Reading BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON -- 2Oth Century Nonfiction Classic

Extollager

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I've been wanting to read Rebecca West's massive 1941 book (it's two volumes of about 600 pages each in the edition I intend to read) for years. Notes should be appearing here as I go along. Will anyone join me? It is a journey in Yugoslavia in 1937. One critic whom I respect says it is the greatest book of the 20th century.

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The New York TImes reviewer wrote:

"Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" bears the travel-book subtitle of "A Journey Through Yugoslavia," and it follows with consummate success the travel-book formula of history and description and characterization on a thread of personal experience. But it is safe to say that as a travel book it is unique. In two almost incredibly full-packed volumes one of the most gifted and searching of modern English novelists and critics has produced not only the magnification and intensification of the travel book form, but, one may say, its apotheosis. Rebecca West's "Journey Through Yugoslavia" is carried out with tireless percipience, nourished from almost bewildering erudition, chronicled with a thoughtfulness itself fervent and poetic; and it explores the many-faceted being of Yugoslavia -- its cities and villages, its history and ancient custom, its people and its soul, its meaning in our world.

It is #38 in the recent Modern Library list of nonfiction classics of the 20th century:

 
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Bick

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That’s a tough ask, Extollager - 1200 pages of 1937 travelogue in Yugoslavia would constitute ‘extreme reading’. I’m British, so I appreciate extreme sports, such as extreme ironing, but this may be a step too far!
 

Extollager

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In the first few pages, West says that her life has "been punctuated by the slaughter of royalties" (p. 3). She remembers her mother and her mother's cousin looking at a newspaper report of the assassin of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
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The empress was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1898.
 
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Extollager

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By the way, my page references will be to a 1982 Penguin paperback. That's the copy I'm marking up, rather than the two-volume Macmillan hardcover edition that's too nice to write in.
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Christine Wheelwright

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I just took a quick look (the text is freely available online). At first glance it seems odd that a travelogue like this could be regarded as one of the great 20th Century books. But there is a remarkable insight offered into ordinary life in central Europe circa 1937. Just knowing the factual history of WWII is not enough for a real understanding. What was going on in people's minds? How could they have allowed such a thing to happen? I think some worthwhile insight might be here in this book.
 

Extollager

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I think that, alongside Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I'll read Brian Hall's 1994 book The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia. I liked his earlier travel book Stealing from a Deep Place about 30 years ago. The Impossible Country received an impressive blurb from the historian John Lukacs" "nothing like it... truthfulness... decent, perceptive, and often funny."
 

Extollager

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I’ve reached page 177. The book abounds in good descriptions of what West observed. She describes people well – for example, the introduction of an unnamed Professor in the “Split II” section (pp. 156ff.). Some authors might not be very good at evoking intellectuals, but she is. For all I know he is a composite figure, but he is rendered with novelistic skill and I like him. When she writes of historical events, these accounts emerge appropriately from the point she has reached in her travels and her conversations with people, including her husband, who travels with her. It is pleasant to be there, as it were, with her, her husband, and friends in a Zagreb restaurant while they talk about Conrad and Tolstoy (p. 59). Again and again, she sounds interested rather than merely dutiful.

She is like Orwell and other authors in generalizing confidently about groups of people. This is done today though more crassly than by them. She finds that it “always happens when I try to interrupt Slavs who are quarrelling. They draw all the energy out of the air by the passion of their debate, so that anything outside its orbit can only flutter trivially” (p. 86). I don’t know if she was right about a point she made while describing a hospital, but it’s at least interesting: “Here was the authentic voice of the Slav. These people hold that the way to make life better is to add good things to it, whereas in the West we hold that the way to make life better is to take bad things away from it” (p. 80).

That reminded me of Arthur Machen’s remark about criticism, "... though ... I do not say that the quality of exciting violent disagreement is the one quality of good criticism, I do say that without this quality no really fine criticism can exist. The critic, if he be more than an entertaining chatterer, goes down to first principles, and first principles, on which so many of us differ, are the only principles which really are worth debate" (in Mist and Mystery).

She writes of Napoleon’s Marshal Marmont that he was “one of those who like the Slav flavour, who find all other peoples insipid by contrast” (p. 182), which somehow reminded me of the Professor and his astonishingly generous helpings of pepper (p. p. 156).
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At the point I’ve reached, West has, without obvious artifice, set up a contrast between a figure of human goodness, Bishop Strossmayer (1815-1905) of Zagreb, and the “natural man,” with his meanness and “that love of the disagreeable which is our most hateful quality” (p. 172). Strossmayer was preacher, scholar, art collector, dinner party host, university founder and financial backer of secondary schools, Croat patriot, etc. “He set himself another problem of enormous delicacy in his opposition to anti-Semitism” (p. 109). I expect to return to these passages from time to time as I read on.

She reminds Western Europeans of the debt they owe to the Dalmatians for their holding back Islam, sometimes by paying tribute that took bread out of their own mouths (p. 137, see also 122), or, in the case of the crucial Battle of Lepanto, by participating the defeat of the Turkish navy (179). She regrets the easy and ignorant attitude of people who think “that an Islamized West could not have been worse than what we are today. …The West has done much that is ill, it is vulgar and superficial and economically sadist; but it has not known that death in life which was suffered by the Christian provinces under the Ottoman Empire” (p. 137).
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