I have written before of my great admiration for Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon — my candidate for Book of the (Twentieth) Century. Read that short piece and you’ll know why. About West herself I write at some length in my book Original Sin: a Cultural History.
While writing Black Lamb West referred to it as a “wretched, complicated book that won’t interest anybody.” Later she described it as a “complete explanation of the course of history, but that of course will prevent anyone from having time to read it.” Reading proofs (when the book had grown from an essay to its final half-a-million words) she saw what she had done as an “inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view.”
At one point West visits a place she calls Kaimakshalan — more accurately Kajmakčalan — a mountain on the Greek-Macedonian border. “And what has happened there?” she asks. “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.” What she confronted over and over again in her travels through the South Slavic world was how entangled history is, how incessantly events link to other events, the chain disappearing into the mists of time. West wrote as Europe was falling into ruins once more, and came to see quite clearly just how many of the catastrophic events of her own time stemmed from the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds on the Plain of Kosovo in 1389 — but how could that be explained to a modern person, occupied by the present-mindedness endemic to our world?
Bue she poured all her soul and all her writerly skills into making her outrageously long story a vivid one. To a reviewer who had praised the book for its “artlessness” she replied: “Artlessness! You say ‘There is no more system or completeness in it than in the colour-scheme of wild flowers in a field.’ How I worked to get that effect. I wanted people, not the great and good, but just people — to learn what the South Slav situation is and its importance to them. They couldn’t learn anything about that situation without following a long, complicated story, making many more demands on their powers of concentration than they were accustomed to concede. To get them to go the way I wanted them I deliberately gave the story the loose attractiveness of various pleasant things in life — such as wild flowers in a field. Again and again I broke sequences and relaxed tension to get the lethargic attention of the ordinary reader along the road.”
I might add that West herself was an extraordinary person, who had no formal education beyond the age of sixteen but had established herself as a professional writer before she was twenty. (Later in life she asked a friend, “What do you think university could have done for me?”) She had a long, complicated, and painful affair with H. G. Wells and gave birth to his son, with whom she had a miserable relationship. She was an atheist who believed in something like original sin: as she once wrote, “If the whole human race lay in one grave, the epitaph on its headstone might well be: ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’” Despite her atheism she several times contemplated conversion to Catholicism. She wrote several books that we should remember better today — I’ll mention one or two in future posts.
My favorite story about Rebecca West is this one, from her childhood, when she was still Cicely Isabel Fairfield (it’s told in Carl Rollyson’s biography of her):
One autumn afternoon [Cicely’s father] asked her why she was digging up horse chestnuts she had buried in the garden. “I am God,” she explained, “and they are people, and I made them die, and now I am resurrecting them.” As he continued to watch her, her father asked, “But why did you make the people die if you meant to dig them up again? Why didn’t you just leave them alone?” She replied: “Well, that would have been all right for them. But it would have been no fun for me.”
Yes, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is twelve hundred pages long. It’s more than worth your time.