The Judgment of Rebecca West

By James Thomas SnyderJuly 12, 2017

The Judgment of Rebecca West
IN 2000, the Modern Library listed Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, published in 1941, among the 20th century’s greatest works of nonfiction. Until recently, this was not an extraordinary assertion to make. Geoff Dyer, writing in the Guardian in 2006, called the book “one of the supreme masterpieces of the 20th century.” Ten years ago, Condé Nast Traveler named it among the top 86 travel books of all time. Diana Trilling, speaking after West’s death in 1983, said it was “surely one of the very greatest books of the last 50 years.” Virtually everyone who has read it declares it to be West’s undisputed masterpiece. Richard Tillinghast, writing in The New Criterion in 1992, quotes from a variety of critics: “one of the great travel books of this century,” “one of the great books of our time,” “a major book in every sense.”

And yet, 2016 ended without anyone, it seems, commemorating the book’s 75th anniversary. There was no special edition, no retrospective conference, no editorial genuflection. Even the International Rebecca West Society appears to have missed the date — the conference topic for its annual meeting in late 2015 was a snoozer: “Rebecca West and Dissent: The Politics and Poetics of Heresy.”

Something strange seems to have happened to the reputation of Rebecca West and of this book. Ignored by National Geographic and Smithsonian magazine, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is also missing from the list of “20 Inspiring Female Travel Memoirs” compiled by and from’s “125 Best Travel Books for Women.” Paul Theroux, himself a celebrated travel writer, snubs West in a 2011 survey for the Guardian. Bill Bryson similarly rebuffs her. In December 2016, the London Telegraph published its own definitive list of great travel books, and West’s opus was conspicuously absent. West doesn’t even crack Amazon’s top 250 best-selling travel books. What’s going on here? Are we watching what happens when a writer falls out of fashion, reputed in one century but repudiated the next? Is this what happened to E. D. E. N. Southworth, Richard Marsh, and Lew Wallace after 1900? How does a book praised as a magnum opus in one century all but vanish in the next?

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is, by every measure, an extraordinary work. The product of two months of travel in the Balkans and five solid years of writing, it was released in two volumes after being published serially in The Atlantic. At 1,100 pages and more than a million words, it is longer than the Old Testament. “[H]ardly anyone will read [it] by reason of its length,” West admitted. Probably misclassified as a work of travel literature, the book has a curiosity, seriousness, and depth of insight that make it more akin to such classics of ethical reportage as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom than to anything attempted by Bryson or Theroux.

It also stands alone in the author’s corpus. None of West’s works of fiction survive on literary syllabi, although The Return of the Soldier (1918) still commands attention as an early examination of postcombat trauma. Her coverage of the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, gathered into her 1955 book A Train of Powder, and of the trials of prominent British traitors such as William Joyce and John Amery (in her 1947 book The Meaning of Treason) anticipated but were superseded by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). I suspect that few literate persons could name any other books she wrote during her seven-decade career.

Interest in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was revived by the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The book is dedicated “to my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved.” Occupied by Italy and Germany, the country fractured and fought on both sides of World War II, eventually emerging as a socialist republic under Josip Broz Tito in 1945. Following Tito’s death in 1980, and especially after the collapse of communism in 1989, the country splintered again during the brutish wars of succession. The cosmopolitan city of Sarajevo was shelled into ruins by Yugoslav federal forces and Serb irregulars, the horror only ending with NATO’s 1995 intervention in Bosnia and later Kosovo, a breakaway province of Serbia, where allied troops remain today.

The United States and Europe dragged themselves reluctantly into this conflict. Responsibility for their reticence was attributed, stunningly, to West’s epic tome. The late Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the end of the Bosnian War, blamed “bad history, or the Rebecca West factor,” due to her influence on decision-makers like Bill Clinton and Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his 1998 memoir To End a War, Holbrooke writes:

Many books and articles about Yugoslavia have left the impression that the war was inevitable. The most famous of all English-language books on the region was Rebecca West’s monumental travel book […] West’s openly pro-Serb attitudes and her view that the Muslims were racially inferior had influenced two generations of readers and policy makers.

It is very hard to imagine President Clinton and his top advisors taking the time to read this book. (Indeed, Lord David Owen, whose proposals undergirded the Dayton Agreement ending the war, suggests that he didn’t read enough: “At the start of the fighting I had dipped into, rather than reread, Rebecca West’s account of her travel through Yugoslavia in the late 1930s.”) Holbrooke notes West’s undisputed influence on a popular and timely work, Balkan Ghosts (1993), written by itinerant journalist Robert D. Kaplan — who has been quoted as saying he would much rather lose his passport than his copy of West’s book. According to Holbrooke, Balkan Ghosts “left most of its readers with the sense that nothing could be done by outsiders in a region so steeped in ancient hatreds.” In response, Kaplan repudiated the notion that his writing was intended to influence decision-makers, since his reporting was done during the late 1980s and Balkan Ghosts was published before the wars of succession had really started. For her part, West had been dead for over a decade and could not defend herself.

Despite its regional focus, West’s book appears to be an essentially English literary phenomenon. A complete Serbian translation, by Ana Selić, only appeared in 2004, and the book is not widely read in the Balkans. Yet it continues to describe these countries and peoples in precise and compelling ways. During my own travels, I was delighted to see that West’s poetic description of the River Drin in Struga, Macedonia — “as much brighter than water as crystal is than glass” — remains perfectly apt. In Belgrade, I walked through Kalemegdan Park, lined by the carved “busts of the departed nearly great” enumerated in West’s tome. In Sarajevo, the dress of my Bosnian friend had already been described for me: a “silk overall striped in lilac and purple and dull blue.”

West appears to have burst fully formed into British public life at a very young age. Born to what George Orwell described as the “lower-upper-middle class,” she threw herself into writing for socialist and feminist causes when she was barely a teenager, rapidly developing a witty, cutting style. No one who met West — or became her target — came away with equivocal judgments about her. She personified the opposite of womanly virtues: she was outspoken, contentious, brusque, dismissive, judgmental, openly sexual. She made enemies easily. One of these was H. G. Wells, whose nonfiction she excoriated. Charmed by her cheek, he took her to bed, but then refused to leave his wife when she became pregnant. For years, West told her son — the author and literary critic Anthony West — that she was his aunt. They would have a contentious relationship until her death.

Recent scholarly and critical dismissals of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon have taken predictable tacks: West is not a historian; she is not a scholar; she is not even properly educated, having never attended university; the book’s conclusion is wartime propaganda commissioned by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Information; its sourcing is opaque and eccentric; a Belgrade government censor led the author around by the nose; she spent only a few weeks in the region before the war and never returned. But the most baffling accusation is West’s putative pro-Serbian bias. Holbrooke is not alone in making this claim. Brian Hall, writing in The New Yorker after the Dayton Accords, accused West of an “infatuation” with the Serbs. The fact that she writes admiringly about other ethnic groups is simply ignored. Hall cites a dozen lines — from as many pages in this two-pound doorstop of a book — supporting his contention of Serbian bias. Here’s one: “There has been no fighting in our time that has had the romantic quality of the Balkan wars that broke out in 1912.” Other critics simply assert the bias with no evidence at all. In her own letters, West admits that the book is “more or less pro-Serb” but only in relation to an unreliable “anti-Serb” who launched a libel action to keep the book from being published. In other words, West appears pro-Serb to someone who hates Serbs.

The frankly bizarre accusation of pro-Serbian bias could only have been made during the 1990s wars of succession, which were spurred by Serb warlord Slobodan Milošević and carried out by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army and Bosnian Serb irregulars. Serbia is not even noted in contemporary reviews of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and neither are, for that matter, the country’s Muslims. The slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, in other words, is a recent phenomenon, one for which West hardly deserves the blame — especially given how little read her book is in the region.

West does attack the Ottoman Empire, which some contemporary commentators have viewed as an attack on Islam. But she is too discriminating to make such a basic mistake. Like any astute commentator, she distinguishes Islam as a religion from Ottoman and Turkish ethno-political forces, finding pleasures and provocations in each. She admires Turkish architecture, as well as the refinements and comforts of Islamic culture. West is enamored of the uniqueness and beauty of the local cultures she encounters and scorns outsiders’ attempts to crush or homogenize them. For example, she denigrates the former City Hall in Sarajevo as an Austrian imperial imposition, “stuffed with beer and sausages down to its toes. […] The minaret of the mosque beside it has the air of a cat that watches a dog making a fool of itself.” Her aesthetic can be summed up in one word: authenticity. The first epigram of the book signals this quite clearly, quoting Jean Cocteau: “I demand a true happiness, a true love, a true country where the moon follows the sun.”

On her trip through the region, West is accompanied by a Yugoslavian bureaucrat and poet she calls Constantine, who extols the federalist ideal while casting himself as a Serb patriot. This is quite strange because Constantine — whose real name was Stanislav Vinaver — was not born an Orthodox Serb but was descended from Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to Serbia from eastern Poland. He is a Serbian T. S. Eliot: a patriot from a foreign country. An exhaustive guide, he is prone to speechmaking, as in his stout defense of nationalism:

I do not think you will understand it, because it is very personal to us Serbs, and that is something you foreigners can never grasp. It is too difficult for you, we are too rough and too deep for your smoothness and your shallowness.

Accompanying the party is Constantine’s German wife Gerda, whom West depicts as a forerunner to Hitler (and whose legacy we can discern in the 1990s horrors of “ethnic cleansing”). Coolly dissecting Gerda’s “ideal programme for making Europe clean and pure and Germanic by coercion and expulsion,” West makes very clear her total rejection of the sort of intolerance for which Gerda stands. In Skopje, West observes Turks, Macedonians, Roma, and Albanians going about their daily routines together, and is entranced. “[I]t’s precisely because there are so many different peoples that Yugoslavia is so interesting,” West explains to the peevish Gerda. “So many of these peoples have remarkable qualities, and it is fascinating to see whether they can be organized into an orderly state.” Gerda responds with contempt: “How can you make an orderly state out of so many peoples? […] They should all be driven out.” Given West’s clearly cosmopolitan sympathies in this passage, it is perverse of her critics to accuse the author of ethnocentric bias.

Moreover, these commentators ignore West’s clear critique of the foundational myth of Serbian nationalism — the story, told in epic verse over hundreds of years, that Milošević and his butchers exploited to slaughter Croatian Catholics, Bosnian Muslims, and Kosovo Albanians as revenge for Serbia’s defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Serb legend claims that the Prophet Elijah appeared as a grey falcon to Tsar Lazar as he positioned his men against the Ottoman army. Presented with a choice between an earthly and a heavenly paradise, Lazar chose the latter, and the Serbs were destroyed, their bodies devoured by blackbirds. The Turks went on to dominate the Balkans until the Congress of Berlin in 1878. As with every major defeat throughout history, the vanquished sought to glorify a sacrifice that was, in reality, a slaughter. This appalled West, whose concerns were much larger than mere chauvinism. She writes:

I said to myself, “If it be a law that those who are born into the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat, then the whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history, far longer than its little periods of victory.” I began to weep, for the left-wing people among whom I had lived all my life had in their attitude to foreign politics achieved such a betrayal.

This is the moral heart of the book: an attack on empire, a defense of small nations, and an embrace of concrete delights over abstract causes. As West completed the book, she saw what Nazi Germany was doing to Eastern Europe and sounded the clarion. She viewed the Serbs’ cult of self-sacrifice, ennobled by their defeat in Kosovo, not as a spiritual triumph but as a capitulation, just as Britain’s Peace Pledge Union, the America First Committee, and European conservatives were ignoring the Nazi scourge in her own age. From this perspective, Ottoman Turkey and imperial Austria were interchangeable, and their violent meddling in the Slavic Balkans was a powerful allegory for what Germany was doing to Europe. “The difference between [Kosovo] in 1389 and England in 1939,” she observes, “lay in time and place and not in the events experienced.”

Writers do not start wars. They may advocate for war — and West’s book is a vast appendix to the corpus of Just War theory — but they are not responsible for its outbreak. Others decide. But we can expect writers to display sound and informed judgment about the subjects they treat. And West’s political judgment was extraordinary. She was right about Yugoslavia and, by extension, all of Eastern Europe at a time when the United States worried only about France and England. She was right about communism and fascism, and at the same time — an intellectual distinction she shares only with George Orwell. She was right about suffrage and feminism and, later, about Margaret Thatcher. Given this enviable record, it is odd that Christopher Hitchens should have been chosen to pen the foreword to the 2007 Penguin Classics edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, since he was wrong about virtually everything.

Ultimately, the work must stand by itself. West’s uncompromising honesty, polyglot interests, wide-ranging sympathies, and inimitable prose make Black Lamb and Grey Falcon the unique, complex masterpiece that it is. It deserves to be rediscovered by a fresh generation of readers.


James Thomas Snyder is an author, translator, and diplomat currently serving in Monterrey, Mexico. The views expressed here are his own.

LARB Contributor

James Thomas Snyder is an author, translator, and diplomat currently serving in Monterrey, Mexico. The views expressed here are his own.


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