There are lots of impersonal reasons that I’m interested in Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Most obviously, it is a widely celebrated literary and intellectual achievement. Here’s what Steve Donoghue says in his write-up on it for his list of 20th-Century Non-Fiction Greats:
All the dark heartaches of the newborn century are shaped into the dark corridors and musty train compartments that make up West’s masterpiece – readers will come out of it knowing quite a bit about Yugoslavia (and the entirety of Eastern Europe), yes, but their hearts will have been harrowed too.
In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Christopher Hitchens calls it a “signal polymathic achievement.” It’s also written by a woman who is herself fascinating, intimidating, original (take a look at this Paris Review interview and tell me you don’t come away from it captivated, impressed, and thoroughly provoked).
These are the best reasons to read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and these are mostly the reasons motivating me to read it now, but I’ve also had it on my TBR list for many years for more idiosyncratic personal reasons. As it happens, my family has a longstanding interest in the Balkans–not because our roots are there, but because many years ago my parents took up international folk dancing as a hobby and became particularly keen on the music and dance of eastern Europe. For many years some combination of us went every week to meetings of the Vancouver International Folk Dancers. From September to June the club met in school gymnasiums; in the summers they set up on a blacktop in Stanley Park. Another club we went to for years met at International House at U.B.C. In addition we attended dance camps, with classes led by specialists from all over. One we went to regularly was a Balkan dance camp held at Fort Worden, near Port Townsend in Washington: this event included, along with days of teaching and nightly dance parties, a fabulous outdoor finale dinner including whole pigs roasted over giant spits. At one point VIFD organized a camp in Vancouver, the “Big Bulgarian Bash” or “BBB,” which ran for several years. My father and sister belonged to the VIFD performing group that used to dance at various local folk festivals and other occasions. My family used to hold Friday night sessions in our basement for the ‘hard core’ dance enthusiasts, and also for many years my mother hosted a weekly Balkan singing group that met Sunday afternoons around our dining room table.
So I grew up with a somewhat unusual awareness of the Balkans, for an otherwise blandly Anglo-Yankee Canadian kid. We had a lot of friends and visitors who were from the Balkans, particularly from what we then still called Yugoslavia–tensions sometimes ran high between the Serbians and the Croatians, but by and large (at least as I remember it) the dance community was not a place for politics but an opportunity to learn and share enthusiasms about music and dance from all over the world, from Quebec to Israel to Louisiana to Romania.
Although I went along pretty regularly to the weekly club meetings for a while and tagged along on many trips to different camps, I wasn’t as involved at VIFD as others in my family. Friday “hard core” nights, when my parents were otherwise occupied, were perfect opportunities to tie up the phone for hours talking to my best friend (remember when there was no such thing as ‘call waiting’?), and I mostly stayed out of the way of the Sunday singing, though I liked to join in for the tea and goodies after. My father and I also took up Greek dancing as “our” thing: we joined the Philhellenic Dancers and eventually were regulars in their performing group–oh, the memories, of late nights full of smoke and retsina as we danced in restaurants in exchange for dinner and drinks. We danced at Greek Day, too, and sometimes were even flown out of town by restauranteurs who thought we’d liven up their weekend business. One day maybe, if I’m posting late at night and feeling nostalgic, I’ll tell the story of the pentozalis performance that ended with someone’s teeth in a water glass, or of the patrons who didn’t quite understand that you aren’t supposed to throw the plates at the dancers.
Anyway, this is all just background to explain why, when my sister and I planned a six-month backpacking trip in Europe for 1986, the year after my high school graduation, it was inevitable that we would head into the Balkans. In particular, we set our sights on Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria, where that year a folklore festival was to be held that happened only once every seven years. Whatever else we did, whatever other turns we took along the way, we aimed to get to Sofia in August in time to go into the mountains to the festival. And we did get there. We left for London on March 1 and flew into Sofia from Belgrade on August 4 (on what I described in my journal as “a rickety creaking old BalkanAir plane”). Along the way we had been to England, Scotland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia.
I wish I could say that my record of my trip across the Balkans is full of insight. I wish that my youthful experience of singing and dancing had made me enough of an expert on the history and politics and culture of the places we visited to make me an observer or commentator even one tenth as interesting and engaged as West is in her drabbest moments. Unfortunately, my journal for that period–though it does include odds and ends of scenic description and some passing reflections on what we were seeing–is relentlessly personal, a record of my own tumultuous emotional state, with the changing landscape little more than a backdrop. In my defense, I was barely 19, and despite having read Middlemarch for the first time (between Paris and Barcelona), I had not yet learned to decenter my own experiences. Also, again in my defense, I had just been through what to me seemed like an extraordinary crisis: during our stay on Crete, I had fallen passionately in love and, believing myself to be passionately loved in return, had declared my intention to stay there forever, only to find that an impossible promise to keep. It was, actually, kind of a Middlemarch moment, in that I was ultimately moved to leave by reflecting that the situation as a whole was not my event only. It was also, though I only really figured this out very recently, a Mill on the Floss moment: to stay would have been to attempt to create a new life–very nearly a new identity–as if my life were not intimately bound up with everyone and everything I had left behind. It’s amazing to me now, really, that I thought I had a genuine choice to make, but there’s no doubt that in the moment it was all very real and overwhelming for me. I think now that the reason I was so emotionally distraught when we left Hania for Athens is that despite my insistence that I was going to be back the following summer, I knew I was saying my final goodbye to everything I thought I had found there.
The grief I felt (and the gardenia pressed between the pages of my journal brings it back with surprising sharpness) cast a cloud over the remaining weeks of our trip. Athens, to me, was little more than a place I didn’t want to be, though even in my self-absorbed state it was thrilling to see the Acropolis from the balcony of our cheap hotel. We took the night train from Athens to Skopje, then went to Belgrade and then to Zagreb, then to the Plitvice Lakes National Park, where we tried and failed (because it rained the whole time) to take a holiday from our travels, which were wearing us both out pretty much by this point. From Zagreb again, we went to the town of Varazdin, where we had arranged to meet a Serbian friend we knew from back home (I think he must have been an exchange student, though I can’t now recall exactly) who was at that point serving in the army. Then we finally did get that holiday, by flying to Dubrovnik,where we spent a couple of wonderful lazy days in a city I remember as being, with Venice, the most beautiful city we visited.
Then it was back to Belgrade to catch our flight to Sofia, where we spent two slightly surreal days navigating as solo tourists in a city still emphatically behind the iron curtain.
We did go to the Koprivshtitsa festival, and by that time–and thanks to the distractions it offered–the cloud was lifting. I was also, oddly, though further from home in almost every respect than I had been at any other point on the tour (it doesn’t get much more foreign for European travel, perhaps, than being in rural Bulgaria) back in more familiar territory: we saw more people we knew at the festival than we had seen for almost six months. So the world I had chosen over the fantasy life I had imagined was already becoming, as it inevitably would, my reality once again.
What possible relevance can this personal history have to Rebecca West’s masterpiece? None, really, of course–except that we bring our whole selves to anything we read, and when I read the last line of her Prologue — “In a panic I said, ‘I must go back to Yugoslavia…'” — it echoed in my mind like the opening line of Rebecca, pointing me back towards a part of my own story that has never been completely resolved. I have no desire to go back to Yugoslavia, but every time I have thought about both reading West’s book and writing about it, every time I have looked at her subtitle (“A Journey Through Yugoslavia”) as the book sits by me on my desk, I have been distracted by thinking about my own journey there, which was a grey interlude between two parts of my life. I’ve sometimes thought I left something behind in Crete–not (or not just) a little piece of my heart, but my youthful romanticism. I’m not, now, the kind of person who gets swept up in the moment. Maybe I never really was, but I was then, for a little while. Then I came home, started university, and the rest is history–or, more accurately, it would have been history, if I hadn’t changed my major to English…
Still, all this reminiscing (out of place, perhaps, on this blog that’s supposed to be about literature and criticism) feels like an unfortunate extension of the solipsism that characterizes my journal entries from that part of that long-ago trip. Or, it did feel that way, until I came to this passage in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon tonight:
Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted. If one’s own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book.
I don’t pretend there’s any particular art in this post, but I think she hits on why I have wanted for so long to write at least something about this part of my past. I’ve been thinking off and on about its significance for more than half my life. I don’t much like critical writing that subordinates the books to the writer. I’m not going to talk about myself when I start writing properly about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. But I’m actually glad that this great book finally prompted me to give a little form to my own existence. If I keep working on it, maybe it won’t be such a bad book, by the end.
To close, here’s some Balkan music for you from Balkan Cabaret, a group well known to my family; the lead singer, Mary Sherhart, gave many workshops at camps and festivals, and also at my mother’s Sunday singing group. The song, “Jovano, Jovanke,” is Macedonian, and is one I heard many, many times, either being sung or being danced to.
Rohan, this is serendipity indeed, as I read Black Lamb many years ago–a wonderful, wonderful book–and have been an avid folk dancer and Balkan singer for more than 35 years. My blog post about your post can be found at . (I hope to speak to you later about the last sentence in my post.)
I have tried–oh, have I tried–several times to read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, but I just cannot seem to get beyond page 50. Several important writers and professors have acknowledged that it is once of the best books of the twentieth century. I guess I just got bored when West started to describe the architecture and places she visited in such detail. However, I believe a large portion of the book would interest me because I am fascinated by the conflict between the Orthodox and the Catholics. Are you finding parts that you finding boring or that you feel as if you are slogging through? I know West is a wonderful prose stylist, and I could learn a great deal from her. I wonder if it is worth giving this book another chance. I just don’t know… There are so many other great books out there that I actually enjoy but that are also demanding.
Thanks very much for your comments, Karen–isn’t it funny when these connections emerge? I think I saw Richard III mentioned as an interest of yours too, on your FAQ page, so it will amuse you perhaps to know that the essay I’m currently puttering away at for Open Letters Monthly is about my long Ricardian past! I’m not sure about reprinting this post: it’s not so much about the dancing etc. as about myself, right? and I don’t know how really portable that kind of personal narrative is. But we can confer off-line.
Ali, I haven’t read very far yet, so I’ll have to report back. I do find the prose mesmerizing when I am reading it, but I haven’t really tested how well that kind of interest will sustain me over 1500 pages. Is it wrong to skim bits you find less compelling? Sometimes that’s a way to get at the big picture and the parts that do interest you, and then the other pieces might fall into place on a (gasp) rereading. My plan is to post intermittently, rather than waiting until I actually finish the thing. That will break up the experience, motivate me to keep plugging away, and allow me to comment on the reading experience while it’s in progress. Now, if only I weren’t juggling so many other books right now…
I like your advice, Rohan. I think it might be a good idea to return to the book and read the parts that interest me though I am always one for reading every single word! : ) But then I don’t always read the long books that you do! I will also be interested to read what you have to say about My Mortal Enemy. I read A Lost Lady by Cather at the recommendation of Litlove, and I loved it! And like you, I have tons of books going right now though I suspect I do not read as quickly as you do.
I loved reading this, Rohan.
Thank you so much, Zani.