been reading it over the last few weeks. I ebb and flow with how deeply I try to read and how much I let it wash over me, without being fully convinced that either mode is superior to the other. I’m already a slow reader, and then to slow myself down even more on something so dense (but so smooth!) is to court levels of devotional frustration I haven’t partaken in in quite some time. It’s amazingly easy to grow blind to the amount of amazing writing I’m consuming as I work my way through this book, particularly on those days when I just need to get through some pages my god am I still reading this?

It’s weird. It’s fun.

It’s fair to say I’m at that odd point where I’m starting to get a little bit impatient. But really just a little bit. It’s like, I can hear the other books on the TBR pile calling to me, but, muffled, as if from under a blanket in a different room on the other side of an aquarium. I mean, I knew at the outset it was likely to take me about two months to get through the entire book, and unless I bonked out in the first week, I anticipated that I was going to be cool with that, that this was the time of the year to get wrapped up in a behemoth like this, that I intend for this to be my one gigantic read of the year and then I can spend the rest of the year reading the backs of cereal boxes or whatever. And by and large, the devotion has paid off. Even as that impatience starts sending half-lost telegrams, I know when I finally put this book down it’s going to feel really uncool to not have it active in my life. I’ve got about 400 pages to go and I as much wish that number could gain or lose a zero at the end of it and that my brain would scale accordingly.

There remains that worry that my ignorance about the region and its history and the period in which West is writing is blinding me to the nuance of her opinions that may be masquerading as observations or her biases that may be cloaked in omittance; I sample essays that discuss whether she’s pro-this or anti-that and I feel a bit dumb for generally thinking she’s mainly interested in the experience of traveling through this region and putting its history and politics to paper. Of course then I remind myself that if I were A True Student of History trying to gain the deepest possible understanding of all this stuff I wouldn’t be stopping with a single source, anyway. (And obviously I know West is smarter than me several times over, and that she herself spent five years, at least, writing this book, so I can be forgiven for not being perfect.) This all reminds me that there’s often books I like to imagine re-reading sometime in the future, a theoretical (and very tall) pile on which I’d definitely place this one; it would be interesting to see what additional insight would come after some follow-up study.

And yet for all that when I tune into it and notice how much I notice, I still come back to why I’m most engaged with this book, right now: the quality of the writing is exquisite. Whether she’s describing a scene or a meal or laying out a stretch of history or throwing shade at Gerda (Gerda!), it’s hard to imagine many other writers I’d want to spend this much time with at this point in my life about these particular subjects (or maybe any subject). If for nothing else this is why I feel comfortable saying, two-thirds through, that, yes, it’s worth reading this book, if you’re curious, interested, ready and willing. And that I wish I could go back in time and read along with you, hypothetical smarter-than-me reader, so we could point out to each other what we’re pointing out to ourselves, every couple pages. This is a literary buffet that deserves to be shared.

Dispatches from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Prologue, Journey, Croatia

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?

Miscellaneous Quotables

On honor:

“Honour often seems a highly artificial convention, but life in any level of society where it has been abandoned astonishes by its tortuousness.”

A dancer:

“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.”

On comfort:

“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.”