One reason it is going to take me a long time to read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is that so many of its individual sentences stop me in my tracks. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about them that is so startling (in a good way). Here are some examples of sentences that I’ve marked in the first 50 or so pages:
She was always thrusting the blunt muzzle of her stupidity into conclaves of state, treading down intelligent debate as a beast treads down the grass at a gate into mud.
All her life her corsets had deformed and impeded her beautiful body, but they did not protect her from the assassin’s stiletto. That cut clean through to her heart. Even so her imperial rank had insulated her from emotional and intellectual achievement, but freely admitted sorrow.
But now I realize that when Alexander and Draga fell from that balcony the whole of the modern world fell with them.
It is certain that he is dying, because he is the centre of a manifestation which would not happen unless the living had been shocked out of their reserve by the presence of death.
I reflected that if a train were filled with the citizens of the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century they would have made much the same complaints.
They are standing in the rain, and they are all different and they are all the same. They greet us warmly, and in their hearts they cannot greet each other, and they dislike us a little because it is to meet us that they are standing beside their enemies in the rain.
It takes the whole of Croatian history to solve the mystery.
[The Habsburgs] were bent on procuring the dissolution of their Empire, on raping time and begetting on her the Sarajevo assassination.
What quality is it in these sentences that makes them so impressive, so exciting? They certainly aren’t poetic, if by that we mean something like mellifluous or musical or beautiful–though they are rhythmic and sometimes startlingly metaphorical. I’ve been thinking that their excitement lies in their intellectual daring: in West’s fearless reach from the particular to the historical, from the personal to the philosophical. Though they are eloquent, memorable, dramatic, I don’t admire these sentences as examples of rhetorical display–I don’t read them and wish I could write like that. Rather, they make me wish I could think like that…and then the writing, perhaps, would follow. It’s the voice of someone who has (or at least believes she has) not just the whole of European history at her disposal but the whole of human nature in her sights. ‘You can’t say that,’ they make me exclaim; ‘you can’t know that.’ But she does know it; she does say it.