Book Review Travel

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

Wonderful, massive, beautiful, biased.

It is over. After a mammoth six weeks of slow, gradual, slog, I have finally read what I believe to be the longest book I have ever ever consumed: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.

Originally published in two volumes in 1940 and 1941 in the midst of the Second World War, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an in-depth exploration of the history of a country that no longer exists: Yugoslavia.

What was West’s connection to this part of the Balkans? Nothing exceptional, it was merely a casual, personal interest that got massively out of hand until it became an interest intense and intellectual enough to cause her to dedicate four or five years of her life, whilst ill, towards creating one of the longest texts of all time, a book almost as long as War and Peace, a book initially split into two BIG volumes, a book that contains, in reality, about 7 or 8 normal-length books, a book that incorporates history, travel writing, memoir, essay and academic text. A book that is, essentially, on and of everything. An ambitious project that achieves everything it sets out to do, a book with a focus both transient and tight, a focus that is the springboard for musings on every topic known to literature. In short, it is a great and hugely justifiable work of prose, and my comments below are going to be universally positive.

However, is this positive reaction a product of the time I’ve invested in reading West’s tome? If I’d read the seven or eight books I’d ordinarily read (at least!) over a month and a half, I’d probably have thought a couple were shit, but as I usually spend only 2-4 days reading a book, there’s less incentive to persuade myself that I DID enjoy something that I didn’t. Because West’s massive book has accompanied me through a rather odd, intense, but incredibly busy, period of my life, am I more inclined to enjoy it? Because I’ve needed the respite of literature more than usual recently, has being trapped within one giant book made me appreciate it more than it deserves? Does the time commitment itself force a reader to love Black Lamb and Grey Falcon? To invest this many hours in a book and then find it wanting would make a reader – and especially me, right now – feel a fool.

So was it worth it? Is it worth it? Should it be worth it? I think yes, but I fear that this post about it is going to end up being incredibly long – as the book deserves – so strap in.

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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a collage of poems and anecdotes and stories and reportage, it is a mosaic of fact and myth, first-hand experience and third hand recounting.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is storytelling and journalism, it is serious and droll, it is painful to read and terrifying to consume, it is funny, it is painstakingly researched and it is deeply informative.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an insight not just into the Balkans, but into the very heart of 20th century history. Rebecca West’s giant book traces the patterns of thousands of years’ history and how they lead to the terrifying, depressing, reality of the war that West found herself writing within, trapped – like millions of European civilians – as an unwilling participant in a bomb-ravaged city.

West theorises that the factors leading to the rise of fascism oscillated in and out of the world’s consciousness throughout Europe’s development, from the birth of civilisation onwards. Nothing new ever exists, we merely repeat the mistakes and successes of our fore-parents.

The book’s pessimistic ending is kinda depressing, as West finishes the Epilogue of her manuscript from a London under assault from aerial bombardment, just one of tens or hundreds of European cities where this had become the new normal. What has happened in the past is important, this book argues, but it means fuck all if we don’t pay attention to it. It all feels familiar, it all feels relatable, it all feels prescient. And so much horror has continued to happen in the seventy years since, a lot of it – especially the Civil War in the ’90s and the way Yugoslavia splintered – directly predicted within this text. It’s brilliant, intelligent and important. In short, y’know. I loved it, I love it, I kinda wanna start reading it all over again. (I’m not going to, though.)

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Why did I choose to read a 400,000 word book about the Balkans? I don’t know. Actually, that’s not true, I do. Roughly.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has been on my mental to-read pile for a few years, and on my physical one since last Autumn. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of travel writing that exists, but I would go further than that and argue that it kinda invented the now HUGELY popular essayistic (or, as it’s also known, “creative non-fiction”) form. That’s a bold claim, I know, but reading this book made me feel like I was reading something new, or at least fresh. This is the kind of book that writers of today dream of writing, this is the kind of book, with its massive and ambitious scope, that great minds set out to make, this is a book that isn’t just a politicised description of Yugoslavia as West experienced it in the 1930s, nor is it just a history of the lands that became known as Yugoslavia as West believed them to be after extensive research, and nor is it just a casual travel book where West recounts some personal adventures she had travelling around a (still today) relatively obscure part of Europe. It is all three of these books, and it manages to be all three of them in a deeply satisfying way.

Having read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I feel I know West, her husband, Constantine (the Yugoslav government-sanctioned poet who functions as their guide), Gerda (Constantine’s German wife) and many of their other acquaintances as well as I’d know the protagonists of any good novel at its end. This is factual, creative, non-fiction, literature that echoes with the kudos of a successful literary career, one launched back in 1918 with psychological shellshock novel The Return of the Soldier. West had been writing fiction and non-fiction for decades by the time she came to write this, and it shows. This is a writer at the peak of her powers, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a novelistic book filled with gorgeous, never self-indulgent, prose. It is easy to see and imagine the places she describes, it is an easy pleasure to laugh at her jokes and when she seeks to take us back decades – or centuries – to evoke a historical struggle, her retelling is as compelling as rich historical fiction. West can write incredibly well, and this is not something that flags, despite the MASSIVE length of this book. Her focus is loose enough to be charming, but tight enough to be worthwhile. This is a book about the Balkans, about Yugoslavia, but it is also a book about love, death, politics, sex, gender, education, travel, fragility, family, loneliness, prejudice, fear, war, violence, food, drink, ageing and morality. It’s massive, so perhaps it’s obvious that it’s gonna be wide-ranging, but it is. This is a highly successful book, which I’m very fucking glad it is, given how long it took me to read.

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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is loved by – and this edition introduced by – Geoff Dyer, and it’s easy to see why. Like when I reread DH Lawrence’s travel literature last Summer, it’s almost disappointing to remember than Dyer’s writing isn’t as original an idea as bibliophiles like me claim it to be at 4am drugs parties in the first half of our twenties, but it’s good to know that Dyer understands his own work’s progenitors. Arguably, Dyer’s use of “creative non-fiction” was also perhaps a little ahead of its time. It is now that people are gushing over the essays published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, it is now that the term “psychogeography” has been dropped because people who don’t like words like that buy books about people walking and talking, it is now that fact-based entertainment, films based on true stories, comedy shows that are educational, y’know, that these things are everywhere. Entertainment is expected to be real, to be true, and this is something that extends out of literature and into all genres of entertainment. Dyer was writing like this in the ’90s and I don’t encounter people any more who rave about his output (a combination of my age and lack of a social life – i.e, my dog isn’t into Geoff Dyer), but I DO encounter people who rave about Ben Lerner and Olivia Laing, who rave about H is for Hawk, who rave about all the writers the Guardian profiled here in 2012 – people are into it as an idea. It is this decade’s literary style.

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And it’s great. I LOVE it. I love these personal stories interweaving with something huge or serious or, merely, different. The James Rebanks, there’s another example. That book on whales. There’s loads of them. Many, if not most, of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the last couple of years have slipped into this category. And West’s book definitely, definitely, does too.

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The structure of the book is not simple, but is not over-complex. West recounts her travels around Yugoslavia (in the text one trip, but in reality she made three) in chronological order, from Croatia to the Dalmatian Coast to Bosnia, then Serbia, Macedonia, “Old Serbia” (what is now known as Kosovo) and back to Montenegro. As she recounts the interactions and adventures she has (affluent middle-aged English couple fish-out-of-water), she also looks into the history of the region, discussing what has happened in the places she visits from the dawn of recorded history onwards. There is a huge amount of information to be found here, as all the districts that made up Yugoslavia have rich and complex histories, being squashed between numerous oscillating empires. For the first two thirds of the book, she reaches gradually closer to the present day, decade by decade. In Zagreb she recounts the history of Croatia from the Roman Empire through to the end of the nineteenth century; when basking on the Dalmatian Coast she recounts the history of Venice’s influence on Adriatic trading ports until about 1908; in Bosnia she recounts the fights between the Islamic and Christian worlds up until the very shadow of the First World War; in Serbia she recounts a thousand years up until the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and then all the fall out from this; in Macedonia she talks about this country’s long history in relation to Albania and Greece, then ties up all the threads about the unification of Yugoslavia, and then when she reaches [what is now known as Kosovo] she heads massively back in time and tells of Old Serbia, the Serbian Empire that ended in 1389. The final third of the book is concerned with the ancient past and the immediate present, as she travels around Kosovo then into Montenegro, before heading back along the coast and home to London, before war breaks out and she orders her thoughts in an Epilogue (really a “Conclusion”) that is about as long as the entire section on Montenegro.

For me, the most fascinating parts of the book were the bits dealing with early 20th century history, as this is where I was most surprised by my ignorance. Although I knew, of course, where the First World War kicked off, I’d never really bothered to learn the immediate reasons behind it, but as West here argues, the reasons were not immediate, but ancient, eternal. As the country of Yugoslavia is formed and she meets people from across its many parts, there is a lack of enthusiasm, there is a real tone of disapproval, dislike, everywhere other than in Serbia. For many people living in Bosnia and Croatia and Macedonia, Yugoslavia is seen to be a vehicle for the benefit of the Serbs, and many Serbs (in this book) seem to agree. The Serbs often appear as the villains in this text, especially when anecdotes are recounted by people outside of Serbia itself, and in contemporary narratives now, too, the Serbs are seen as the villains of the region.

When recently in the Balkans I spent about an hour driving through Serbia, and the only thing that happened of any note was seeing a Serb border guard kick a dog in the face as I was queueing to leave his country. While I wandered around the Balkans for a week, hiding from life, I encountered lots of bad-mouthing of Serbs, too, but unlike West I didn’t spend any time in Serbia itself to avail myself of a more nuanced understanding of their culture. For when West is in Serbia, she is far more forgiving, and far more concerned with their history as, in some ways, the most successful Slav state. If there is a bias in this text, it is anti-Serb, but if there is a bias in contemporary discourse around the Balkans it is anti-Serb, too, for the state-sanctioned actions of the Serbs in the war in the ’90s seemed to prove right every bad thought the rest of Europe had about them. This is, obviously, problematic, an oversimplification, but having never had any encounters with Serbs other than a rough search of my bag going into Serbia and the sight of animal cruelty going out of it, I have no positive personal experience to weigh against the evidence of conversations in Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia and the versions of history which we receive in Western Europe. I don’t know which is more real, which is more accurate, but I need to wider my own experience, I fear, to get a better understanding of the region.

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West catches up with her history-telling earlier than – as a reader – I would have liked, and there’s a big window before the Epilogue where the present day hangs, loose, while she delves into more ancient past. Where the wider world enters into her travels most frequently, though, is in the rising importance and weight of Germany, where Nazism has risen and is exporting its anti-semitic and anti-Slav ideas across Europe. The Wests and their guides regularly encounter German spies, and their main guide – Constantine (pseudonym of Stanislav Vinaver) – is a Serbian Jew married to an unhappy German (Gerda in the book, Elsa in reality, and maybe she wasn’t so unpleasant in real life, I dunno). The tensions in this marriage become a serious focus of the second half of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and in fact the first volume ends with what must rate as the bitchiest cliffhanger of all time, when it is revealed that the awful German the Wests have just spent a few days with in Belgrade will be travelling on with them to Macedonia. They are devastated, and until Gerda leaves them again later, there is a vitriolic – but very funny – stream of insults against this unhappy, dislocated, individual.

Gerda does not like Slavs, Gerda does not like Jews (except her husband). Gerda does not like the country she lives in nor the work of her poet-husband, she does not like the Wests and she does not like anyone or anything the little group of tourists and guides encounter as they travel. She is unimpressed by food, architecture and art, and her complaints and criticisms – which are often directed at West’s husband (a fluent German speaker who spent years in Germany as a child). Gerda believes the culture they are travelling amongst is beneath her, is unworthy of her, which obviously causes tensions with her husband, who is a nationalistic Yugoslavian poet who works for the government and is the person sent out to schmooze the visiting foreign literati. Gerda is a downer, but Gerda is also an allegory, and suits a purpose in the book that is more than mere comic relief – she IS Germany, she is the idea of racial superiority and selfish, destructive, callousness that West sees in the Nazis. Although she is married to a Jewish person, Gerda appears as illiberal, as racist, as self-important, simultaneously smug about being married to one of the most important cultural figures in a country yet ashamed of which country that happens to be. She gains nothing by travelling around with her husband and the Wests, but there is no sympathy given to her at all – a reader is asked to laugh at her when she becomes embarrassed by someone recounting tales of the once-priapic Constantine’s young “romances”, we are asked to see her as stupid for wanting to be with her children and her husband when her husband is important and has better things to do, and in some ways West – a hugely successful woman entirely through her own merit – betrays the conservative leanings of her time: Gerda is an unpleasant woman and a successful man’s wife, so should shut up and stay at home. The very black-and-white characterisation of Gerda is perhaps a little sad, but West was writing this in a time of war and every good story needs a villain, doesn’t it(?), and it couldn’t be Serbia on every page.

Maybe, then again, maybe the real life German who Gerda was based on was vile, self-important, rude, arrogant, racist, chauvinistic, manipulative and awful, and maybe in fact West’s portrait is flattering. Certainly, it is entertaining, even if it isn’t fair.

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It is through the analysis of [then] contemporary politics that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon really makes itself interesting, and the final 60-page Epilogue is not the only portion of the book to tie everything together, and tie it to the [then] present. Empires come and go, West writes, but what never changes is humanity’s selfishness, pigheadedness, sense of superiority and desperate need for more land. Humans are eternal, the crimes we commit now are the same as the crimes we have committed since we first existed, there have been genocides and massacres throughout history, they only seem crueler and more shocking now because they are juxtaposed against very real evidence of developed civilisation. Administration and bureaucracy, when applied to cruelty and murder, make it seem nastier, worse, somehow. Using the methods and the thinking of the modern age to try and justify actions that are sinister and barbaric is wrong, unjustifiable. There is no place for murder in a civilised world, but we do not live in a civilised world: we never have and we never will.

We hide inside peace, when we find it we behave like it is the natural place for us to be, but in reality even temporary peace, temporary accords with neighbouring nations, is a modern idea. Peace never lasts, history has proved that thousands and thousands of times; when we are not at war we are merely biding our time before we are again, the peace never lasts, nothing is ever safe eternally, and there is something inherent within our very natures as animals that stops this from being so. We don’t exist as spiritual beings, we are mere animals with urges to protect and develop our tribe, our pack, we hate outsiders unless they can benefit us and we seek war, we deserve war, we need war. The conclusions West draws are pessimistic in many ways, this idea that violence is inescapable (as it must have felt in the Blitz, tbf), but there is also hope within her book, the central importance of the Arts and their ability to show and demonstrate human strength and emotion and fragility. But the works of art she enjoys the most in this text are those which are evidence of something lost, civilisations that no longer exist. For West, the loss of cities and buildings and societies is utterly inevitable, there is nothing we can do to stop it, but to use that as an excuse to try and leave nothing behind is wasteful, lazy, ignorant.

As humans, we have the potential to make beauty as much as we have the potential to make horror. “A hand can form a fist or hold a paintbrush” is a classic cliche, but this is the point West is making in a far more artful and elaborate way. This small part of the world has seen empires rise and fall, has seen invaders conquer, destroy and depart, has seen flourishings of great beauty and great thought and real democracy, and has responded to the wider world in ways identical and different to everywhere else.

The Balkan Peninsula is a fascinating part of the world for many reasons, not just because it has been, historically, where the East has met the West, but because of its unique landscapes and hugely varied geography. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon makes plain that West – a hugely talented and gifted writer – had an obsession here for a reason. There is more than enough to fill a massive book, and I know I’m going to go on to read more about this region as well as more books by West.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a treat: great fun, intelligent and engaging. It made me laugh and cry at different points, and although there is lots of understandable hatred towards Nazi Germany and much – within the context of the facts/anecdotes supplied – justifiable malignment of Serbia, this is not an unbiased book. There is an agenda here, subtle, but very firm, but it is in relation to a subject I am too ignorant of to properly question.

I enjoyed Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, but I had to – it’s the only book I’ve read for a month and a half. If it was shorter, would I have enjoyed it more? No. If it had less detail, less depth, less digressions, less history, less present, less thought, less conversation, less description and less humanity it wouldn’t be the same text. It is a massive book but it’s absolutely full – there is not a wasted page or sentence here. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is huge and it’s worth diving into, it’s great and beautiful and moving and infotational and everything I had hoped it was going to be. I wanted to read it because I’d heard it was great. I’m glad I’ve read it – and I will be recommending it – because it is.

1 comment on “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

  1. Pingback: Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li – Triumph of the Now

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