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Rebecca West: Balladeer of the Balkans

Rebecca West in 1969 - Credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the woman behind an 80-year-old masterpiece, one of the most important books about Europe of the last century

A couple of weeks ago a tweet by the American novelist Jake Wolff made me laugh out loud. It read, “Creative nonfiction writers be like: I first ate a hotdog when I was six years old. I remember the taste, the scent, the summer. SECTION BREAK. Hot dogs were invented in 1693 by Steven Hotdog. According to Scientific American, the hotdog is…”

We’ve all read books like that. I fear I’ve written some of them. ‘Creative nonfiction’, as Wolff calls it, is a difficult genre to pull off. If you’re writing dispassionately you can end up with a printed-up version of Wikipedia. Put too much of yourself into the mixture and you risk accusations of narcissism and self-indulgence.

Wolff’s tweet appeared in my feed at just the right time, when I was re-reading a book that might even be said to have founded that particular genre. It’s one of the greatest travel books ever published, it’s written by one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century, it’s 80 years old this year and it’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.

Primarily an account of West’s travels in Yugoslavia during the 1930s, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon encompasses history, art, culture, philosophy, politics and society in Croatia, Dalmatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. It’s exhaustive and – at nearly half a million words – exhausting.

It sprawls, it enrages, it thrills, it absorbs, it transports, it’s one of the most important books written about Europe in the last century and is still as insightful as when it was published eight decades ago.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon divides readers. When you peruse surveys of the greatest travel books of all time West’s epic is either top of the list or not on the list. Its sheer length – my edition runs to 1,150 pages, not including the index or introduction – is enough to deter many potential readers and it does take a considerable level of commitment to get through, but this is no non-fiction Ulysses.

West, part Dorothy Parker, part Martha Gellhorn (but entirely Rebecca West), manages to make her passages of history reflective and gripping, while her encounters on the road are always vividly realised and perfectly pitched, rarely feeling either self-indulgent or exploitative.

Sometimes the detail can be a little relentless – she spent five years writing up a journey that took more or less six weeks – but once West puts her arm through yours and begins to point at buildings, lakes, mountains and bridges she becomes an engaging travelling companion: knowledgeable, opinionated and endlessly curious about the region and its people.

West’s writing took her to all parts of the globe but something about the Balkans resonated in a way she never experienced anywhere else.

“Nothing in my life had affected me more deeply than this journey through Yugoslavia,” she wrote. “This was in part because there is a coincidence between the natural forms and colours of the western and southern parts of Yugoslavia and the innate forms and colours of my imagination.”

Even then you feel she’s barely dipped a toe into what it was about the Slavic people and their lands that affected her so profoundly, right from her first visit. The book opens with a prologue set on the sleeper train taking West and her husband to Zagreb for the second of the three short visits she made to the region that form the book’s narrative.

As they rattle through the southern European night West tries to convince her husband, who was visiting the region for the first time and was tagging along reluctantly, that the trip will be lifechanging – but realises he’s fallen asleep.

“It was perhaps as well,” she writes. “I could not have gone on to justify my certainty that this train was taking us to a land where everything was comprehensible, where the mode of life was so honest that it put an end to perplexity. I lay back in the darkness and marvelled that I should be feeling about Yugoslavia as if it were my mother country.”

At that stage she’d been to Yugoslavia once, for a few days the previous year as part of a lecture tour organised by the British Council.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is arguably the last great book of the first golden age of travel literature. Yugoslavia and the Balkans during the 1930s were among few places in Europe still relatively undocumented for outsiders. In this sense West was a genuine explorer and her book would remain the only detailed description of Yugoslavia and its people right up until the ethnic wars of the early 1990s.

Other books have been written since and West’s occasionally falls out of the limelight, but Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is still held up as the closest to a definitive account of a complicated region. Diplomats and journalists packed a copy in their luggage as they headed to besieged Sarajevo or beleaguered Zagreb, seeking to understand the genesis of a many-layered conflict.

Robert D. Kaplan published Balkan Ghosts in 1993, a book many credit with shaping Bill Clinton’s policies as he co-ordinated peace efforts. Kaplan openly credited West’s work as a major influence on his, even commenting that given a choice between losing his passport and misplacing his copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, he’d settle for turning up at border crossings, patting his pockets and shrugging.

However useful or otherwise it might have been to those trying to make sense of the wars of the early 1990s, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was written for its time.

More than a travelogue with a sprinkling of history, the book was a searing indictment of the appeasement policies pursued by some nations during the 1930s, a critique of empire, a defence of small nations, not to mention a portrait of marriage and a watershed in a quest for self-knowledge. “I have a feeling that once I have done this book all my work and my life will be simpler,” West wrote to her husband while working on the manuscript.

She was born Cicily Fairfield in 1892, adopting the pen name Rebecca West when she began writing tubthumping opinion pieces for the feminist magazine Freewoman and the left wing periodical The Clarion in order, she said, to spare her mother’s blushes. The name is that of the female protagonist of Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm, who says “live, work, act, don’t sit here and brood”.

In her late teens she already displayed a literary flair and certainty of opinion that belied her youth. Reviewing a book by H.G. Wells in 1912 she labelled him “the Old Maid among novelists. Even the sex obsession that lay clotted on Ann Veronica and The New Machiavelli like cold white sauce was old maid’s mania, the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed by airships and colloids”.

It prompted a response from Wells, then a meeting that led to a decade-long affair with the married author more than 20 years her senior that produced a son. Other lovers included Lord Beaverbrook, a member of the Romanian royal family and Charlie Chaplin, but it was her relationship with Wells that cast the longest shadow. According to Virginia Woolf, West would always struggle with “the weals and scars left by the hoofmarks of Wells”.

At 36 she married merchant banker Henry Maxwell Andrews, “a dull giraffe” she called him but the marriage endured until his death in 1968. She wrote several novels and a string of non-fiction works including The Meaning of Treason about the trials of British traitors including William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw-Haw, and The Train of Powder, expanding on pieces she’d written for the New Yorker about the Nuremberg Trials.

On her death in 1983 the legendary editor of the New Yorker William Shawn said: “No one in this century wrote more dazzling prose, or had more wit, or looked at the intricacies of character and the ways of the world more intelligently.” She was made a Dame for her contribution to British letters, but for all the fame and praise her polymathic writing brought her during her lifetime, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has come to define her.

The first part of the title came from a sacrifice she witnessed in Macedonia: a black lamb killed on a sacrificial stone while women struggling to conceive prayed the offering might prompt a change in fortune.

The grey falcon dates back to the key moment in the history of the Serb nation, the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. According to an epic poem, on the night before the battle against the Turks the Serb leader Tsar Lazar was visited by a grey falcon and offered a choice: victory in the forthcoming battle and the chance to build a church on the site, or defeat, earning a heavenly kingdom instead.

According to myth Lazar chose the latter, condemning the Serbs to centuries of Ottoman rule, a deliberate act of self-destruction that appalled West. She’d watched moves to appease Hitler with mounting horror, and in an epilogue written during the early days of the war she wrote that: “The difference between Kossovo [sic] in 1389 and England in 1939 lay in time and place and not in the events experienced.” If people can possess this innate predilection for defeat, she thought, “then all the world is a vast Kossovo.”

For all its prescience, for all its perpetual circling back to relevance as a result of global events even on the crest of its ninth decade, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon still stands up as one of the most significant works of travel literature of all time. As the Observer said on its publication in tribute to West’s writing, “it is probably much too long yet there is not a dull page in the 1,200”.

She could be very funny, possessing a sharpness of wit that hasn’t dated. Describing newsreel footage of the 1934 assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia she writes of, “an official running wildly down a street in top hat and frock coat demonstrating the special ridiculousness of middle-aged men, who have the sagging, anxious faces and protruding bellies appropriate to pregnancies, but bring forth nothing”.

She could also be wise, empathetic and evocative even in what at first glance appear to be mere asides but which open out into wider philosophical questions, such as when she encounters an old woman wandering the mountains of Macedonia.

“I am walking about to try to understand why all this has happened,” the woman tells her. “If I had to live, why should my life have been like this? If I walk about up here where it is very high and grand it seems to me I am nearer to understanding it.”

As West saw a version of herself reflected back to her, the mountain of a book she left behind is now the very high and grand place where even today, 80 years on, we come a little closer to understanding the Balkans, Europe and beyond.



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