- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

On Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Kajmakčalan [1]

I have written before [2] 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 [3].

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 [4] — 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 [5] 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 [6] 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 [7] is twelve hundred pages long. It’s more than worth your time.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "On Black Lamb and Grey Falcon"

#1 Comment By Steffen Silvis On December 3, 2012 @ 7:32 am

I wandered Yugoslavia on the eve of its violent disintegration with “Black Lamb” as my travel companion. I remember where I was (which town, which square, which cafe table) as I pored over West’s brilliant achievement. I still maintain that “Constantine” is one of the finest portraits in literature, and I was pleased to learn years later that he was undoubtedly based on Stanislav Vinaver, a Serbian writer who has, oddly, yet to find English translators. I was also relieved to find that he survived the catastrophe developing on the story’s margins. It is a book that I have given all of my best friends.

#2 Comment By Uncle Vanya On December 3, 2012 @ 7:36 am

Re: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

An excellent read, indeed. Absolutely. Well worth the time for so many different reasons. It was long, but so well written that even by page 1200, I still wanted more.

#3 Comment By Noah Millman On December 3, 2012 @ 11:30 am

When I sat down this summer to read a long book (which wound up taking me until November to finish), I was debating between War and Peace and West’s masterpiece. Now I need a break of short books before I tackle another doorstop – but as soon as I’m ready, she’s teed up.

#4 Comment By Hunsdon On December 3, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

Like Steffen above (if I may be forgiven the informality), I traveled to Yugoslavia on the brink of its dissolution, and saw enough to disabuse me of the line we were fed in the West.

Many thanks for bringing this book back into my consciousness, and I’m eagerly awaiting it’s delivery.

#5 Comment By cw On December 3, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

I will give it a try. I just finished The Baroque Cycle + Cryptonomicon so the 1200 pages is not a deal breaker.

#6 Comment By Steffen Silvis On December 3, 2012 @ 3:41 pm

Mr. or Ms. Hunsdon, any reader of West and fellow Slavophile is welcome to address me informally. Yes, knowing Yugoslavia, and then having to live through years of Western media commentary, was disorienting.

#7 Comment By Claire On December 3, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

It took me a very long time to read BL and GF (I’d stop for a while to read other things), but there’s really nothing else like it. Her The Thinking Reed and This Real Night are GREAT novels, and almost no one has ever heard of them.

#8 Comment By Scott Lahti On December 3, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

Strange Readfellows: In the online edition of The World Book Encyclopedia, the entry for English Literature, in its alphabetical and periodized list of biographical articles for further reading finds [8], as had indeed not just the World Book alone but the very real World itself, nine months prior to the outbreak of its very own First War, with a war child (thank you, Jethro Tull, that will be all) and future author by the name of Anthony West (b. August 4, 1914, one week into the conflict, d. 1987) to show for it. After which, Wells broke for tea, before resuming, throughout the rest of this first of the extra-literary Wars of the World, his serial unveiling unto that remnant of English literary womanhood still unacquainted with it, his only-temporarily Invisible Manhood, as ever the prophet in Historically Outlining to them between covers first hard and then soft The Shape of Things to Come.`

Meanwhile, [9] herself lost little time diversifying her versified life among the princes of prints, having had at her own Rebeccan call over the same years the shuffling services of Charlie Chaplin’s … Little Tramp, before finding herself baron the strain of the large-circulation press upon her of the full weight of the well-named and even weller-undammed Lord Beaverbrook.

Meanwhile today, back at the World Book, the Related Information list of articles appended to the article on American Literature lists in vertical succession the names of [10] – a law firm, one might think, meet with Shelley’s declaration that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.

#9 Comment By Scott Lahti On December 3, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Did Alan [11] mean: [12]

#10 Comment By indy On December 3, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

Is it weird I own two copies of this book?

#11 Comment By Anderson On December 3, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

“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.”

… If she has a lot of sentences like that, commenting on how her book is too long and it’s a crying shame it couldn’t be shorter, then it seems her book may really be too long after all.

#12 Comment By Alan Jacobs On December 3, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

Scott Lahti, you are rocking this debased genre known as the “comment thread.”

#13 Comment By Scott Lahti On December 3, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

“you are rocking this debased genre known as the ‘comment thread.'”

Aw, shucks, Pervesser, you make me feel like a natural … I mean, an American … [13]. Now if I can just bring my flighty wings to heel in the recognition that, as the old joke has it, I do well in paradoxically claiming myself the most modest among men, for I have much to be modest about, which might also explain my habit of turning the mirror toward the wall when changing after a cold swim. “His talents were of such subtlety that they could scarce be discerned by the human eye.”

#14 Comment By Jake Meador On December 3, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

The last bit about her considering converting to Catholicism is interesting. All I know of West I read in Hating God which is by a religious studies prof out east somewhere and is a discussion of what he calls “misotheism.” It’s the system embraced by those less interested in proving whether or not God exists and more interested in saying “even if there is a God, he is the devil.” (So more Hitchens, less Dawkins/Harris, basically.) Anyway, West is one of the misotheists that he writes about. My interest was definitely piqued by that book and now I’m more intrigued still. Going to add her to my (too long) reading list. Thanks!

#15 Comment By Hunsdon On December 21, 2012 @ 10:42 am

Today (21 December) is Rebecca West’s birthday, isn’t it?

#16 Comment By Angela On July 11, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

It’s a shame, and very irritating, to read an article about West’s brilliant novel that spends about half the length discussing her religious views. I also find c’est bizzarre that on a website called “The American Conservative”, which I promise I only stumbled upon because I am researching on my PhD dissertation (on new modernist studies), that there are so many avid fans of Rebecca West. You all do realize that she was an ardent socialist, atheist, feminist woman, right? And that all of her work is nuanced with the modification of the bohemian and anti-capitalistic/anti-colonial sentiments, right? I mean don’t get me wrong, I love that you love her, she’s a genius…but I just want to make sure that you’re getting the right message from her work. She would loathe to be misread.

#17 Comment By Alan Jacobs On July 19, 2013 @ 8:50 am

Angela, this is a rather remarkable comment that you’ve made. You seriously find it “very irritating” that someone would write, about an author you like, a blog post that does not correspond exactly to your interests and preferences? You truly feel that something has gone wrong when another reader of Rebecca West does not see precisely what you see? Do you want to live in a world of such absolute unanimity that “it’s a shame” if someone is interested in an aspect of West’s work that you’re not interested in?

Similarly, you find it “bizarre” that a person would like and praise a writer if the two of them do not agree at every point? Perhaps you have a checklist of Approved Political Positions and refuse to enjoy a writer unless their views line up with yours, but not everyone reads that way.

Seriously, what gives?

#18 Comment By Alan Jacobs On July 19, 2013 @ 10:16 am

(And one more thing: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon isn’t a novel.)

#19 Comment By Nick On August 6, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

Angela’s comment got me to buy this book. As a Christian who knows enough to find beauty where it exists, she has observations of humanity that are priceless. Really enjoying it, and am only on page 250. I have such a hard time finding really good books to read.

#20 Comment By george zeman On January 18, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

If at least some American conservatives read, and truly appreciate Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, there may still be some hope for our young, and currently troubled, society. A truly great and thought provoking book.

#21 Comment By Tom Hicks in Alaska On July 19, 2017 @ 12:39 am

July 18, 2017 Black Lamb and Grey Falcon opens a door into the real history of that strange culture region, Europe. West writes (my words) that Yugoslavia is the last surviving European place; there, we learn what we from elsewhere have lost. By her middle years, West was neither atheist nor bohemian nor socialist; she had become that rare being, a mature European with a ferocious critical intelligence. She proceeds to share her articulate discovery of the contemporary Medieval world, Yugoslavia, just before it would come to an end. It takes every bit of the 1200 pages.