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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942)

by Rebecca West

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Writing a five-star review full of superlatives is always difficult: for people who haven’t read it yet, there’s no way any book can live up to the kind of praise that someone who loves it wants to give out. And so I really need to marshall my thoughts here, because I genuinely believe that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is one of the three or four greatest books published in the twentieth century, and I want to make sure I present my case as well as I can. (I say ‘three or four’ just to cover myself – in the privacy of a personal conversation I’d have to admit that personally there’s nothing I’d rate over this.) This is going to be a long review, because I want to quote her in detail.

First of all, let’s acknowledge what a daunting prospect it is. Let’s be honest, eleven hundred pages about the Balkans sounds unpromising, and personally I doubt I would ever have read it unless I’d been travelling to Serbia and Monetenegro myself. Recommending it to people isn’t always easy, because it is certainly big, and it does contain some longueurs – but somehow they become part of its genius. There are some masterpieces which appear to be flawless, the writing of which I cannot even understand – Nabokov’s Pale Fire is one. But then there are other great works whose imperfections seem to be an intrinsic part of what makes them great, and Black Lamb is of that kind. I can understand how it was written, but the sheer depth of thinking involved staggers me.

It’s important to say what it’s not. People who criticise this book sometimes say that its politics are biased, or that recent historiography renders West’s theories about the Byzantine Empire obsolete. This is at best beside the point. The book is not a history, or a political tract: it’s a travel journal, which just happens to involve some deep thinking in several important areas. (Claims that she is ‘anti-German’ are particularly absurd – West and her husband were huge lovers of German culture. What they disliked was Germany’s political environment in the 1930s, which anyone would have to admit is fair enough.)

On the sentence-by-sentence level, her writing is exceptional in its clarity and its striking imagery, by turns witty and beautiful. ‘She was one of those widows whose majesty makes their husbands seem specially dead’, she says of one woman; and of another, ‘It is true that she was plump as an elephant, but she was so beautiful that the resemblance only served to explain what it is that male elephants feel about female elephants.’ On another occasion, after a long description of Orthodox priests chanting hymns, she concludes with extraordinary sensitivity:

If there be a God who is fount of all goodness, this is the tribute that should logically be paid to Him; if there be only goodness, it is still a logical tribute.

I melt over her description of the Islamic call to prayer:

It is a cry that holds an ultimate sadness, like the hooting of owls and the barking of foxes in night-time. The muezzins are making that plain statement of their cosmogony, and the owls and foxes are obeying the simplest need for expression; yet their cries, which they intended to mean so little, prove more conclusively than any argument that life is an occasion which justifies the hugest expenditure of pity.

What is most striking for a modern reader is how blindingly direct Rebecca is. Nowadays it’s customary for a lot of writers to distance themselves from controversial views by using disingenuous constructions like ‘Some people might say that…’ or ‘it could be argued that…’ or ‘one might suggest that…’. There is none of that here: she decides what she thinks about an issue, and says it in the most forceful way she can. Some people have taken this to mean that she has a black-and-white view of the world, but to my mind that is a disastrous misreading. Rebecca West’s understanding is very subtle, she just believes that the best way to advance an argument is to state it in its strongest form. For example, she doesn’t agree with the Islamic practice of veiling women – but she says it like this:

The veil perpetuates and renews a moment when man, being in league with death, like all creatures that must die, hated his kind for living and transmitting life, and hated woman more than himself, because she is the instrument of birth, and put his hand to the floor to find filth and plastered it on her face, to affront the breath of life in his nostrils.

It’s extremely refreshing and challenging to read arguments presented in this way. You won’t always agree with her – often you’ll disagree strongly – but you are always engaged with the prose, a two-way conversation, either yelling out in agreement or leaping out of your chair with objections. She is a visceral writer. But at this point, let me digress slightly into

A PERSONAL INTERLUDE

In the mid-2000s, I found myself lodging with a gay sexagenarian Baron who worked at a Tunbridge Wells bookshop. His baronial title had been inherited from Belgian relatives, he drank a lot of blended scotch, and he was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. His entire house was full of books: they went from floor to ceiling in every room of the house, including the kitchen and the stairwells. A man after my own heart.

One day as we sat sipping whisky, I told him that I’d just started reading the most incredible book: ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I don’t know if you know of it….’ Nick jolted up in his chair. ‘What was that? What did you say? You’re reading Rebecca West? Well that’s – gosh. I knew her, you know….’

It turned out that she had officially opened the secondhand bookshop he used to own, and they had corresponded for a while; he’d even gone up to London with his boyfriend to have dinner with her a few times. ‘I only wish someone had Boswellized her,’ he said to me on several occasions: she was, apparently, even more brilliant and acerbic in real life than she was on paper. One of the things he pointed out to me was how extremely rare it was for a publisher to agree to bring out such a huge book on such an obscure topic in the middle of the war, during paper rationing: ‘In the end they just thought it was of such extraordinary quality that they made an exception.’

So delighted was my landlord to find that someone thirty years younger than him was enjoying this book, that when I left he pulled a 1942 first edition of it, in two volumes, from his shelves, and gave it to me as a parting gift. I kept it open on my desk as I read, and used the Canongate version for scribbling in.

THE REVIEW, CONCLUDED

It is rare to find a travel book that builds a cumulative argument, let alone an argument that can be sustained over more than a thousand pages. Ultimately what makes Black Lamb so astonishing for me is that Rebecca West uses the gifts I outlined above to probe the depths of the human condition in a very clear-sighted way. To end this review I want to look at these arguments a bit more closely – if you want to discover them for yourself, you could consider what follows to be spoilers. As West travels, Europe is on the edge of war: as she publishes, the killing is well underway. What makes humans behave like this?

It’s the sort of grandiose question that usually gets grandiose, evasive answers. But not here. West thinks long and hard about it and she is characteristically blunt in her conclusions. For her there is a systemic problem with the Christianity that underpins western culture, simply because it’s built on the idea of a human sacrifice, and that leaves us fundamentally unsure about right and wrong.

We are continually told to range ourselves with the crucified and the crucifiers, with innocence and guilt, with kind love and cruel hate. Our breasts echo for ever with the cries ‘In murdering goodness we sinned’ and ‘By murdering goodness we were saved.’ ‘The lamb is innocent and must not be killed,’ ‘The dead lamb brings us salvation,’ so we live in chaos.

She goes further than this, though. (She always goes further.) When, in Macedonia, West witnesses a lamb being sacrificed in real life, she grasps that this internal chaos mentioned above has very dark consequences for human society and conflict; indeed, for civilised nations this is a paradox that can make us want to be defeated, even when – especially when – fighting for a good cause.

We believed in our heart of hearts that life was simply this and nothing more, a man cutting the throat of a lamb on a rock to please God and obtain happiness; and when our intelligence told us that the man was performing a disgusting and meaningless act, our response was not to dismiss the idea as a nightmare, but to say, ‘Since it is wrong to be the priest and sacrifice the lamb, I will be the lamb and be sacrificed by the priest.’ We thereby set up a principle that doom was honourable for innocent things, and conceded that if we spoke of kindliness and recommended peace it was fitting that afterwards the knife should be passed across our throats. Therefore it happened again and again that when we fought well for a reasonable cause and were in sight of victory, we were filled with a sense that we were not acting in accordance with divine protocol, and turned away and sought defeat, thus betraying those who had trusted us to win them kindliness and peace.

The implications of this extraordinary passage, when it comes to war, are fully explored. West hates war, but she also hates ‘the fatuousness of such pacifism as points out the unpleasantness of war as if people had never noticed it before’.

That non-resistance paralyses the aggressor is a lie: otherwise the Jews of Germany would all be very well today.

Some causes are worth fighting for, even though doing so feels abhorrent. As far as I’m concerned, this insight has never been better expressed:

I had to be willing to fight for it even though my own cause could not fail to be repulsive to me, since the essence of civilization was disinclination to violence, and when I defended it habit would make me fear that I was betraying it.

This is the meaning of the book’s title, drawn from a Serbian fable about religious sacrifice. In the global conflict erupting around her, Rebecca West could see emerging the same impulses and psychological currents that she had been studying and thinking about for years, ebbing and flowing throughout history and crystallised in the story of Yugoslavia: because human beings are a species that have evolved just enough intelligence to know that what we do is terrible, but not enough to go beyond it; and that leaves us unable to fight for our better nature with conviction.

For we have developed enough sensibility to know that to be cruel is vile, and therefore we would not wish to be the priest whose knife made the blood spurt from the black lamb’s throat; and since we still believed the blood sacrifice to be necessary we were left with no choice, if we desired a part in the service of the good, but to be the black lamb.

I know of no other book that thinks this hard or this deeply, and where depth of thought is combined with such felicity of expression – and that’s without even considering the fact that it was written from within the heart of the maelstrom itself. Following West’s train of thought through this doorstop-sized essay is one of the biggest intellectual trips you can get from picking up a book, and everyone who can cope with the experience deserves to have it. To my mind, Black Lamb is simply unique – a thing of joy and beauty, a peerless example of applied brilliance, a dazzling masterpiece. ( )
3 vote Widsith | Jun 2, 2013 |
Mentioned in The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women by Harriet Rubin.
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
Part travelogue, part history, part love letter on a thousand-page scale, Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a genre-bending masterwork written in elegant prose. But what makes it so unlikely to be confused with any other book of history, politics, or culture--with, in fact, any other book--is its unashamed depth of feeling: think The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire crossed with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. West visited Yugoslavia for the first time in 1936. What she saw there affected her so much that she had to return--partly, she writes, because it most resembled "the country I have always seen between sleeping and waking," and partly because "it was like picking up a strand of wool that would lead me out of a labyrinth in which, to my surprise, I had found myself immured." Black Lamb is the chronicle of her travels, but above all it is West following that strand of wool: through countless historical digressions; through winding narratives of battles, slavery, and assassinations; through Shakespeare and Augustine and into the very heart of human frailty.

West wrote on the brink of World War II, when she was "already convinced of the inevitability of the second Anglo-German war." The resulting book is colored by that impending conflict, and by West's search for universals amid the complex particulars of Balkan history. In the end, she saw the region's doom--and our own--in a double infatuation with sacrifice, the "black lamb and grey falcon" of her title. It's the story of Abraham and Isaac without the last-minute reprieve: those who hate are all too ready to martyr the innocent in order to procure their own advantage, and the innocent themselves are all too eager to be martyred. To West, in 1941, "the whole world is a vast Kossovo, an abominable blood-logged plain." Unfortunately, little has happened since then to prove her wrong. --Mary Park

Review

A masterpiece . . . as astonishing in its range, in the subtlety and power of its judgment, as it is brilliant in expression. (_The Times_, London)

Surely one of the great books of our century. (Diana Trilling)

Rebecca West’s magnum opus . . . one of the great books of our time. (Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker)
1 vote vanpelten | Aug 15, 2011 |
To finish this immense book, a doorstop several times over at a whopping 1181 densely written and small printed pages which is part travelogue, history, with plenty of philosophical musings thrown in, require a good amount of persistence.

The book, hailed as West's masterpiece and considered one of the greatest books of the 20th century, chronicles a 6-week journey that she and her husband made in the late 1930s through the ex-Yugoslavia and provides a mosaic of country and town life in this troubled region. She provides a sweeping account of its history and politics, and while critics question the accuracy of some information, it gives us outsiders a good starting place to explore Balkan history. In general, she keeps a highly romanticized view of the peoples, and amidst some captivating prose and interesting insights, a degree of intolerance shows through.She is especially biased towards the Serbs, termed by some reviewers as her fascination over their "noble savage" character. The Slavs are an intensely nationalistic people, and West is able to depict this very well, and how in history this has served them two ways, to defeat their common oppressor, the Turks, and later on, to divide them along religious lines. West tells us why all these centuries, from the time of the Ottoman conquest, this region has always been volatile, and that their revolts and eventual victory against the Ottoman empire is not just a local or even regional achievement, but meant the defense of Western civilization against the East -- they fought for Europe's very existence.

West evokes picturesque and dramatic landscape. Here, she does not exaggerate, as I saw this for myself when I traveled to parts of the region last summer. Interestingly, nothing much seems to have changed in the countryside --- the wars that rocked the region after West wrote this book that resulted in its isolation from modernizing influences, has kept it like this. In every place she visits, she provides a historical context and some analysis, some accounts of which are quite riveting, two of which, for me, stand out -- the assassination of Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo (which triggered WWI), and the tumultuous reigns of the Serbian kings.

What is tiresome in this book is that West loves to go rambling on what seems at first a philosophical discourse but after a while, turns into some mystical reflections. I find this surprising --- she appears to be very rational and intellectual in her initial approach to exploring the story and the mindset of these peoples, but in trying to understand them, she somehow imbues mystical qualities to events and characters. In any case, she can go on and on, and it is nothing but mind-numbing. She also becomes quite redundant and predictable in her reactions and insights, and at times, quite narrow-minded (the meaning and her interpretation of the symbolism of the book's title, for one). What I also find lacking here, is her lack of interaction with the locals. She had a very knowledgeable guide, and got to meet important political and religious personages, but all the views she got were from the elite. Would it have mattered if she had had a serious conversation with one of those "noble savages" that she idealizes? I guess so... it would have rendered her observations a little more authentic, a little more engaged, and not merely views of the typical well-to-do, foreign tourist who obviously delighted in the exotic and strange ways of these people but who prefers to be detached anyway.

West wrote this book for 5 years, in the period when the rumbling of the imminent war was getting louder and closer. She provides in the Epilogue what i consider in the book to be her most incisive analysis, this time of the events that were sweeping Europe, and how again Yugoslavia would be drawn into the maelstrom.

In any case, this book is an experience to read. There is much to digest here, so it's best to be read in an unhurried way. Be prepared to be delighted, to be disturbed, to be surprised, to be entertained, to be informed, and also to question, to wonder, to understand --- a book which does this and more deserves to be read at least once. ( )
4 vote deebee1 | Oct 30, 2009 |
Possibly the most complete travel account ever written of a single trip through Eastern Europe. Dame Rebecca writes with great passion and understanding of the people, history and the anguish facing the Yugoslavs with the coming of the Hitlerzeit.
Filled with unforgettable characters, all the more remarkable because they are not characters, but actual people. It shows a lost way of a slower paced life in the very end of the 30s as the Yugoslav prepares for another round of warfare and ethnic tensions not merely under the surface as Croats/Serbs/Bosnians/Catholics/Orthodox/Muslims/Jews all attempt to make a go of their new state.
  nealmhughes | Apr 20, 2007 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Amid the chaos, however, she also found poetry, rooted in the legends of saints and warriors of Serbia's Byzantine beginnings. . . . It was a vision that some criticized as more poetry than history, but many readers, particularly in 1941 when the book was published in America, must have been stirred by it.
 
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. Rebecca West's "Journey Through Yugoslavia" is carried out with tireless percipience, nourished from almost bewildering erudition, chronicled with a thoughtfulness itself fervent and poetic; and it explores the many-faceted being of Yugoslavia -- its cities and villages, its history and ancient custom, its people and its soul, its meaning in our world.
 

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Rebecca Westprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
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TO MY FRIENDS IN YUGOSLAVIA, WHO ARE NOW ALL DEAD OR ENSLAVED

Καὶ τὴν ποθεινὴν πατρίδα παράσχου αὐτοῖς,

Παραδείσου πάλιν ποιῶν πολίτας αὐτούς.

Grant to them the Fatherland of their desire,

and make them again citizens of Paradise.
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I raised myself on my elbow and called through he open door into the other wagon-lit: "My dear, I know I have inconvenienced you terribly by making you take your holiday now, and I know you did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 014310490X, Paperback)

Part travelogue, part history, part love letter on a thousand-page scale, Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a genre-bending masterwork written in elegant prose. But what makes it so unlikely to be confused with any other book of history, politics, or culture--with, in fact, any other book--is its unashamed depth of feeling: think The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire crossed with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. West visited Yugoslavia for the first time in 1936. What she saw there affected her so much that she had to return--partly, she writes, because it most resembled "the country I have always seen between sleeping and waking," and partly because "it was like picking up a strand of wool that would lead me out of a labyrinth in which, to my surprise, I had found myself immured." Black Lamb is the chronicle of her travels, but above all it is West following that strand of wool: through countless historical digressions; through winding narratives of battles, slavery, and assassinations; through Shakespeare and Augustine and into the very heart of human frailty.

West wrote on the brink of World War II, when she was "already convinced of the inevitability of the second Anglo-German war." The resulting book is colored by that impending conflict, and by West's search for universals amid the complex particulars of Balkan history. In the end, she saw the region's doom--and our own--in a double infatuation with sacrifice, the "black lamb and grey falcon" of her title. It's the story of Abraham and Isaac without the last-minute reprieve: those who hate are all too ready to martyr the innocent in order to procure their own advantage, and the innocent themselves are all too eager to be martyred. To West, in 1941, "the whole world is a vast Kossovo, an abominable blood-logged plain." Unfortunately, little has happened since then to prove her wrong. --Mary Park

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:32:23 -0400)

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