Rebecca West and ‘history in flesh and blood’

When I shut down Last Best News on July 1, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the freedom I had decided to give myself. I did have two notions, though: I wanted to leave myself open to the sort of adventure that prompted me to start this blog, and I was finally going to dive into some of the big, fat, unread books sitting on my bookshelves.

First and biggest on the list was Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travelogue that takes a deep look at the history and culture of Yugoslavia, or of those countries that for most of the 20th century were gathered under the banner of Yugoslavia. The book was based on one long trip and several shorter ones that West (that’s her, above), an Englishwoman, made to Yugoslavia in the mid-1930s. It was published in 1941, after the country was subjugated by Nazi Germany, and it has the most tragic dedication I’ve ever read: “To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved.”

The book, all 1,200 dense pages of it, sat on my shelves for so long that I could no longer remember where I’d first heard of it, or when I had bought it. But I plunged in, and it didn’t take long to see why this book was considered a masterpiece. I was about 300 pages into it, in mid-October, when Matt Hagengruber emailed me, asking if I’d be interested in going to Bulgaria and Latvia for the State Department—the adventure referred to above—to talk about media literacy and other journalism-related topics.

That trip would have been amazing under any circumstances, but it’s hard to describe how exhilarating it was to be reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon while I was in Bulgaria, which shares a border with Serbia and Macedonia, two of the countries that had been part of the Yugoslav federation. Bulgaria is also on the high road to Turkey, the seat of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, which contributed so heavily to the violent fracturing in that part of the world. And Bulgaria, itself under the heel of successive empires for thousands of years, had also occasionally invaded and controlled portions of Yugoslavia.

At the beginning of my overseas adventures this fall, I attended a reception in the residence of Eric Rubin, the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria. I have always been something of a book boor, so I had no qualms about asking Rubin, minutes after meeting him, if he’d ever read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. “Of course,” he said, and then went on to recommend other books about the region. The first one he mentioned was Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan, which I had read when it was new, in the mid-1990s. I remembered thinking it was a good book, but of its substance I could recall almost nothing, a sadly familiar situation.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was back home and almost done reading Black Lamb, I was looking for another book on my shelves when I came across my copy of Balkan Ghosts. I opened it for the first time in years and the memories came flooding back. Kaplan opens the first chapter with a quote from Rebecca West: “I had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood.” Kaplan went on to say many things about Black Lamb, including the statement that during his travels in Yugoslavia, he would rather have lost his passport and his money than his copy of the book. Most significantly, he said it was West’s book that drew him to Yugoslavia, resulting in his own great book about that country just as it was descending into the wars and atrocities that unraveled the federation.


“Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” in the original two-volume edition—not the one I have, unfortunately.

I knew at last where I’d first heard about this book, so belated thanks to Robert Kaplan for that long-ago recommendation. I am writing about the book here, I guess, as a way of paying it forward, as a way of urging you, dear reader, to get your own copy of the book and find out why Kaplan and I and a lot of other people treasure it so highly. You could start reading it tomorrow, or you could do as I did and wait 15 or 20 years. It will always be readable and relevant, so it really doesn’t matter.

It’s hardly possible to give a quick summary of this book, which combines travelogue with ancient, medieval and modern history, together with extended forays into religion, philosophy, feminism, linguistics, architecture and painting. West also has a great novelist’s understanding of human nature and motives, painting full portraits of numerous individuals with a few quick strokes.

But there is one thing above all that she wanted to do with this book, as she wrote near the end of it. She said that nothing in her life “had affected me more deeply than this journey through Yugoslavia,” and that what she learned there seemed to be more important than anything else she had ever learned.

“This experience,” she writes, “made me say to myself, ‘If a Roman woman had, some years before the sack of Rome, realized why it was going to be sacked and what motives inspired the barbarians and what the Romans, and had written down all she knew and felt about it, the record would have been of value to historians. My situation, though probably not so fatal, is as interesting.’ Without doubt it was my duty to keep a record of it.”

Her record-keeping is valuable because as an observer and reader she seems to have noticed and remembered every detail. I sometimes wondered if she was one of those people who could get by on four or five hours of sleep, because she must have spent many hours at the end of each day writing down her thoughts and observations. And then all these travel notes and stories were blended seamlessly with the fruits of her wide reading. Her “bibliographic note” at the end of Black Lamb lists more than 60 books in English, French and German that were “most directly relevant” to her own book.

West spends 50 pages on an account of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the start of World War I, an account as notable for its compression as its narrative power. Other historians might have been capable of that piece of work, but then West goes on to deliver a strangely powerful addendum that no other historian would have dreamed of. That story is about a sister of Nedyelyko Chabrinovitch, a young Serbian who made a failed attempt to kill the archduke with a bomb before he was killed with a pistol by Gavrilo Princip.

The sister’s long story revolves around, of all things, a perfectly hideous dress and pair of shoes that her father made for her on the occasion of her being chosen to give a recitation at a prize-giving ceremony at her school. “By the instructions of my father,” she told West, he had a tailor make a dress that was “far too big for me, so that I should not grow out of it for years, and it even had deep hems, that felt like planks, so that the skirt would be long enough for me when I was a grown woman.” As for the shoes, they were a pair of boots made “immensely large for me so that I should not grow out of them, made so strongly that if I had walked through a flood I should have come out with dry feet.” You can feel every molecule of horror and embarrassment felt by the young girl, who did not dare express her feelings to her father.

The point of the story is made clear a bit later, when it appears that Chabrinovitch’s father was such a cruel tyrant that the son’s attempt on the life of the archduke might have sprung less from Serbian nationalism than from hatred for his father. It is a thread of history that few other historians would have noticed, and fewer still would have thought to speak with the sister. As West herself says explicitly, “It has always interested me to know what happens after the great moments in history to the women associated by natural ties to the actors.”

In a similar vein, who but West would have noticed, and then written about extensively and with great brilliance, the intricate embroidery on the clothing of peasant women in Yugoslavia? In Skopje, Macedonia, attending an Easter ceremony at an Orthodox church, she notices a woman who “was the age that all Macedonian women seem to become as soon as they cease to be girls: a weather-beaten fifty.” She also notices that on the sleeve of the woman’s sheepskin jacket there was “an embroidery of stylized red and black trees which derived recognizably from a pattern designed for elegant Persian women two thousand years before. There was the miracle of Macedonia, made visible before our eyes.”

This is the set up for a two-page reverie on Macedonian history. West says the peasant woman, given her age, had lived through the end of “Turkish maladministration,” with all its attendant insurrections and atrocities, followed by the Balkan wars and the Great War, with outbreaks of typhus and cholera between them, followed by more insurrection and unrest and mass killing. “She had had far less of anything, of personal possessions, of security, of care in childbirth, than any Western woman can imagine. But she had two possessions which any Western woman might envy. She had strength, the terrible stony strength of Macedonia; she was begotten and born of stocks who could mock all bullets save those which went through the heart, who could outlive the winters when they were driven into the mountains, who could survive malaria and plague, who could reach old age on a diet of bread and paprika. And cupped in her destitution as in the hollow of a boulder there are the last drops of the Byzantine tradition.”

And so, because West noticed everything in the course of her travels and her reading, she wrote and wrote and wrote, even though, as she wearily says at one point, she is producing a book “which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length.” It is long not only because of the breadth of West’s interests and knowledge, but because few authors ever loved a digression as much as West did. Here is a sampling of asides:

♦ “For the Montenegrins are a race of heroes, but since the Turks have gone they have nothing to be heroic about, and so they are heroic with their motor cars. A Montenegrin chauffeur looks on his car as a Cossack or a cowboy looks on a horse, he wishes to do tricks with it that show his skill and courage, and he is proud of the wounds he gets in an accident as if they were scars of battle. It is a superb point of view, but nor for the passenger.”

♦ “Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”

♦ “Whatever our belief in the supernatural may be, we all feel that Christ was something that St. Paul was not; and it is impossible to imagine Christ hurrying, while it is impossible to imagine St. Paul doing anything else.”

♦ “If there is one certain difference between the sexes it is that men lack all sense of objective reality and have a purely pragmatic attitude to knowledge. A fact does not begin to be for a man until he has calculated its probable usefulness to him. If he thinks it will serve his purposes, then he will recognize it; but if it is unwelcome to him, then he will deny it.”

♦ “Over her bed hung an immensely enlarged photograph of herself when young, which showed that she had indeed never been beautiful, that my husband had been right, she had always had the long-faced vivacity of not the best sort of horse.”

♦ “There is no town I know where an open door more invariably discloses a sensuous and crafty garden; and the cats—I apply here a serious test of civilization—are plump and unapprehensive.”

But maybe you are thinking that West is too brilliant, that her book really is too long, that no reader could possibly absorb a fraction of it. That is probably true, but I don’t think it matters. This is the kind of book that ennobles the reader in the process of reading, that gives the reader so much pleasure that its length is anything but a demerit: you might find yourself wishing she’d go on weaving her spell forever.

At one point we are introduced to a friend of West’s named Militsa. Born in Serbia when it was part of Hungary, she was the daughter of a man of letters, and from her childhood she knew Serbian, German, Hungarian, Latin and Greek, later adding English, French and Italian. She had made a deep study of the literature of all those languages, West said, and “She talks with the brilliance of a firefly, but her flight is not wandering, it is a swift passage from one logically determined point to another.” Once, West showed another friend a letter that Militsa had written to her, and the friend said, “Really, we are all much safer than we suppose. If there are twenty people like this woman scattered between here and China, civilization will not perish.” That comes close to describing the effect West had on me. Just knowing that someone so intelligent and civilized coexisted with the ignorance and barbarism of Nazism goes a long way toward salvaging the era in which she lived.

There is one more thing about West. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon can be almost unbearable in its chronicling of war, slaughter and cruelty, both in the history of the Balkans and in contemporary Europe, but at one point West makes a beautiful confession. Despite everything they had learned and witnessed, she says, she and her husband continued to believe that maybe everything would be all right again in five years, or maybe 10. They believed this, she said, because “there lived in both our hearts a bright idiot hope.”

Our own times, thank god, are nothing like what was experienced in Europe in the late 1930s, but they can seem perilous and troubling enough. I have been feeling a lot better thanks to West, and to the bright idiot hope she helped to implant in my own heart.

1 thought on “Rebecca West and ‘history in flesh and blood’

  1. Paul Whiting

    I had a brief brush with Yugoslavia. In my dad’s work he had colleagues all around the world, and in those travels he struck up with a Yugoslav. My dad thought it might be interesting for me to have a penpal from that country and so he got the man’s address for me and gave him ours. His was somewhere in Zagreb, I believe. The correspondence went well for a while, and I remember being interested in what made that country an OK country even though ruled by communists. These were deemed “good” communists by our country, you see. So, I dove in and asked my pal what it was like to live in a communist country. Our conversations came to a screeching halt and I never heard from him again.

    Wait, there’s one more. My dad was paying a call on another Yugoslav, a bishop of some sort. We went to his apartment in downtown Geneva, and our host served my dad some “slivovits” (sp?) a potent Yugoslav brandy. My dad gave me a sip. I’m surprised it didn’t eat through the glass.

    Paul Whiting



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