There’s a comical number of books we are all supposed to read in this age of Donald Trump. Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and a legion of others that don’t even include all the books about Trump that are written with Trumpian nuance. Books that announce their souls with titles like Fire and Fury and Unhinged. Both sorts—the classics and the classless—risk domination by Trump’s personality. The pervasive, presidential shag has become his own hermeneutic, a maw of interpretation that reduces the loglines for classics and bestsellers alike to his own favorite paradigm: cheap relevancy.
What people need in this fractured age is a book that can accomplish two seemingly contradictory goals. The first is escape, but not your usual escape. By all means, subsume yourself in far-away worlds or cozy cottage deaths; the news shouldn’t play subtext to every waking hour. Additionally, however, is the escape of concentration, an escape that feels especially rare amidst our collective din of notifications. A friend remarked a year or so ago that she found her usual diet of novels more of a tonic than ever because nowhere else could she find as undistracted a mind in action. That perhaps romanticizes the literary experience. Good. We need brighter and more idealistic visions of reading. Concentrate, we should tell ourselves, and thereby feel a little freedom.
The second and more trumpeted goal for reading right now is that we need books that can give us context or insight into what has been (for many of us) a disorienting time. To what extent should we anticipate political dysfunction collapsing into political violence? What factors have contributed to this era of open corruption and rising tribalism, and how do we search for solutions? Here, we are told in various listicles, are books that have answers. And yet there’s one book that is missing from these types of lists, and it isn’t one of the books folks should read, it is the One Book everyone should attempt for 2019. A distraction, a challenge, a historical saga, a spiritual referee, a book so big that back-cover salesmanship and listicle logic shudder under its romping, magisterial shadow. Considered her magnum opus, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a witty and good-spirited bully, a masterpiece of honest investigation that is as irreducible to the current moment as it is relevant.
Subtitled A Journey Through Yugoslavia, the hulking paperback is often billed as a travelogue. This is technically true, in the same sense that your friend might say, “Meet my cat,” only your friend is a zookeeper. The cat is a lion and perhaps here to eat you. Meet my cat isn’t inaccurate, but neither is it sufficient to explain the situation. Along with her husband and one of Serbia’s leading poets, West tours from Croatia to Montenegro and details an array of pleasant churches, courtyards, sartorial traditions, food, and fertility rites. The book certainly could be used on a journey, or even more likely read as a substitute for one. Its first pleasure is the simplicity of getting away.
But what Black Lamb and Grey Falcon should properly be billed as is an epic of Western history and thought, a book that uses the historical development of the Balkans to investigate nationhood, human violence, spirituality, and the necessity of art. Published in 1941, the post-WWII history of the region does nothing to limit the power of the book’s truths, even when West fails to predict some of the area’s most salient developments (primarily, communism). Never simply one thing, West’s goliath is as interested in the Balkans-qua-Balkans as it is in letting the Balkans’ oppression exemplify humanity’s formal extremes of violence and hate. By formal, I mean the infrastructures that civilizations create to justify, suppress, and foment our basest instincts of annihilation and self-destruction. Caught between the hammer of Austria and the, er, bigger hammer of the Ottoman Empire for most of its history, the Balkans existed in 1937 as a mess of national biases and emergencies. Victims in recovery (one might say), the various nations that composed interwar Yugoslavia indicted at every level the great powers that wrecked them and the spirit behind those powers that wrecked Europe and the world only a few years later. Meet Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; it’s a travelogue.
A definitive hatchet job on the values of imperialism, the book unpacks empire’s fundamental lust for erasure on the part of the aggressor by reviewing three main narratives of history, all of which cover decades of struggle and strife. West begins with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; continues with the 19th-century liberation and subsequent struggles of Serbia, which climax with the assassinations of King Alexander Obrenovic and his wife Draga; and concludes with the medieval fracturing of the Serbian empire, which lost the ability to self-govern when the Ottomans beat Tsar Lazar soundly in 1389 on the Kosovo field. Duck if West turns your direction, though, because the too-ready concession to pacifism and purity virtue-signaling on the part of those who might oppose the aggressor is also lambasted. At times she sounds like segments of the current American left when it comes to her progressive pals: “Democrats don’t want to rule,” she might tweet, though only as the final punch-line to a thousand-post thread on the evils of American border camps.
If you want relevancy, then Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is as interested in fascism, the exploited urban poor, the rural disaffected, and the malignant stupidity of the powers-that-be as any book I’ve ever read. It features a horrifying travel companion named Gerda, who if represented even half accurately, is a legitimate approximation for the plain-faced bigotry of Nazi Germany that was so explicit as to be easily doubted. West and her husband discuss, in fact, how no one will believe that Gerda could be so anti-Semitic (she’s married to a Jew!) or anti-Slavic (her Jewish husband is a Serbian!). It’s the banality of evil, in a certain sense, long before Arendt made the term famous. Daily life is full of dullness, and when the exceptional occurs, the dullness is often too established to be disrupted. Gerda couldn’t be that bad, part of us thinks, life is never so bald day-to-day. But for all the complications of history, West assures us that we’re wrong. Gerda’s type of hatred is what makes domination thrum. West ultimately pits imperialism against nationalism, insisting that the horrors of the former not be blindly attributed to the latter. Perhaps nationalism as a concept is beyond recovery for you; read this book and discover whether that remains a viable opinion in the face of cultures who must assert their personality as a bulwark against destruction.
So, the book’s content feels current. Yet Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is that much rarer breed, a book of big ideas whose relevancy can’t be draped over whatever fad or crisis is at hand. There are too many facts for such loose abstraction, facts giving birth to other facts at the rate of rabbits. Facts that cast shadows over other facts that all collude to blot out your easy opinions. There are enough facts you wonder if you ever attended a history course or know anything beyond the timeline of your own small life. West opens the book with a reminiscence on the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including an account of Empress Elisabeth’s 1898 assassination. Her son either killed himself or was assassinated some years before. Why does this matter? It put Franz Ferdinand in line to the throne, which might not have mattered if Alexander Obrenovic and his wife Draga—King and Queen of Serbia (remember?)—hadn’t also been assassinated, giving Serbia over to King Peter, who was a capable and intimidating leader. His rehabilitation of Serbia was feared by Austria, but especially by the blustery, hapless, and somewhat pitiable (only because he died) Franz Ferdinand. Hence why he was on the Serbian border when he was shot, which itself was only accomplished by a comedy of errors pulled directly from the imagination of Armando Ianucci.
The too-muchness of all the facts is the point of the book. In some ways, it’s a tracing of causality so complete that you realize the branching effects of any vital action become opaque in their relationship to each other. Trying to hold the accidents of history in your mind in such a way that their connections and disconnections are plain is an exercise in humility and perspective. West wants the reader to know the particulars, but not so that we can pretend to exhaustive comprehension. She wants to share how much she knows precisely because the facts overwhelm even as they illuminate.
Whatever headlines currently dominate your screens, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon transitions from the metaphysical to the historical to the personal with such grace, but also with such relentlessness, that it demands submission. The book is an uncompromising document of hard-won thought and artful intransigence, one that takes you by the hand and teaches you how to read it. History, I could hear West saying, is shorter than you think, and not neutral. Such guidance is the strength of all masterpieces, I think. They teach us a new way of reading that, if we’re lucky and receptive and not (you know) evil or anything, inaugurates a new way of seeing the world. I’ve never doubted that something like the Civil War was a cornerstone of American strife, but it was only as I was reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that such history felt recent.
While many books attempt to compress the world’s timeline, few, if any, can hope to imitate the way West walks events down a ladder of meaning from the continental to the personal. A perfect moment in one of the historical passages about King Stefan Dusan makes this plain:
In the 49th year of his life, at a village so obscure that it is not now to be identified, he died, in great pain, as if he had been poisoned. Because of his death many disagreeable things happened. For example, we sat in Pristina, our elbows on a tablecloth stained brown and puce, with chicken drumsticks on our plates meagre as sparrow-bones, and there came towards us a man and a woman; and the woman was carrying on her back the better part of a plough.
Comic rather than profound, the movement in this excerpt is a microcosm of the book’s audacity. A king dying in the 14th century in a country distant from her own cannot be impersonal to West if that king’s death not only (in some labyrinth of causality) precipitated the First World War but explains the looming Second World War. Geoffrey Dyer rightly identifies the genius of this passage—and the book—as one of tone. West (the narrator, at least) doesn’t distinguish between persons living or dead, events grand or minimal. They all act upon her, and she unravels their knotted connections with unerring wit.
Perhaps West makes her own case best: “Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tested.” A goblet, a shot, a canteen—a quaff is more than the liquid. A pint of whiskey is still whiskey, but also a cry for help. West’s form is irreducible to scale, although the book’s length makes demands of the reader in and of itself. Her conversations with her husband, her friends, the locals; her forays into art history and craft categorization; her boundless self-deprecation; her insistence that history be viewed intact, every point of the present roped and knotted to leashes reaching out from the past; it’s a grandiose and ridiculous project held together by her casual intimacy with narratives small, epic, and middle-class.
The book is Platonic dialogue, political intrigue, spiritual memoir, vicarious tourism, and not least a polemical tirade aimed at Ancient Rome, Neville Chamberlain, and any idiot in-between. The political history and philosophy the book details are vital, but I can’t think of any other text I’ve either read or even read about that elevates journalism to Homeric proportions. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an argument that news cycles last hundreds of years. Our own moment will pass, but its consequences will remain recent history long after we’re dead. Read anyone else you please in the Year of Our Lord 2019, but Rebecca West is relevance immortalized.
Image: Flickr/Jo Naylor
Martin Seymour-Smith was a grumpy fellow. A promising poet who took up writing big reference books of literary criticism, his highly idiosyncratic 1977 survey Who’s Who In Twentieth Century Literature is deliciously highbrow junk food. But like strawberry Pocky or matcha Kit-Kat, Seymour-Smith isn’t for everyone. His effort to catalogue the literary scene is full of curiously gleeful put-downs and undercooked psychoanalysis. He pronounces Hemingway “by no means intelligent … seriously overrated,” sums up Nabokov as “a distinguished lepidopterist” and “a minor writer of distinction,” and tenderly humiliates Updike’s Rabbit, Run as “brilliant … but too much so.” Who’s Who would be an impossible book to write today: Seymour-Smith is skeptical of literary personality at its core. The entries on particularly mythic writers like Hemingway and Faulkner show a dogged commitment to tearing down the aegis of respectability surrounding these figures.
As a critic he is digressive, laughably biased, and mean-spirited. For Seymour-Smith, even the century’s most celebrated writers deserve about as much humiliation as praise. Faulkner, for example, “worked from intuition and passion and never from what an educated man would call thought … if anyone believes that he possessed a mind in the usual sense, let him read the text of the Nobel Prize speech (1950): cliché-ridden, naive.” The entry goes on to praise the Yoknapatawpha novels and Seymour-Smith assures us “there is no doubt … of his high stature; and doubtless the poor work was part of the price—heavy and exhausting drinking-bouts were another—that he had to pay for his achievement.”
On Hemingway he is far less generous: “inept … he knew nothing about bull-fighting, as Death in the Afternoon (1932) which purports to be about it, makes painfully clear.” One has to wonder where Seymour-Smith had gotten his bullfighting intelligence, but no matter. After informing readers that The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s attempt to describe how difficult it had become for him to produce anything of value, he dismisses it as “a portentous and pretentious analogy.” Worse still are Hemingway’s personal qualities: “He was a liar, he was treacherous to those to whom he owed most.” Finally, Seymour-Smith concludes that “the decency [Hemingway] found is limited and answers little.”
Seymour-Smith’s suspicion of material and critical success is obvious, and he tries his best to ignore it: The obligatory mention of Nobel Prizes is terse and unaccompanied by commentary, like the very mention of the achievement has to be torn out of him.
Listen to him on Sinclair Lewis, who won the Nobel in 1930: “Only of socio-anthropological interest; as a writer he is almost worthless.” And contemporary darlings like Heller, Tolkien, and Kerouac (“On the Road … was typed on long rolls of art-paper and reads like it”) do not even get the dubious honor of a long polemic: They are characterized more as cult leaders than writers.
Yes, Seymour-Smith is nasty, even cruel. And maybe he has too much fun demolishing “important” books and big egos. But Seymour-Smith was much more than a bundle of sassy contrarian impulse. If that was the extent of his contribution to literary criticism, Seymour-Smith could be safely forgotten: a minor figure, as he himself might say. But Seymour-Smith is not a jealous critic, an artistic failure who uses his prodigious intellectual powers to denigrate people who can do what he can’t. His tendency to humiliate the high and mighty is joined with a corresponding instinct to elevate the unknown and the under-appreciated. He is like that pitiful sports fan who roots for the underdog on a sort of sick, masochistic principle. He fawns over figures who are largely overlooked or still underrated today, as when he casually informs the reader that Wyndham Lewis was the greatest writer of the 20th century.
The zanily extensive entry on Lewis, more than twice the length of Faulkner’s and probably the longest in the book, calls Lewis’ The Human Age “the greatest single imaginative prose work in English of this century.” Seymour-Smith admires Gombrowicz and Rhys; Rebecca West’s fiction, “though always evincing respect, has not had its due,” and her absolute doorstop Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is “great journalism”—though he can’t help adding in characteristic Seymour-Smith fashion—“if journalism can be great.” Isak Dinesin is “one of the most original writers of her time” and “it is hardly surprising that she should be attracting more and more attention.” Other writers Seymour-Smith praises are probably known almost exclusively to graduate students.
Seymour-Smith, for all his snobbery, is deeply progressive—he sees that the literary canon is criminally narrow, and he believes in the redistribution of prestige and attention. With his praise of the forgotten and his commitment to interrogating the greatness of the “greats,” he warns readers away from graven images. The famous and successful are not titans, invulnerable and remote figures whose work is sacrosanct. They are as small and compact as we are, they squabble and stumble just as we do.
Much ink has been spilled in laments for the death of the negative book review. Readers of Who’s Who nostalgic for the era of pugnacious critics will take immediate pleasure in the spiteful wit displayed on every page. But after that cheap thrill there is something else: gratitude and even trust. You have been taken into a confidence. Even if it is an icky one—after all, you didn’t really need to know that Seymour-Smith thought Yukio Mishima was “evil and cruel … no more than a nasty little boy.”
Seymour-Smith’s opinions, though designed to some extent to be abrasive, come from a somewhat more different lineage than the hatchet job, another literary tradition in danger of being lost. It is not so much that Seymour-Smith has a negative outlook—though he can be relied upon to dislike things—it is that he has an opinion at all, a clear viewpoint expressed with expertise and self-assurance. He is idiosyncratic, he is bold, and he avoids platitudes.
He is a curmudgeon. He has unpopular opinions. He is a voice of dissent. He is an enemy of the comfortably established; he is the ally of the unsung. Most of all, Seymour-Smith’s book is an antidote to today’s largely toothless criticism, a reminder of a time when literature was more confident in itself and its merits, to a time when critics like Seymour-Smith could be safely unloosed upon the reputations of literary darlings—when we might have even cracked a smile about it.
In this way Seymour-Smith is like the boisterous uncle of literature. He is the uncle who hasn’t been seen in awhile. He shows up to the house uninvited, has a couple of highballs, and then casually confesses shocking family secrets of which you had never dreamed. He will smoke cigarettes in the formal living room, but long after he’s left sheepishly, and maybe in a hurry, you’ll still think of what he had to say.
Sam Sacks is an editor at the online arts and literature review Open Letters MonthlyAlthough there was a lot of good stuff this year (from Mailer’s grandiose A Castle in the Forest to Sydney Landon Plum’s humble nature monograph Solitary Goose), one year can never compete with two millennia of classics, and my most important reading experience came from the gravid Penguin paperback edition of Black Lamb and Gray Falcon by Rebecca West. I read this amazing book in stages over the course of months, like an exhausting and transformative migratory journey. It’s a dense, digressive travelogue interspersed with history, philosophy, current events (those of the doomed patchwork country of Yugoslavia in the 1930s and the increasingly militarized nations that bordered it), and flamboyant, fictionalized dialogue that’s virtually Shakespearean in its beauty. West is obsessed with her subject, and her obsession infects the book with a sense of euphoria and high tragedy that provide something memorable on nearly every page.More from A Year in Reading 2007