“In two almost incredibly full-packed volumes, one of the most gifted and searching of modern English novelists and critics has produced not only the magnification and intensification of the travel book form, but, one may say, its apotheosis.”
Thus the New York Times, via Wikipedia, on Rebecca West‘s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” published in 1941 and distilling the fruits of three tours of the Balkans in 1936-38 (it’s careless to simply refer to this region as Yugoslavia now), as well as half a lifetime’s worth of learning and writely experience. It has strong claims to be the greatest travel book ever written, certainly the greatest modern one, and is definitely the best remembered and regarded of any of Rebecca West’s own works, beating her fiction by quite a distance.
It is also a very mad book in many respects, as West ruthlessly and recklessly projects her own prejudices, responses and polemical intentions onto the people, places, society and history around her.
Balance and objectivity are rarely present for long, and are then shuffled offstage. West can hardly find a single positive word to say about any detail or act of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Venetians, the Romans, or any great power: “The German-Austrians felt a violent instinctive loathing of all Slavs.”
Rebecca West on a shouting local:
“He was simply the product of Dalmatian history: the conquest of Illyria by Rome, of Rome by the barbarians; then three hundred years of conflict between Hungary and Venice; then four hundred years of oppression by Venice with the war against Turkey running concurrently for most of that time; a few years of hope under France, frustrated by the decay of Napoleon; a hundred years of muddling misgovernment by Austria. In such a shambles a man had to shout and rage to survive.”
Her prejudices do not always blinker her, though. On the conflict between Serbs, Croats, and the other Balkan member nations, always visible near the surface even in the 1930s, she is clear-eyed; and she is a ferociously perceptive analyst of the psychology of fascism.
West herself wondered later what had moved her, “in 1936 to devote five years of my life, at great financial sacrifice and to the utter exhaustion of my mind and body, to take an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view.” I suspect the answer was Rebecca West. Yugoslavia gave Rebecca West the opening to inflict Rebecca West relentlessly on the Balkans, history, politics, philosophy, society, nature, landscape, human nature, and the reader.
G.K. Chesterton once criticized the Irish writer George Moore for egotism, stating: “Mr. Moore’s egoism is not merely a moral weakness, it is a very constant and influential aesthetic weakness as well,” and denigrating him for producing scenes that amounted to: “Effect of Mr. Moore through a Scotch Mist.” Rebecca West gives us: “Effect of a Balkan Panorama seen through Rebecca West.” Luckily, as it happens, Rebecca West’s persistent unreflective egoism, though a journalistic or sociological weakness, is an aesthetic strength.
“Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” is available as a pretty premium-priced Kindle edition, as well as in print. Fortunately, The Atlantic made the first half of the huge book, following West from Austria to Belgrade, available for free online, and a few minutes work with Word and Calibre or similar can produce a serviceable e-book out of it.
Buy “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” from Amazon for Kindle ($18.99)