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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942)

by Rebecca West

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,339229,650 (4.06)136
A TRAVEL LITERATURE CLASSIC INTRODUCED BY GEOFF DYERFirst published in 1942, Rebecca West's epic masterpiece is widely regarded as the most illuminating book to have been written on the former state of Yugoslavia. It is a work of enduring value that remains essential for anyone attempting to understand the enigmatic history of the Balkan states, and the continuing friction in this fractured area of Europe.… (more)

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English (17)  Italian (4)  French (1)  All languages (22)
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
While I learned a lot about the various Slav cultures & history, I didn't much care for West's own philosophical thoughts. Even when I agreed with her, something about the way she phrased them rubbed me the wrong way. I found it a struggle to read 50-100 pages at a time, which with a book of over 1000 pages is a great inconvenience! ( )
  leslie.98 | Mar 25, 2020 |
Hatred comes before love, and gives the hater strange and delicious pleasures, but its works are short-lived; the head is cut from the body before the time of natural death, the lie is told to frustrate the other rogue’s plan before it comes to fruit. Sooner or later society tires of making a mosaic of these evil fragments; and even if the rule of hatred lasts some centuries it occupies no place in real time, it is a hiatus in reality, and not the vastest material thefts, not world wide raids on mines and granaries, can give it substance.

Throughout my teetering adulthood I often assume and maintain numerous guises. Oh, I am a Southerner, I understand, I'm Irish, It is really for us Intellectuals to ponder, well, you might know if you were a Manchester United fan like I am. So it goes. These aren't fictions, as such, they simply are whiffs of reality rather than constitutional components. This flaccid list could also include I'm a Serb by marriage. I truly feel that I am but I can relate and certainly empathize. The principal reason I never read this book in the former Yugoslavia was that I feared I would be the everybore, asking questions about West's observations, as asking whether so-and-so spa was still in existence and could we go there, that sort of thing. When my wife and I were married 12 years ago I knew about 200 words in Serbian, now I likely know about 150. There isn't constant reinforcement for such in Indiana.

Life, however, is never as simple as that, and human beings rarely so potent.

Rebecca West traveled to Yugoslavia with her husband in the spring of 1937. She had been by herself the year before and returned to document the fascinating land as the dark clouds of war rumbled into view. There isn't a great deal of judgment about races or nations in these 1200 pages. That is refreshing. The pair arrive for a snowy Easter in Dubrovnik and travel to Zagreb and then Sarajevo. The piece here of Gavrilo Princip
and Franz Ferdinand is simply stunning. Then it is on to Belgrade and then to Macedonia, Kosovo (where the fateful battle of 1389 is explored in gorgeous detail) and finally Montenegro. there are a dozens of short sections detailing towns, vineyards and monasteries. The conceptual ambivalence of Roman rule is considered. Did the viaducts and roads outweigh the hegemony? Did the survival of Millennialist cults betray the fate of present day Bosnia? There is an exciting admixture of poetry and philosophy in these historical digressions, how the aesthetic sparkle of the Byzantines was allowed to sleep under 400 years of Ottoman degradation. Along that road, was the Turkish empire really so vacuous?

The narrative is propelled by the foil of their friend Constantine, a poet and Yugoslav official. He's a Serbian Jew married to Gerda, an ethnic German with a loathing of Slavs, the recriminations of Versailles and, well, apparently Rebecca West. This tension keeps the discussions and observations personal but the reader soon tires of Gerda's shrieking. I have been on bad road trips. I would've cut and ran. I finished the book earlier today and I remain afraid to check online for the fate of Constantine.

( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
I found this a really frustrating, and at times infuriating book. West does what I normally really like in a travel book, which is drop in bits of history relating to the particular place being visited, but whereas someone like Patrick Leigh Fermor got the balance really well, and I never lost my sense of the place he was visiting at the time and the history enhanced the travelogue, here the travel aspect is often utterly swamped by the history. I felt throughout my read that what this book really needed was a good (and ruthless!) editor, because it was just Way Too Long. Although in parts her descriptive writing of the places they visit is really beautiful (I really want to visit the Dalmatian islands, Macedonia and Montenegro now), in other parts I had no sense whatsoever of what the place was like, because of the volumes of history attached to that place. That is especially true of Sarajevo (vast reams on the decades leading up to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and what happened to every little bit player afterwards) and Belgrade (pretty much a centuries-long overview of the Serbian monarchy), where there was almost no description of the place, but pages and pages about the history. When I was about half way through it suddenly occurred to me that if the book had been subtitled "A Journey Through Yugoslavia and its History" it would have bothered me much less, because I would have had more idea what to expect before I started, and after that I was less wound up by it (although I still think a good chunk of it could have been edited out).

Another really frustrating thing about it was that the author, for all her support of the suffragettes (she was a supporter of Emmeline, though not Christabel, Pankhurst) included an awful lot of gender essentialism/weaker sex stuff which I got a bit cross with, along with some most definite ethnic and national prejudices (she was not a fan of the Turks or the Germans), and a handful of instances of 'of its time' use of racist language (specifically the n-word). There was also a lot of unnecessary speculation about individual people they came across - for example during a church service she would describe one particular person in the congregation and speculate about the weight of history that was weighing down on this random woman's thoughts and personality, even though they didn't exchange so much as a glance, and she was just as likely spending half of the service thinking about what to make for dinner. There were huge bits of that sort of thing that just needed some ruthless editing.

Throughout nearly all of the journey they were accompanied by a man called Constantine (a pseudonym), a well-educated poet and Jewish Serb nationalist who was now employed by the Yugoslav authorities. Constantine was such an over-bearing presence that I found him really quite stifling at times, as he just knew everything about everything, although at other times he was utterly charming. About a third of the way through the book, the party is joined by Constantine's awful German wife Gerda, who as well as being openly anti-Slav and anti-Semitic (both of which caused obvious tensions with her husband) was also strongly dismissive of everything and everyone she met, including the author and her husband, to the point of shocking rudeness, and if Constantine's presence had been stifling at times, Gerda's was just constantly toxic and oppressive. After what in reality was 2 weeks, but reading felt like 2 years, she fell out with everyone sufficiently to get back on a train to Belgrade in a huff, and I think my sigh of relief was barely less heartfelt than the author's.

The book ends with a (long, obviously) Epilogue which starts off with their last day in Yugoslavia before heading back to Budapest, but then quickly moves on to sum up all the history again, and brings it up to date (the book was published in 1941, so obviously the menace that was sometimes hinted at during the 1937 trip was fully out in the open by then). I don't know what it is about Epilogues, but I felt similarly about this one to the one in "War and Peace", which I similarly skimmed. It was an exhausting end to an exhausting book.

So why did I persevere with it? Because, despite all my annoyance and frustration with it, and my longing for large chunks of it to be cut out, every so often she would drop in a turn of phrase so perfect that it was just sublime. In particular, I absolutely loved her take on Orthodox Christianity (as opposed to Protestantism and Catholicism), and felt that she had really captured the essence of Orthodoxy in her description of its basic premise and theology. Some of her descriptions of places, when they weren't swamped with the discussion of history, were beautifully evocative, and I felt like I was there. There was enough of that (plus my bloody-mindedness that I wasn't going to let it defeat me!) to keep me going, and at the end I am really glad I read it. But I'm also really glad I finished it! ( )
  Jackie_K | Mar 13, 2018 |
I don't read much non fiction, but this book and it's language have stuck in my mind for years. ( )
  quondame | Jan 8, 2018 |
This book is a monument in the English language to the Southern Slavs. It is a cornerstone of travel writing. Rebecca West loved Yugoslavia; her respect for its people and history illuminates the story. It is as topical as ever it was.

I reached the Epilogue of this wonderful book on the eve of the 2016 US election. Writing in 1941 when Yugoslavia had been over-run by Nazi Germany, West spells out the danger of mass political movements that arise from disaffected populations of industrial and urban societies. Their anger is so easily turned against the scape-goat, any available scape-goat. Slavs had been scape-goats for Turkey, Austria/Germany and Italian States for so long (sacrificial lambs). Having won a new found independence after centuries of sublimation, West pours out her praise for a people who chose to resist, having tasted goodness and national freedoms.
  ivanfranko | Nov 8, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (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.

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rebecca Westprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dyer, GeoffIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hitchens, ChristopherIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
First words
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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