February 2014

Mary Mann

An Attempt

Essay as Inquiry: Rebecca West

"I liked her vitality and inquisitiveness and hardness," wrote Virginia Woolf of Rebecca West, "or so I thought it, but we never got within twenty miles of each other, and I don't suppose we shall ever meet again."

It may seem a strange and wistful sentiment from such an iconic writer, but Woolf's great fame came later; during her lifetime she lived in the shadow of West. Ten years younger than Woolf and a great deal less aristocratic, the determined West very early on become a celebrity journalist, essayist, novelist and feminist, described by Time magazine in 1947 as "the world's number one woman writer." She was fifty-five.

In the age-old writerly fashion, being broke was West's initial driving force. West's father left the family when she was eight, so her mother schlepped the kids from London back to her native Edinburgh, and they never had much after that. At sixteen West dropped out of school due to lack of funds. By age nineteen, she was earning cash writing for Freewoman, a turn-of-the-century feminist publication so provocative that suffragette Millicent Fawcett tore up the first issue in a fury.

One of West's earlier pieces was a scathing review of Marriage by H.G. Wells, which sparked a decade-long affair between the two. Suddenly she was not just a feminist, but a feminist having an affair with a married man with whom she eventually had a kid. It was all shocking behavior for the time, more than enough to goad on gossips, yet young West appeared unperturbed by negative public opinion, saving her spleen to vent on public issues rather than private ones. She was a savage critic, lauded as such by none other than George Bernard Shaw, which is a bit like a gold-medal Olympic sprinter admiring someone else's speed. Only right before her death, in an interview in the Paris Review in 1981, did she admit to ever feeling the pangs of bad publicity. "I should like to be approved of, oh yes." she said. "I blench. I hate being disapproved of. I've had rather a lot of it."

But she preferred being single and shocking than tied down and respectful, at least while she was getting on her feet as a writer. "The men near you always hinder you," she said, "because they always want you to do the traditional female things and they take a lot of time."

West remained unmarried until age thirty-seven, when she got hitched to the banker who accompanies her -- as a fairly minor character -- throughout her magnum opus, the book-length essay on Yugoslavia, geopolitics and philosophy: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

"Book-length essay" is not an oft-used term, so it deserves a brief explanation. Though Black Lamb and Grey Falcon could be defined as a travel memoir, historical nonfiction, a study of geopolitics, or even a work of philosophy, none of these definitions grasps the whole. It is all of these things and more, but the through-line is the author's drive to essay, which, originally, is French for to attempt. Simply: to write an essay is to attempt to think on paper.

Thus the structure and voice of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon resembles West's more traditional short essays, mingling the everyday actions of the narrator with her thoughts. In the brief "A Day in Town," for example, she travels into London for errands during the era of air raids, and her observations on war blend with the more prosaic details of her journey to form a coherent whole. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West wanders around Yugoslavia for six weeks, both recording what she sees -- "cartwheel tarts made of fat leaf-thin pastry," "eyes like prune-whip," "shaking with song" -- and what she thinks, sustaining a steady stream of thought which builds to an argument.

It's an extraordinary feat of structure for an essay that's over a thousand pages long -- like a massive bridge held up by wires so thin they disappear in the sun.

West actually went to Yugoslavia twice, but the trip that became Black Lamb and Grey Falcon occurred in 1937, one of those uneasy catch-your-breath years between World Wars. This was right before Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany, and it would be many bloody decades before the regions West delineated as chapters finally became their own countries: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia. In short, Yugoslavia in 1937 was a kettle on the verge of a long, sputtering scream.

But there was no way to know all that back then, and before she began to delve into the politics of Yugoslavia, West was drawn to the place itself: landscape, people, way of life. "Macedonia," she wrote of one of its regions, "is the country I have always seen between sleeping and waking."

She had found her heart's home, but it was changing fast: "the past takes enormous mouthfuls." Industrialization, civil conflict and international warfare lent urgency to her travels that comes through in her writing, which is vital and quick, never plodding, even in the heavily researched portions.

The book's urgent tone is prescient, foreboding, something wicked this way comes. The prologue closes with anxiety: "In a panic I said, 'I must go back to Yugoslavia.'" She was just in time to catch the last days of relative calm. The book is dedicated "to my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved."

West had a knack for predicting what lay beyond, largely due to her astoundingly in-depth research (her bibliography is six pages long) into what had come before. Reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, you get the feeling at times like you're viewing the whole world from high above, where suddenly the connections between countries and actions, both past and present, are drawn clear as the lines indicating plays on Sportscenter. There are countless moments of "oh!" as characters so long dead as to seem fictional -- royal child-brides, say, or pirates -- become real people whose actions are still reverberating in global politics. Every grudge or debt has its source.

The humanizing of politics, even down to the anthropomorphizing of states as spiteful lovers, was West's forte. She saw politics in Yugoslavia as more than the abstract concepts she heard at home; here these concepts were lived realities. "Ideas," she wrote, "are the symbols of relationships among real forces that make people late for breakfast, that take away their breakfast, that make them beat each other across the breakfast-table." She's practically taking her readers by our lapels and shaking us. By relating world politics to events we're more intimately familiar with -- like breakfast -- she helps us feel that they're real.

In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Yugoslavia seems the center from which the actions that led to two World Wars spun out. "There proceeds steadily from that place a stream of events which are a source of danger to me," she wrote, "which indeed for four years threatened my safety and during that time forever deprived me of many benefits." Before setting off on her journey, she concluded that because she knew nothing about Yugoslavia, she knew "nothing of my own destiny."

So she set out, on foot and in books, to rectify that situation. Her exploration of castles and towns merges so well with her tireless research that you have to look hard to see the seams. "The past has made the present," she wrote, and accordingly, one moment she's viewing Dalmatia from a steamer, the next she is deep in the life and times of the Uskoks, refugees who once made their home there. Her mind meanders from a children's procession in Belgrade to the "gangsterish tumult" that had defined the region's politics, ultimately leading to dictatorship.

It is this quality of meandering, of sentences that echo the workings of the mind, that made West a consummate essayist at whatever length she chose to write. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is funny and sad, always thoughtful and never boring. Rather than provide every date and fact, or stick to picturesque scenes, she allows her mind to take regular forays into side topics that interest her, among them eavesdropping, theater, ancient religions and feminism.

The last is perhaps most prevalent. West saw the treatment of women in Yugoslavia and couldn't help but compare these observations with those she'd already made elsewhere. The result is a sketch of the dynamics between women and men worldwide, and on a grander scale, how these dynamics have shaped the history of humankind. She professed gratitude for "the idiocy of women (a concept set up earlier in the book), which must in many parts of the world have been the sole defender of life against the lunacy of men."

Near the end of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, feminism meets philosophy in the form of a woman walking down the road in Montenegro. She says her husband and children were all killed in war, she was forced to remarry to survive, and her new husband is old and in his senility has become unkind. West and her companions want to help her and ask how they can -- maybe a lift to where she's going? She replies: "I am not going anywhere. I am walking about to try to understand why all this has happened."

Why. Why do we have to fear? Why do we treat each other and ourselves the way we do?

Though her appearance is brief, the Montenegrin woman is the hero of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, if it has one. In West's telling, Yugoslavia bears the symptoms by which to diagnose the sickness of humanity, and this woman, who thinks "not for amusement but to find the clue out of the maze," represents the cure.

For a writer as careful as West, it can surely be no accident that her thoughtful -- in the truest sense of the word -- journey through both Yugoslavia and her research library echoes the questing of the woman from Montenegro. The Montenegrin essays with her feet, searching for answers, while West essays with her pen, launching an inquiry. A great mass of ideas, events, and arguments without a tightly wrapped conclusion, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon provokes the reader to begin thinking, not finish.

West clearly thinks highly of her readers, and her conclusion puts us all to task: "If," West writes, "during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe."