“Writing At This Level”: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon III

lambandfalconI started reading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon four years ago. I’m still reading it – or, more accurately, I am reading it again. I didn’t stop reading it then because it was no good or I wasn’t interested. On the contrary, I was fascinated and endlessly impressed. But the very thing that so fascinated and impressed me – the astonishing density and rhetorical brilliance of West’s individual sentences – made it very slow reading, and at nearly 1200 pages it’s also, quite literally, very heavy reading. I didn’t consciously decide to stop reading it. I just set it down and read something else for a while, and somehow that “while” turned into four years.

Here I am again, though, back at it. A summer of mostly not very excellent books had made me a bit restless intellectually, and suddenly the remaining 900 pages of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon seemed really inviting. Since picking it up again last weekend I’ve read another 300 pages — not much, really, in almost 10 days. It’s just not the kind of book you skim through, though: there’s no basic plot, no simple gist, that you could grasp if you did that. It’s also not clear how much value the book would have if you were able to reduce it, somehow, to a skeletal level. It is not an authoritative history of the Balkans, for example, though it is, in part, an exposition of and meditation on the history of the Balkans. It is not a colorful travel narrative about the former Yugoslavia, though it is, in part, a rich and sometimes riveting account of traveling there. It is not a political analysis of the rise of fascism — though it moves in those shadows and thus shows its readers the horrors that lurk in them. (One footnote is particularly chilling in its brevity: “I was about to discover the reason for this from a Viennese historian,” West says about a small point of historical interest, “when the Anschluss came, and there was silence.”)

000033Now that I’m almost half way through the book, I am still impressed above all by West’s writing. In his introduction, Christopher Hitchens (after acknowledging some of the idiosyncrasies and problems of West’s commentary on the world she was exploring) concludes that “writing on this level must be esteemed and shown to later generations, no matter what the subject.” I’m not sure that quality of prose (even if we had a 100% reliable and universal measure for it) is or should always be a sufficient condition for reading something. One of the challenges of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon for me is that it is so vast and complex that I doubt my own ability, even when I finally finish it, to evaluate its worth on other grounds, though. At this point I do feel some frustration, in fact, at being so immersed in details and yet still so unable to perceive, never mind assess, larger patterns.

I may never see the forest for the trees, or perhaps by the time I read the Epilogue (which Hitchens describes as “ice-cold but white-hot”) I will have traveled with West at least to her conclusions, and then I can look around for other perspectives on them. In the meantime, here are a few more samples that show, again, the rhythm of her thinking and writing, pulsing between the specific observation and the perceived implication:

What is the use of ascribing any catastrophe to nature? Nearly always man’s inherent malignity comes in and uses the opportunity it offers to create a greater catastrophe.

It is a glorious story, yet a sad one. What humanity could do if it could but have a fair course to run, if fire and pestilence did not gird our steps and earthquakes engulf them, if man did not match his creativeness with evil that casts down and destroys!

Like all other material experiences, sex has no value other than what the spirit assesses; and the spirit is obstinately influenced in its calculation by its preference for freedom.

The more one knows about the [Sarajevo] attentat the more incomprehensible it becomes. It shows also that moral judgment sets itself an impossible task. But when the Bosnians chose life, and murdered Franz Ferdinand, they chose death, for the French and Germans and English, and if the French and Germans and English had been able to choose life they would have chosen death for the Bosnians. The sum will not add up. It is madness to wrack our brains over this sum. But there is nothing else we can do except try to add up this sum.

These wreaths [laid at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier] were displeasing in any case because they were official, and had been ordered by preoccupied functionaries and supplied as articles of commerce for a minor state occasion that would provoke no wave of real feeling in the people, but their provenance reminded one that the quality of Balkan history, and indeed of all history, is disgusting.

[Mozart’s music] presents a vision of a world where man is no longer the harassed victim of time but accepts its discipline and establishes a harmony with it. This is not a little thing, for our struggle with time is one of our most fundamental conflicts; it holds us back from the achievement and comprehension that should be the justification of our life.

Again history emitted its stench, which was here particularly noisome. Nothing a wolf can do is quite so unpleasant as what can be done to a wolf in zoos and circuses, by those who are assumed not to be wolfish, to be the civilized curators of wolfdom.

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The photos are from my own trip to the former Yugoslavia in 1986.

“The sword in the hand of humanity”: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917

youngrebecca“Boldness is Rebecca West’s strength,” Jane Marcus says in  her edited collection The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917; “She polished the weapons of invective and denunciation into the tools of a fine art.” That combination of boldness and artfulness makes West irresistibly quotable: people who hang out with me on Twitter may have noticed that I, at least, couldn’t resist sharing some of her erudite zingers. As most of the essays and reviews in this volume are fairly short, it’s West herself that makes the biggest impression, though cumulatively her political and aesthetic commitments are clear: as Marcus outlines them, “the young Rebecca West stood for revolution, free love, equal pay, the working class, votes for women, and the most advanced ideas in literature.” Some samples — and keep in mind that between 1911 and 1917 West (b. 1892) was between 19 and 25:

On The Considine Luck by H. A. Hinkson, The Spinster by H. Wales, and The Trespasser by D. H. Lawrence.

The baldness and badness of popular novels is as touching as the ugliness of a cherished rag doll. What overflowing tenderness must be in the heart of the child who loves this monstrosity, we think. And so with the people who read these novels — what tireless imaginations they must have, to perceive joy in these bare chronicles! We superior persons are too feeble to go searching for beauty on our own like that. We wait idly until Thomas Hardy comes back from witnessing fierce wars between the flesh and the spirit, and Conrad sails home from the strangest and most distant tropic. But the common man picks up some artless work such as The Considine Luck by H. A. Hinkson and creates his own beauty. He takes the puppet heroine, Grace Smith, and paints her wooden cheeks with the flush of his sensuous dreams; he lights her eyes with the radiance he has seen in unattainable women in pictures or at theatres, till Grace Smith is more fair than his first love. In a sense he writes his own book. . . .

It is not unkind to say that the above two books need never have been written. Of course, one is glad that they have been written, just as one is glad that there are dog shows at the Horticultural Show, even though one never goes near the place oneself. One likes to think of all those jolly little puppies; and similarly one is glad that Mr. Wales feels up to his work, and quite certain that a lot of people will get ingenuous pleasure out of Mr. Hinkson’s book.

 On J. M. Kennedy’s English Literature, 1880-1905.

He misses the really high purpose which the Yellow Book school fulfilled. These young men of artistic ambition came into the world to find that style was held in contempt. Dickens had dragged the English language through the mud, Browning had thrown bricks at it, Trollope was sit on its chest and reading the lessons to it. The house of art was full of men who had magnificent messages, but nevertheless ate peas with their knives. This revolted Wilde, possibly because, coming from Ireland, he was accustomed to hear good, clean, English; but in any case he and his followers set about imposing style on English literature. That was the purpose of their existence, and they fulfilled it. There was no new philosophy in the air, so they had no new gospel to preach. But they improved our manners. It is thanks to them that we are as fastidious about words as we are about personal cleanliness.

 On The Carnival of Florence by Marjorie Bowen.

There are two kinds of historical novel: the dietetic and the dressy. In the first one cries ‘Tush!’ and calls for nut-brown ale and a pasty. In the second one sighs ‘Ah God, my lord!’ and wimples, when one does not stomacher. In both cases local colour is not the complexion of the story but an impediment in its speech, but the latter has attracted a higher type of intellect by the delicious opportunity it affords of spending the afternoon in museums, looking at pretty things in glass cases and pretending that one is doing a good day’s work. For the literary mind enjoys almost everything except its work. Chief among the students of upholstery of the past is Miss Marjorie Bowen, who brings to the research enormous romping vitality and a love for beauty of language in which one would believe more thoroughly if she did not so frequently split her infinitives neatly down the middle.

On The World of H. G. Wells, by Van Wyck Brooks.

 Mr Van Wyck Brooks is one of those young American writers who would have made excellent wives and mothers. He fails from sheer excess of the housewifely qualities. He is saving: just as in happier circumstances he would have put every scrap into the stockpot, so now he refuses to throw away the very driest bone of thought, and insists on boiling it up in his mental soup He is hospitable; the deadest idea does not get turned away from his doorstep. He is cleanly: his bleached, scentless style suggests that he hung out the English language on the line in the dry, pure breezes of Boston before he used it.

On Hatchways by E. Sidgwick.

With the possible exeption of Angela Carranza (condemned by the Inquisition of Lima in 1684), who claimed to have written her revelations with a quill from the wings of the Holy Ghost, Miss E. Sidgwick is the most pretentious woman writer who ever lived.

One more, on The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford (to show that she could praise as well as condemn).

 It is as impossible to miss the light of its extreme beauty and wisdom as it would be to miss the full moon on a clear night. Its first claim on the attention is the obvious loveliness of the colour and cadence of its language, and it is also clever as the novels of Mr Henry James are clever, with all sorts of acute discoveries about human nature; and at times it is radiantly witty. And behind these things there is the delight of a noble and ambitious design, and behind that again, there is the thing we call inspiration — a force of passion which so sustains the story in its flight that never once does it appear as the work of a man’s invention. It is because of that unison of inspiration and the finest technique that this story, this close and relentless recital of how the good soldier struggled from the mere clean innocence which was the most his class could expect of him to the knowledge of love, could bear up under the vastness of its subject. For the subject is, one realises when one has come to the end of this saddest story, much vaster than one had imagined that any story about well-bred people, who live in sunny houses with deer in the park, and play polo, and go to Nauheim for the cure, could possibly contain. . . . Indeed, this is a much, much better book than any of us deserve.

 Oh, OK, just one more, on The Lion’s Share, by Arnold Bennett (because it’s impossible not to think about Woolf’s much more famous essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” while reading this — though Woolf’s appears eight years later).

It is now the fashion in many intellectual circles to despise Mr Bennett, as it is the fashion to despise all authors who have performed the crude act of publishing anything. But it is interesting to notice that because has has worked so hard at the craft of writing, at the art of inventing the dreams of a not wild imagination with beauty, he cannot help but achieve good writing and beauty even in a book written without much devotion and with a light intention.

 Oh, and this one too, on Love and Lucy by Maurice Hewlett (because it takes up a pet theme of mine).

But Mr. Hewlett would probably object, the girl had charm. Yet can anybody who cannot grasp that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal have charm? Can anybody who cannot – to take a simple and revealing test of intelligence — fold up a deck-chair, have charm? Lucy, one feels, could not have passed either of these tests. Isn’t it a sign of commonness, like buying a watch with a handsome exterior and cheap works, to be able to regard such a person as charming? Isn’t intelligence not a separate inserted quality but a necessary condition of beauty, at once a manifestation of a subtle and healthy nervous system and a power which organizes mere physical perfection into beauty that stirs the soul?

 rwestAll of these reviews are, in their own ways, epigrammatically delightful. But they also have a quality of self-display that is in fact slightly wearing after a while: it is perhaps a symptom of West’s precocity, indicative of the youthful zest for being right, or of a critical sensibility compromised (as is so often the case today as well) by the journalistic need to be both pithy and memorable. To be quotable, that is, is not the same as to be impressive, and I find her reviews here more impressive when she tones things down and speaks less from her head and more from her heart. I quoted before from her essay on the death of Emily Davison, for instance; along with the suffering of the suffragettes, it’s the war about which she is most eloquent. Here are some excerpts from her review of May Sinclair’s  A Journal of Impressions in Belgium:

The contrast between the manner of Miss Sinclair’s genius and its achievements is difficult to define. It is as though the usual literary process had been reversed and a mouse had produced a mountain. She writes about life as though she were a little girl sitting on a tin trunk at a railway station and watching the people go by; she writes as though at the  most hopeful estimate she might be another Miss Mitford; and out of this piteousness and diffidence and round-eyed observation there amazingly comes a fierce, large vision of reality. It is entirely characteristic of Miss Sinclair that this record of seventeen days spent in Belgium, which is largely a record of humiliations, and is told with the extremest timidity and a trembling meticulosity about the lightest facts, should be one of the few books of permanent value produced by the war.

Partly it is because her meticulosity makes her describe what writers more accustomed to the battlefield leave one to take for granted. . . . And partly it is because she writes of such a company of heroes as never lived before: of girls of nineteen who trudge over turnip-fields among the bullets to look for the wounded, not in any sudden flame of courage, but as a daily occupation; of women who stayed in Antwerp at their posts till the red skies fell in on them. . . .

And against this background, which is a miracle of of dreadfulness, there moves the Ambulance Corps, which is a miracle of human splendour. It is merciful that, just as one discovers that the world is capable of being infinitely more noble. One perceives quite clearly that some members of this Ambulance Corps must have been intolerable as individuals: ‘practical’ women who use their common sense to rasp their neighbours’ shins and regard suavity as a part of incompetence. And yet, united by their collective purpose of courage, they become an organisation so magnificent in its fearlessness that one accepts as a real tragedy the personal grief which makes this book muted like words spoken by one who holds back the tears. No triumph of good work that may come to Miss Sinclair will ever make up to her for the discovery that the artist is unfit for the life of action. And yet every page of this gallant, humiliated book makes it plain that while it is glorious that England should have women who walk quietly under the rain of bullets it is glorious too that England should have women who grieve inconsolably because the face of danger has not been turned to them.

 Faced with that ‘miracle of dreadfulness,’ West is angrily impatient with wishful “emotional” solutions or simplistic pacifism, such as the proposal by Ellen Key’s Women, Peace and the Future that “mere femaleness is going to end the war”:

 Mere platitudinous assertions as to the niceness of peace and the nastiness of war are useless in such crises, and the ‘motherly’ advice of Miss Key that the belligerent nations should refrain from denouncing the sins of others and should turn their attention to their own defects, is actively mischievous.

If we refrain from regarding the invasion of Belgium as a crime, we foment a state of public opinion which would tolerate England’s commission of a similar crime if the occasion arose. It is alert and vigorous thinking about specific points, it is the very quality of intelligence which Miss Key belittles, which brings an end to war. The intellect is the sword in the hand of humanity, without which its tears and laughter are as impotent as the tears and laughter of children. That is why Miss Key’s feminism, this woman-worship that would have women cultivate laxness of mental tissue so that they shall dissolve into a hot emotional vapour that shall act as a Turkish bath to the Superman, is an offence not only against women but against the race.

Reading through this collection I was frequently reminded of Testament of a Generation: what years these were of passionate, uncompromising, yet humane writing in the service of both political and literary ideals! How well did West know Holtby and Brittain? Marcus’s introduction notes that to Brittain West was “the embodiment of the feminist cause, the twentieth-century successor to Mary Wollstonecraft.” The Berry / Bostridge biography mentions West’s friendly treatment of Brittain at a party in 1933 and there are scattered further references to letters and meetings. How stimulating it would have been to share in their conversations — and yet I’ve also been thinking, as I read West’s ruthless pronouncements, that this is not the kind of person I might like best in real life (West sounds difficult, if not quite as challenging a personality as Olivia Manning). Also, much as I appreciate West’s rhetorical flair, this is not the kind of writing I seek out in contemporary contexts, when I tend to find it tiresome. Though I certainly identify as a feminist, I let my Ms. subscription lapse in the mid 90s. I wonder why I enjoy polemics so much more at some historical distance. Or is it that these particular polemicists bring something to their work that isn’t there in the contemporary equivalents? Who would be the equivalents today of this “Fleet Street feminism” anyway? Jezebel? Feministing? What critics would you point to who combine strong political critique with a strong literary sensibility?

“That promise will not be kept”: Rebecca West, This Real Night

westrealnightEvery time we left our pianos the age gave us such assurances that there was to be a new and final establishment of pleasure upon earth. True that when we were at our pianos we knew that this was not true. There is something in the great music that we played which told us that promise will not be kept . . .

This Real Night is the sequel to Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. It was published about thirty years later, and apparently there was to be a third volume completing the series. This Real Night was published posthumously, and the publisher’s note to my edition suggests she hadn’t entirely finished working on it when she died. That might explain the odd tempo of the novel, which is extraordinarily dense — almost tediously so at times — through the first two thirds or three quarters and then concludes with a rush of emotional intensity. It feels compressed more than incomplete, though, and perhaps that sensation of lopsidedness is not a defect but a strategy to make the ending strike the reader, as it does the characters, as a transition from a long, complex, but unified and meaningful past into a future tragically unmoored from it. “I am writing all this down,” Rose says at one point,

in full knowledge that it will not now seem important, for the reason that that is just what marks off that past from our present. Everything was then of importance. Everything was of equal value. In life we were not divided. Life itself was not divided.

This Real Night picks up the story of the Aubrey family, now without their mercurial burden of a father and relatively prosperous thanks to their mother’s cleverly having preserved some valuable paintings as insurance against his fecklessness. The musical daughters, Mary and Rose, have progressed to studying in musical academies in London; the unmusical daughter Cordelia, who had so distressed the rest of her family by her insistence on playing the violin, pursues conventionality with the same single-mindedness and self-assurance that they bring to their art. In this novel West continues her ruthless cultural elitism: there’s a particularly painful scene in which Cordelia’s former mentor Miss Beevor (“the poor, poor idot”) is accidentally shown how little the musical Aubreys think of her when their mother tries (tactfully) to get out of taking Miss Beevor to a concert that’s beyond her musical reach:

“If it is not to be the St Matthew Passion,” said Miss Beevor, implacably, “let it be this young woman you have been talking about.”

“No, no,” said Mamma, “do not think of her either. Let us leave such things to the young, we will go to the Queen’s Hall.”

“I do not want to go to the Queen’s Hall,” said Miss Beevor. “I have been to the Queen’s Hall. On several occasions. I know that I am not a gifted musician. Nor a highly trained one. But surely it need not be taken that I am quite without musical taste.”

 That night Rose finds “Mamma sitting there among the shadows, the gas not lit,” in tears. “Why are you crying,” she asks. “I was awful to Miss Beevor,” is the reply. She is remorseful about Miss Beevor’s hurt feelings, but she has no second thoughts about her judgment of Miss Beevor as someone who is beneath a great performance of the St Matthew Passion or a performance by Wanda Landowska. Great art requires just such ruthlessness. Cordelia has already suffered for it, and in This Real Night Rose too has a brush with it, thanks to her new teacher Mr. Harper:

I was fairly certain that if I had played to Mamma and Mr Kirsch as I was playing to Mr Harper I would have rated the compliment of denunciation . . . Their scorn would have meant that I was walking with them in the procession that would gloriously never arrive at its destination; but Mr Harper’s embarrassed indifference implied that so far as he was concerned I had never joined it.

It turns out, though, that Mr. Harper just wants Rose to learn to play as herself, not as an imitation of her mother: “She’s taught you to play as if you were her, and you’re not , by a long chalk.” So Rose sets out to relearn how to play, and it’s hard, hard work: “it was animal warfare, such as a mongoose might wage against a snake.”

I find West’s treatment of the artistic life fascinating because it is at once so utterly committed and so unsentimental: no Aeolian harps here! There’s much more sweat and tears than inspiration. Mr. Harper gets particularly exercised over a picture showing people “woozy” over music: “and it was Beethoven, Beethoven, of all composers, who was supposed to have put them into that state. Music was something you had to do sober as a judge. Hard, you had to be.” But it turns out that this novel is not about Rose and Mary maturing into the musicians they are meant to be, or capable of being. Rather, it’s the story of the lesson the music teaches them: that the promise of pleasure on earth will not be kept. Because while they are practising and, eventually, performing, and becoming gold medallists, and playing at the Proms, and waltzing in the moonlight in this “age of success” — while all this rich living is going on, a cataclysm is in the making. When the novel begins, everyone knows “there were to be no more wars,” but when it ends it is 1914 and their golden age is over, though the extent of the catastrophe is not immediately apparent:

Our careers for some time continued. The First World War did not suddenly turn on civil life and strangle it as the Second did. Simply we saw a fungoid bloom of ruin slowly creep across the familiar objects among which we had been reared.

The greatest threat, inevitably, is to their cherished brother Richard Quin, who is caught on the very threshold of adulthood, who instead of going to Oxford goes to war, and to death. His leaving is protracted in the novel: it takes up many long pages of memory and anticipation and repressed dread. When they finally take him to the station, it’s music that provides a fantasy of evasion:

Under his breath he sang the aria from The Marriage of Figaro which Figaro sings when Cherubino is going to war, and weaved talk through it. There was no difference between the youth of Cherubino and the youth of Richard Quin, and it was delightful to pretend that we were in an opera, that Richard Quin would go to the war again and again for hundreds of years and never get there.

But the moment of real parting inexorably comes: “He said, “I want to swim. And lie in the sun.'” They are together for a few more moments and then “he was not there.” It seems as if everyone including Richard Quin knows he will not come back; it was only my own optimism that kept me hoping, even as I ran out of pages, that the book would end but Richard Quin would not. “I saw the life of those days as a flagon of grey glass, filled with salt water, with collected tears” Rose says;

The occasion of our grief was classically decorous, our brother had died for his country. But our grief was useless. Salt water, spilled on the ground, does not feed what grows there, but kills it.

 There will be more tears, this time for their mother, whose death follows closely on Richard Quin’s. “We had known her to be ill for a long time, all people die,” Rose reflects, “yet we felt as if she were the first person to die, and we the first people to suffer a beloved’s death.” They tend her “with the extremest gentleness” to the painful end, as if to prove the truth of her own despairing cry: “Yet what is useful except love?”

“In the courts of heaven”: Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

fountain

Pejorative generalizations about the ‘traditional novel,’ like debates over the ‘death of the novel,’ often seem to me unduly preoccupied with form, as if broadening the range of human possibilities expressed through fiction isn’t also a literary innovation or revision. The Fountain Overflows is a good reminder that  just because a novel is linear, has characters, and tells a story attached (however lightly) to life at all four corners, it isn’t necessarily derivative, tired, or predictable. All the way through it I was marveling how unfamiliar it was — even though to all appearances it is perfectly conventional. It is its own strange world, populated with utter conviction, and, best of all, told in West’s endlessly unexpected (and always, in unexpected ways, thrilling) sentences.

The Fountain Overflows tells the story of the formative years of the Aubrey children: Cordelia, Mary, Rose (who narrates), and Richard Quin. Their father Piers is a journalist and political radical, fierce, inspiring, improvident. His indifference to his family’s well-being is a palpable thing (“I had a glorious father,” Rose reflects, only to conclude the thought, “I had no father at all”), yet they are devotedly loyal to him even as their lives follow his erratic, disruptive path from job to job and patron to patron. Their mother Clare is a pianist whose brilliant career was cut short by illness. Her absolute, uncompromising commitment to music pervades the children’s lives and, ultimately, the novel, which turns out to be as much an exploration of art as a values system as it is a family saga. Though a sensational murder story takes over the plot of the novel at one point, it seems a drearily mundane crisis compared to the catastrophe that is Cordelia’s insistence on playing the violin. “Cordelia had no idea that she was not musical,” Rose explains, and once she began lessons, she had “shown an extreme and mistaken industry”:

She had a true ear, indeed she had absolute pitch, which neither Mamma nor Mary nor I had, which was a terrible waste, and she had supple fingers, she could bend them right back to the wrist, and she could read anything at sight. But Mamma’s face crumpled, first with rage, and then, just in time, with pity, every time she heard Cordelia laying the bow over the strings. Her tone was horribly greasy, and her phrasing always sounded like a stupid grown-up explaining something to a child. Also, she did not know good music from bad, as we did, as we had always done.

“It was not Cordelia’s fault that she was unmusical,” as Rose makes sure to acknowledge, but it does define her to Clare, to whom “Cordelia was someone who could not play the violin and insisted on doing so.” Worst of all, Cordelia’s technical proficiency deceives her pathetic teacher Miss Beevor into believing she has a great talent, and so the tension builds: how far will Miss Beevor’s insistence on fostering Cordelia’s “genius” take her? Will Cordelia ever realize that her playing is wholly inadequate? To her sisters, ruthless purists, her performances are an abomination:

Had the spirit of music appeared before her, it would have spanked her for there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in her performance except the desire to please. She would deform any sound or any group of sounds if she thought she could thereby please her audience’s ear and so bribe it to give her its attention and see how pretty she looked as she played her violin.

The contest between Cordelia’s determination to keep on playing and the visceral horror her “musical idiocy” arouses in her family is at once acidly hilarious, and — once we realize that Cordelia hopes her violin will be her ticket out of her family’s isolating poverty — tragic. That Cordelia is profoundly misguided in thus attempting to use music to her own ends is never in doubt, though: all the energy of the novel supports Clare’s dedication to the highest ideals of art, by which “being fit to play Beethoven to Beethoven and Mozart to Mozart in the courts of heaven . . . is the impossible aim that all pianists must hold before themselves.” One of the most moving moments in the novel occurs when seedy, leering Cousin Jock — a man with no saving graces otherwise — stuns the gathered family with an extraordinary performance of the flute solo from Gluck’s Orpheo and Eurydice:

When I had heard Cousin Jock play before, I had thought he played too perfectly; it was as if he had sold his soul to the devil for power of performance and naturally enough performed without a soul. But now his powers dwelt humbly and faithfully with the triply mystery of the music he had chosen . . . That passage is sublime as pure sound; the mere relationship between the notes must cause delight. It is also a clear rendering of the climate of the legend, of the pure light of imagined classic Greece. It also states what is felt by all human beings when they have suffered a deep grief which is still, because they are not barbarians, within control, but is yet irreparable, even if its consequences should be afterwards annulled. . . .

When he came to an end we sat silent in the darkness.

Any sense we might have had that their revulsion at Cordelia’s playing was absurd, or at least disproportionate — that to compain “the music was profaned” when she played was to take music too seriously — is dispelled as we share in the respectful hush. To be “row[ed] away to the land where people were who are not musical” seems an exile more painful than the more literal isolation of the Aubreys in their shabby suburban home.

So that is one great surprise and pleasure and provocation of The Fountain Overflows: it challenges us to think about what music really is, and what it is worth — which is another way of saying that the novel is about life, and what it is for. “What is music about,” Rose asks Mary near the end of the novel. “Oh, it is about life, I suppose,” answers Mary, “and specially about the parts of life we do not understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.”

Rose and Mary — and, in her own way, Cordelia — are part of this cerebrally artistic world, but another fascination of the novel is that they are nonetheless children, and the novel also evokes the child’s world of imaginary animals and perverse adults who refuse to treat children as whole people. As the narrator, Rose seems anything but innocent, as she and her sister manage their unworldly mother and cope with their father’s eccentricities and withdrawals, yet she also reports things she sees but does not fully understand, West playing her point of view with Jamesian subtlety. She also (something else unexpected) accepts without question the presence of supernatural elements, from poltergeists at her cousin Rosamund’s home to her own ability to read minds — which, to her mother’s displeasure, she uses as a party trick. “We are Scottish,” Clare finally explains as she tries to deflect the interest Rose’s display has attracted; “we take these things more seriously than the English,” but the real reason is that Clare considers it unsafe to unleash these forces, which are not to be dismissed as childish fancies but rather repressed as only too real: “If there is a wall between the present and the future it is not for us to pull it down.”

The Fountains Overflow is apparently autobiographical: my Virago edition has an introducton by Victorian Glendinning that lays out the many connections between characters in the Fairfield family and those in the novel. I never know quite what this kind of information adds to our understanding of a novel: it’s not as if saying that Cordelia “is a portrait of Rebecca’s eldest sister Letitia” tells us what to make of Cordelia. It’s more revealing about West, really, that she would draw up such a portrait and then, apparently, have the nerve to dedicate the novel to Letitia, as if — what? she wouldn’t recognize herself in it? In a way, that would be the ultimate insult, perfecting the critique of Cordelia’s self-deception. I don’t know much about West’s personal life or character, but from that gesture I intuit that she (like Rose) put many qualities higher than kindness. There is in fact a cruel edge to The Fountain Overflows; that it’s expressed through aesthetics makes it none the less lacerating, and indeed another way of reading Clare and Rose’s musical idealism is as an elitism every bit as exclusive as the social snobbery the Aubreys disdain. Yet as I’ve said before, I think “the chief obligation of a writer . . . is not that she be nice but that she be interesting,” and I found The Fountain Overflows consistently interesting — not only for its intellectual preoccupations but for its human drama, which is as intense as it is bizarre. And I just loved turning every page wondering what sentence — funny or fierce, poetic or pathetic — would catch me up next.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon II: Easter in Zagreb

Over the long weekend I made a little more progress on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I’m going to keep at it in deliberately small increments so that I can stop and stare at the sentences. As it happens, one of the chapters I was just reading describes a visit to the Cathedral in Zagreb on “Easter Eve”:

It has been cut about as by a country dressmaker, but it has kept the meditative integrity of darkness considering light, the mathematical aspiration for something above mathematics, which had been the core of its original design, and at that moment it housed the same intense faith that had built it. This was Easter Eve; the great cross had been taken down from the altar and lay propped up before the stop, the livid and wounded Christ  wincing in the light of the candles set at His feet. It was guarded by two soldiers in the olive uniform of the Yugoslavian Army, who leaned on their rifles as if this was a dead king of earth lying in state. As I looked at them, admiring the unity enjoyed by a state which fights and believes it has a moral right to fight, and would give up either fighting or religion if it felt the two inconsistent, I saw that they were moved by a deep emotion. Their lips were drawn outward from their clenched teeth, they were green as if they were seasick. ‘Are they tired? Do they have to guard the cross for a long time?’ I asked curiously. ‘No,’ said Constantine, ‘not for more than an hour or two. Then others come.’ ‘Then they are really looking like that,’ I pressed, ‘because it is a great thing for them to guard the dead Christ?’ ‘Certainly,’ he replied. ‘The Croats are such Catholics as you never did see, not in France, not in Italy; and I think you ask that question because you do not understand the Slavs. If we did not feel intensely about guarding the dead Christ we should not put our soldiers to do it, and indeed they would not do it if we put them there, they would go away and do something else. The custom would have died if it had not meant a great deal to us.’ For a long time we watched the wincing Christ and the two boys with bowed  heads, who swayed very slightly backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, like candle-flame in a room where the air is nearly still. I had not been wrong. In Yugoslavia there was an intensity of feeling that was not only of immense and exhilarating force, but had an honourable origin, proceeding from realist passion, from whole belief.

It felt odd reading this passage about “whole belief” after days when it seemed I couldn’t turn around without seeing garish rabbit cut-outs and hokey pastel-colored baskets full of cheap chocolate in every imaginable shape. Our customs continue even though they mean  almost nothing to most of us anymore, and the resulting hollow commercialism gets pretty depressing. At the same time, as an atheist as well as someone anxious about nationalism and other ways of marking off identities worth fighting for (“you do not understand the Slavs”), I recoil from this scene, evocative as it is, more than I am exhilarated by it. Something else I did over the long weekend was watch a lecture (which I did find exhilarating) about “Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions: Just Say No!.” The soldiers with their clenched teeth don’t look to me like people willing to change their minds, which (I agree with Dr. Boghossian) is an essential characteristic of rational thought. The problem with “intensity of feeling” is that it is no guarantee of “moral right,” much less of more mundane kinds of “right” or truth. I wonder if West really regrets (as her rhetoric often implies) the more anemic faith of her own country. It may be less exhilarating, but there’s something unseemly about someone who is buffered by it, herself, from the hazards of extremism describing this scene as if it’s an attractively exotic spectacle.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon I: Sentences

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.

Black Moods and Grey Memories: My Own Balkan Journeys

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.