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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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English (15)  French (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (17)
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
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 |
Very well worth the read. In some cases the author is bigoted, reductive and just plain wrong in her conclusions. But for a good portion of the book she provides some amazing insights, descriptive phrases and analysis that is totally relevant to today's world. This book is a sad reminder of how cultural and religious conflict has shaped our world and humanity for a thousand years. I actually found the second half of the book to be the most compelling. Once she starts to visit the smaller more remote villages and places she rises to her task. ( )
  statmonkey | Jan 9, 2016 |
I have to say it otherwise it’s the elephant in the room. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a huge book. Over 1,100 pages long. Actually, it’s 1,181 if you include the index and bibliography. Despite the length Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was, for the most part, a pleasure to read. I have to admit I didn’t finish it. I ran out of steam halfway through. However, West has a great conversational tone to her writing which levels out the dryness of the subject. Anyone who can insert the phrase “political cantankerousness” when discussing the battle of the Mohacs in 1526 is okay in my book. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Jul 9, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:05 -0400)

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Examines the history, people, and politics of Yugoslavia at the beginning of World War II.

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