“Look,” I said, “the river at Sarajevo runs red. That I think a bit too much. The pathetic fallacy really ought not to play with such painful matters.” “Yes, it is as blatant as a propagandist poster,” said my husband.
SARAJEVO IS ONE of my favorite cities in the world. I never had the occasion to visit Bosnia for work while living in Brussels so I took a week in the summer of 2010 to make my first visit. The experience was even more extraordinary than I anticipated and resulted in completely random encounters that made me new, lifelong friends. I can still hear the muezzins calling my friend to prayer at Salat al-‘isha my last night in the city.
Today Sarajevo is a Muslim-majority enclave in a country half-split by the Dayton peace agreement between a Croat-Bosniak federation and a self-proclaimed Serb Republic. Once the most cosmopolitan city in the most diverse republic of the former Yugoslavia, Serbs cleansed themselves of Sarajevo and left Bosnia under virtual European protectorate status that endures to this day.
As with many of the cities West visited, Sarajevo survives as an amalgam of the many empires that have possessed it. The Old Town, which survived the war of the 1990s, was built under Ottoman possession. Walking the Old Town is a delightful experience, its very human scale a reminder that cities can be beautiful at the street level for pedestrian pleasure. Rebecca West records the corso in Dubrovnik and during the spring and summer this is true for Sarajevo as well.
The culverted river and national monuments from that era are mostly Austrian, including the Town Hall, which is done up in a rococo, self-conscious Moorish style. West immediately sees this as a colonial imposition and no genuine reflection of the Islamic or Turkish character of Sarajevo and Bosnia, “stuffed with beer and sausages down to its toes.” She is correct. A feline partisan, West notes the neighboring mosque’s minaret “has the air of a cat that watches a dog making a fool of itself.”
In retrospect this judgment feels unjust. The Town Hall was converted into the Bosnian national library in 1945, housing the earliest documentation of the nation. For that reason Serb gunners laying siege to Sarajevo in the 1990s shelled it without mercy. Incendiary rounds gutted the structure and burned it from floor to ceiling. (Happily, it has been completely restored with international help during the last 15 years, although the documentation is a total loss.)
Historically Sarajevo has been a true mix of the Abrahamic faiths, including Catholics and Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews. It is known as the city of 100 mosques but also hosts cathedrals, churches, and synagogues. West’s account is sympathetic to the Muslim community, but here she sets them aside along with the Christian community to spend ample time with Jewish artists, bankers, and intellectuals who called the city home. The intent of this focus becomes more clear in retrospect. Fortunately West provides an individual touchstone who foreshadows events to come.
The reconquista of Spain in 1492 included the expulsion of Spanish Jews, who scattered across the Mediterranean, including the Balkans. These Sephardim brought with them their unique faith practiced over centuries in Iberia, which included their language of Judeo-Spanish, sometimes called Ladino, an Old Spanish dialect incorporating Hebrew vocabulary and syntax. West spends time with a colorful figure she calls the Bulbul (“nightingale” in Persian), a beautiful Ladino singer whom she met on her first visit the year before. Lingering on the Bulbul is worth some additional time, not least for the impression she made on West:
“The Bulbul was not as Western women. In her beauty she resembled the Persian ladies of the miniatures, whose lustre I had till then thought an artistic convention but could now recognize in her great shining eyes, her wet red lips, her black hair with its white reflections, her dazzling skin.”
The Bulbul is a real person, a Sephardic Jewish Sarajevan named Nina Šalom Vučković. The Canadian ethnomusicologist Dr. Judith R. Cohen identified her almost by accident in 1984. A scholar of Sephardic music, Cohen met Nina while participating in a concert that included Flory Jagoda, another refugee Sarajevan Ladino singer who only died in January 2021 not far from where I live in Virginia. (You can hear her singing in the YouTube link below). Cohen had read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and after learning Nina’s story quickly put two and two together. “‘Nina,’ [Cohen] said quietly, ‘you must be the Bulbul!’ Tears filled her eyes.”
(Cohen asserts that West got a detail wrong about Nina, ascribing to her proficiency in the gusla, a traditional string instrument, instead of the guitar which she actually played.)
Nina was at that time living on the Kahnewake Mohawk reserve near Montreal, where her doctor husband was administering to the First Nations community. She fled the German occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II, first with Jagoda to Korčula in the Adriatic and then to the United Nations refugee camp at El Shatt in the Sinai, where she joined 20,000 displaced Yugoslavs. There, a Red Cross nurse introduced Nina to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Opening the book, she immediately identified herself in the pages.
The Bulbul’s story is even more astonishing than that. A refugee narrative written by Mira Altarac in 2008 corroborates Cohen’s research to fill out Nina’s biography. Before the war Nina had been married to her own uncle, Braco Poljokan (whom West names as Selim while missing the fact that he was Nina’s blood relation, describing him approvingly as “a god sculpted by a primitive people…”) before fleeing the Nazis. While sheltering in Korčula, the childless Nina left her husband and was relocated to the Sinai. (A separate refugee narrative by Dr. Jacob Altaras reports that Poljokan was part of an Emigration Committee set up by the Jewish community of Split to help refugees flee Nazi occupation.)
In El Shatt, Nina met Dr. Vučković, whose own wife had just committed suicide by throwing herself into the Suez Canal, leaving him with their two small children. They married and the new family finally settled in Canada. Nina lived on the reserve and in Montreal for 30 years before her death in 1986.
West lingers in Sarajevo and visits Ilidža, Trebević, Travnik, Jajce, and Jezero. These smaller towns serve as backdrop for her dramatic retelling of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip—the most consequential individual act of the 20th century.
The result of the chance encounter between a minor royal and a consumptive teenager drove Europe into the abattoir of the Great War that killed some 22 million people, not including an additional 100 million during the resulting Spanish Influenza, which spread after the war as tens of millions of men demobilized. It destroyed the Austrian and Turkish Empires, precipitated the Armenian massacre, gave rise to Communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany and their genocidal regimes leading to World War II, created the modern Middle East, established the United States as a great power, and formed the League of Nations. Every major geopolitical crisis in the last 100 years is the direct result of World War I and its accelerant: two shots fired by Gavrilo Princip.
Modern observers express horror at the cascade of poor political decisions and battlefield blunders that led to the slaughter. The outcome appears inevitable in retrospect, but the reality is war is a choice. It is not foreordained. European leaders chose poorly. It is possible to imagine a different course of human events if wiser, cooler, and smarter heads were involved. But likewise it is also impossible to imagine the war breaking out at all if it weren’t for the assassination. There were tensions and competitions, of course, but no underlying casus belli to spark a major conflagration. Gavrilo Princip was the match.
Rebecca West makes clear, if not explicit, that this almost random encounter in recent history was populated by characters least likely to star in a modern drama. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was an entirely representative noble of the age, the personification of the mediocrity and rot that populated the ruling class of Europe. He was a thoroughly disagreeable man with an extremely morbid pastime: he hunted, or rather, shot game virtually point-blank as they were flushed into range for his ease and pleasure. He killed hundreds of thousands of animals on four continents. West’s documentation of this baleful, unslakable thirst for animal carnage fills out an unnerving psychological portrait of the archduke. It also foreshadows his own death, as West concludes:
“Long ago he himself, and the blood which was in his veins, had placed at their posts the beaters who should drive him down through a narrowing world to the spot where Princip’s bullet would find him.”
Franz Ferdinand held no real power in the dual monarchy. The ostensible reason for his visit to this provincial capital was in his official capacity as Inspector General of the Army. He was restricted by the abstruse rules governing monarchies from siring an heir to the throne of the Austrian empire because he married a not-noble-enough Czech noble woman, Sophie Chotek. Their morganatic marriage was nonetheless a happy one and possibly the only good thing to say about Franz Ferdinand is that he genuinely loved his wife and three children.
Gavrilo Princip was also an entirely unremarkable young man who only took his place in history as a result of official incompetence and blind luck. West describes him as “physically fragile,” a poor boy of uncertain parentage from the mountains. He attempted to join the Serbian army but his constitution collapsed and he was discharged. He was 19 when arrested for the assassination, a minor for purposes of Austrian imperial justice.
What brought these two parties together at that fateful moment would be considered an absurd farce if it had not resulted in such calamity. Reports of plots and intelligence were ignored. The archduke’s ruler-straight motorcade route and lax security are a remedial course for bodyguards in how to get your principal killed (see below). The motorcade drove down the left bank of the Miljacka, which alone drastically limited escape routes as a right turn would end up in the river. A failed attempt by Nedeljko Čabrinović to explode a bomb under the motorcade did not alter the route in the slightest. It continued to the City Hall, where Franz Ferdinand held a brief, strange, and strained audience, complaining about his explosive reception in the city. Despite this, he boarded his open car, which returned the way it came, that is, straight back into the kill zone.
There was a crew of five would-be assassins who lined the motorcade route. Each failed in their initial attempt. Armed with a bomb and pistol, Muhamed Mehmedbašić (notably a Muslim member of this mostly Serbian conspiracy) and Vaso Čubrilović failed to act. Following Čabrinović’s bombing attempt, Gavrilo Princip, Cvjetko Popović, and Trifun Grabež all missed their opportunity as the motorcade sped past them to the City Hall.
Princip had given up on the plot when the motorcade appeared again on its return down the quay. It made a wrong turn trying to reach the hospital where the injured from the bombing attempt were being treated. This mistake brought the archduke’s car directly abreast of Princip where it stalled. Princip stepped forward and fired and fired again. He did not miss his targets.
(West makes an error of fact here, describing Princip’s murder weapon as a revolver. It was a FN 1910 semi-automatic pistol. The difference is important because a balky revolver in the hands of this bumbling conspirator – a bad shot who washed out of army basic training – could have easily allowed Franz Ferdinand to escape, again, and the world to avoid the mass slaughter to follow.)
While not captured by motion picture as King Alexander’s assassination was 20 years later, the incident in Sarajevo is the most comprehensively documented act of terrorism prior to Sept. 11, 2001. An official tribunal investigated the chain of events and released a detailed report of its findings. All 15 plotters survived and were arrested, tried, and sentenced—the adults to death, the minors, including Gavrilo Princip, to prison terms. Not that this early manifestation of tender mercy mattered. Tuberculosis killed Princip in prison three years later.
In Jajce, West unexpectedly meets Čabrinović’s sister Vukosava, herself a dentist and also an accomplished folk singer. Unusual among West’s unnamed characters, Vukosava Čabrinović is fairly well-documented. David James Smith in his book One Morning in Sarajevo details her sympathies, including a relationship with Princip and her correspondence with her brother, who like Princip also died in prison. She is portrayed by Vera Veljovic-Jovanovic in the 1990 film “Last Waltz in Sarajevo,” not incidentally the last film produced in Yugoslavia before its breakup.
It is important to consider one more thing. Princip was a Serb born and raised in Bosnia. The Young Bosnia organization he joined was pan-Slav in agenda and furnished weapons by the secret Serbian Black Hand organization. In 1914, the Kingdom of Serbia was sovereign while Austria-Hungary possessed the Central European Slavic states as well as Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia. For the catastrophe that followed it is easy to miss something extraordinary in the assessment of the assassination: that this least likely, most fated individual in fact achieved his political objective. In 1914, Princip espoused a union of south Slavs free of Austrian domination. By 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire was destroyed and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the predecessor of Yugoslavia, was a free, unitary state.
West also documents the sad afterlife of Franz Ferdinand and his wife. It is hard not to be sympathetic despite the fact they were simply bodies in boxes that had to be repatriated to Vienna. Emperor Franz Josef felt their death had corrected the wrong of their morganatic marriage. The emperor’s chamberlain used his position to delay their arrival to the capital. There he placed Sophie’s coffin lower than the archduke to indicate her inferior rank. No public respects were paid. The coffins had been moved by train to Pochlarn, Austria, arriving without reception at one o’clock in the morning. There, a deluge forced the coffins and mourners into the train station terminal to ride out the storm. In the morning they were transferred to a river ferry, but the continuing storm terrified the horses, and Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were spared just barely from being pitched bodily into the Danube.
I am thrilled to be featured in the latest episode of the podcast Remembering Yugoslavia with Peter Korchnak about Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. You can listen here on wherever you get your favorite podcasts!
“Here in Mostar the really adventurous part of our journey began.”
HERZEGOVINA, LIKE DALMATIA, is an historical region in the former Yugoslavia, serving no political or administrative purpose beyond its tie to Bosnia as the outline of that state. West visits Trebinje and Mostar on day trips from Dubrovnik before traveling to Sarajevo in the next chapter.
I have written extensively about Mostar, primarily around its signature span linking the left and right banks of the Neretva River. In this city, then a mix of Croats and Bosniaks, West has her first sustained encounter with the cultural and religious legacy of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Until this point, the Turks have mainly served as background narrative describing how the region struggled against the imperial domination of Vienna and Istanbul.
But here Turkey has permanently altered the urban environment. People pray in mosques. West finds this influence becoming. The town is impeccably clean, “more likely to be due to the Moslem’s love of nature, especially of running water, which would prevent him from desecrating the scene with litter in the first place.” She continues:
“They build beautiful towns and villages. I know of no country, not even Italy or Spain, where each house in a group will be placed with such invariable taste and such pleasing results for those who look at it and out of it alike. The architectural formula of a Turkish house, with its reticent defensive lower story and its projecting upper story, full of windows, is simple and sensible; and I know nothing neater than its interior. Western housewifery is sluttish compared to that aseptic order.”
She observes and admires the local dress of Christian and Muslim alike. “The great point in favour of Moslem dress in its Yugoslavian form is a convenience in hot weather,” she writes, “which in these parts is a serious consideration, for even in Mostar the summer is an affliction. The cotton overall keeps the hair and the clothes clean, and the veil protects the face from dust and insects and sunburn.” This is a cogent, if practical, defense of pious dress.
But she is also shocked by a local custom. She describes the Muslim women dress in Mostar:
“It consists of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it. It is cut with a stiff military collar, very high, perhaps as much as eight or ten inches, which is embroidered inside, not outside, with gold thread. It is never worn as a coat. The woman slips it over her, drawing the shoulders above her head, so that the stiff collar falls forward and projects in front of her like a visor, and she can hide her face if she clutches the edges together, so that she need not wear a veil.”
This is so astonishing to her that she reproduces a photograph in the first edition (see above), a postcard image that appears to have been widely available at the time. But this kind of dress, known locally as feredža (from the Turkish ferace) is not as strange or unique as it may first appear. It is primarily an outer garment that allowed the wearer to dispense with a face covering, as West notes. It shares in common elements with the Persian chador or Arab niqab.
In fact, it looks remarkably like the elaborate dress of the tapadas limeñas of Peru (above) and the Mulheres do Capote e Capelo in the Portuguese Azores (below), both during the same era. All of these together appear to be the result of constant intermingling of cultures, from the Spanish Mantilla and Coptic Christian covering to Catholic habits, Jewish ferace, and Orthodox veils, that were much more common across Europe than West may have known at the time. Indeed, in many cases it would be difficult for the modern lay person to tell the various dress and purpose apart.
This misunderstanding aside, West’s comprehension of and respect for Islamic culture and practice is strong for a Western woman. It is perhaps at this point that we can discuss this book and the insinuation of an Orientalist bias in the text. This stems, in my understanding, mostly from Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova. Todorova quotes West extensively in her book but West herself is mentioned only four times. None of these citations suggests a clichéd interpretation of the region. Todorova may have had more evidence in West’s exploration of the veil which, at the end of this chapter, she insinuates both male oppression and sexual mystery commonly associated by Western observers.
Nonetheless West defends the Balkans against outsider accusations of inbred violence by comparing the Christian lower classes in Ottoman lands to the exploited English proletariat and suggests that the former were better off being governed by the far more civilized Turks. And while Todorova quotes West’s infamous opening lines (“Violence was, indeed, all I knew I knew of the Balkans…”) it is clear from the context that West was admitting her ignorance at the time – a gulf that she resolutely began to fill with this book.
More evidence against Orientalist bias comes in Trebinje. Here is West’s first impression:
“We saw the town suddenly in a parting between showers, handsome and couchant, and like all Turkish towns green with trees and refined by the minarets of many mosques. These are among the most pleasing architectural gestures ever made by urbanity.”
West and her husband visit an old Turkish villa in the suburbs at the insistence of a small boy handing out calling cards in the city center. What they discover is hard to read and not because of the affected performance of Orientalist tropes, including a faux harem and pornographic photography, but because West and her husband instantly recognize the farce but allow it to play through. Their guide – “It was evident he was affected by the glad pruritis of the mind,” West dryly notes – hits all the beats of fevered Western visions of the East, which they reject. This chamber piece has a meta aspect as the guide, playing a stereotype, expects West and her husband to play their own stereotype as civilized Westerners offended by Eastern sexual decadence. They refuse to perform their expected parts but see the sham through to the end. “Shall I throw him downstairs?” West’s husband offers. “No,” she responds, “I find him enchantingly himself.”
Despite her disgust at this charade, West’s empathy has not left her. Her interest in a loom and some third-rate kerchiefs inadvertently humiliates the three girls on display, who are pretty but malnourished, because they do not know how actually to weave or sew. West recognizes them as the urban underclass, domestically unskilled because they are too poor to own sheep. Caught in the open, the girls can only laugh and “exchange bitter remarks.” West understands their Serbian but only because “slight knowledge of a foreign tongue lets one in not at the front door but at the back….I was able to grasp clearly what these young women were saying about me, my husband, my father, and my mother.”
West uses Trebinje to shortly tell the extraordinary story of Jeanne Merkus, a Dutch mystic of the late 19th century. Orphaned at a young age by wealthy parents and raised by a cleric uncle, she moved to Palestine and built a villa in Jerusalem to await the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. She waited there 15 years before bolting to fight in the Herzegovina uprising, a revolt in 1875 led mainly by Bosnian Serbs against the Ottoman administration. She later spent her fortune on weapons for the rebels and joined the Serbian Army just as the war came to an end. Merkus lived out the rest of her life in poverty on the French Riviera and Utrecht in the Netherlands while Turkey took possession of her villa in Jerusalem. West clearly admires Merkus and suspects she would be better known to history if only she “had acted in an important Western state as a member of the Roman Catholic Church in the right century.”
As it was, Merkus died in obscurity, with very little written about her and her family destroying the rest, “sad proof of what happens to Jeanne d’Arc if she is unlucky enough not to be burned.” I have half the mind that West was thinking of herself and her legacy, which she could intuit but not predict: distorted and maligned in the 20th century before facing erasure in the next.
(Very many thanks to my friends Alma S. and Suada H. for their historical assistance!)
“There was everywhere the sweet-smelling scrub, and thickets of oleander, and the grey-blue swords of aloes; and on the lower slopes were olive terraces and lines of cypresses, spurting up with a vitality strange to see in what is black and not green.”
REBECCA WEST TRAVELS by road from Dubrovnik along the Adriatic Coast through Cavtat, Perast, and Kotor before returning via Gruda. A glance at a modern map produces some confusion: Perast and Kotor are in neighboring Montenegro, which West visits and documents later in the book. But in the mid-1930s, Perast and Kotor were part of Dalmatia. Not incidentally, both towns were occupied by Italy during World War II.
In Cavtat West recounts the story of Cadmus from Greek mythology, quoting Ovid’s account of the transformation of Cadmus and his wife into harmless snakes. Herpetological legend aside Cadmus is purported to have been buried here. Cadmus was the original Greek hero before Heracles, the founder of Thebes, and father of the Phoenician alphabet. As a result of his export of literacy, West argues, Cadmus was the nemesis of Pan who was once the subject of a cult here.
West was a much better linguist than she is credited for. She studied Latin in secondary school (not Greek, she notes in her interview with Marina Warner in The Paris Review, “in case [we] fell into the toils of the heretical Eastern Orthodox Church…”). Latin provides a solid foundation for learning the Romance languages, including French and Italian, both of which West spoke. But studying a formal, dead language also taught her to learn other languages on her own, including German and Serbo-Croatian, which she applies to certain characters later in the book.
In Greek mythology, Cadmus is the father of Illyrius, the King Arthur of the Western Balkans. It is from his son that we have the ancient state of Illyria which was, in effect, the first union of southern Slavs, a Canaanite Yugoslavia. For himself, Cadmus is best known as a dragon-slayer. St. Jerome narrates how Cadmus coaxed a monster from its cave to Epidaurus where it burned to death on a pyre. Epidaurus later became Cavtat, likely the Slavic homonym of the Latin civitas.
In Perast West describes a valley, “which cannot be true, which are an obvious Munchausen”. She is seeing the karst lake valleys created by the soluble sandstone foundation of the entire area. The lakes are cryptodepressions, that is, lower than sea level. The formations (and spelunking) are spectacular. But she also notes the lake valleys go through a seasonal transformation as they are full during winter but drain during the spring to produce very rich bottomland for cultivation. “In spring,” she writes, “an invisible presence pulls out a plug, and the water runs away through the limestone and out to sea.” It is invisible but not unknown: there is a subterranean tunnel, hewn by hand during the Austro-Hungarian regency, that empties the valley into the sea.
She also describes the islands in the Bay of Kotor, including the inspiration for a piece of gothic Symbolist art, the Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin. The island of St. George itself, West discovers, is not nearly the camp melodrama seen in the painting. “It is a chaste, almost mathematical arrangement of austerely shaped stones and trees,” she writes.
Another minor drama unfolds as the boatman brings them to another island where they are greeted by his emotional dog with which West spends a little too much time sympathizing. But the dog’s spectacle allows West to tee up a cut about cats and canines, leaving no question with which she identifies most: “I blushed a little for the dog’s abandonment, and was glad that no cat was by the sneer.”
Returning to Dubrovnik they stop in Gruda to admire a trio of young girls, “lovely as primroses in a wood.” “‘Pennies, pennies!’ they cried, laughing while we stared at them and adored them,” West recounts. She gets into an argument with her driver after asking him for a few tenpence to give the girls. He is reluctant and finds the begging disgraceful. West writes:
“There was much to be said for his point of view. Indeed, he was entirely right and we were wrong. But they were so beautiful, and in spite of their beauty they would be poor all their lives long, and that is an injustice I never can bear. It is the flat violation of a promise. Women are told from the day they are born that they must be beautiful, and if they are ugly everything is withheld from them, and the reason scarcely disguised. It follows therefore that women who are beautiful should want for nothing.”
This is not as straightforward and retrograde an evaluation of gender as it may appear at first glance. The social conditioning West describes is a fact in most societies and her admiration for the girls’ beauty is entirely genuine and consistent with her attitudes. Physical beauty as a yardstick of human worth is an uncomfortable idea. But West is arguing that poverty, as inescapable by the individual, is by far the greater injustice. (How tenpence could possibly alter the girls’ fate is left undiscussed.) And their driver’s comment as they leave the girls is even more revealing of their subordinate position in society. “[If] they are encouraged to be impudent when they are so young,” he says, “what will they be like when they are old?”
“But these people’s culture instructed them exactly how best they might live where they must live.”
BY TRAIN REBECCA West and her husband travel from Zagreb to Sušak in Dalmatia. From there they travel by car and boat to several towns along Croatia’s Adriatic Coast. She visits, in sequence, Sušak, Senj, Rab, Split, Salonae, Trogir, Korčula, and Dubrovnik, a series of coastal and island cities at one time mostly self-governing. This is the most travelogue-like part of the book. West acts like a tourist guide, noting points of interest for the reader. It is a peculiar departure from the omniscient voice she has used so far to braid criticism, biography, and history into a single narrative strand.
Then as now the Dalmatian coast is a southern European Mediterranean tourist destination. Dalmatia carries no political significance: it is an historical region, not an administrative district. It has mostly been part of Croatia throughout history. Incidentally, the Dalmatian dog breed is indeed from the region, with historical records documenting its appearance as far back as the mid-14th century.
Although each city is part of Dalmatia and shares much of the same history, every one is unique and distinct from the other. To me it recalls the unique cultures and strange customs of individual rabbit warrens described by Richard Adams in Watership Down. This is the benefit of reading West’s account. She combines her intense focus and aesthetic sense with extraordinary precision of language so that even without seeing what she is describing it is impossible to confuse one thing for another and, when you do look for what she is describing, it is very easy to find it. She does not characterize things. She describes them.
So West wanders the repurposed ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, which today forms the historic old quarter of Split. She describes the four church towers that dominate the island village of Rab. She describes the ramparts of Dubrovnik. Also the lack of ramparts in Trogir. There, the occupying Turks tore down the town walls and later occupiers refused to rebuild them. The result, West writes, is “like a plant grown in a flower-pot when the pot is broken but the earth and roots still hang together.”
The history of the region includes almost constant invasion. Each of the small city-states had to build alliances, fight off invaders, resettle refugees. Avars, Goths, Huns, Romans, Mongols. Turks, Venetians, Hungarians, Austrians. French, English, Germans. It is easy to be numbed by the drumming repetition of invasions, battles, empires, displacements, and occupation that West enumerates alongside plagues and earthquakes. She does this to serve her argument against empire. But when the full scope of the political disturbance over centuries is clear, it explains both the rise of Yugoslavia and its fall. It also strongly asserts that for a region with a reputation for instability and fratricidal violence, most of that violence was brought here.
In Korčula, she worries that an extraordinary experience visiting the city in the previous year has inflated her expectations for this visit. Then, she had witnessed virtually the entire town gather on the quai to carry a young and beautiful but desperately sick girl to a boat that would take her to a hospital. It was clear to West that the girl was resigned to her fate but in a way suggesting a self-regarding romance affected by adolescents. Then the same crowd parted for another woman carried on a litter, an old crone who like the girl was desperately ill but unlike her absolutely defiant in the face of death: “When the stretcher-bearers halted in manoeuvering her up the gangway she rose up in her chair, a twisted hieroglyphic expressing the love of life, and uttered an angry sound she might have used to a mule that was stopping in midstream.”
“The appetite for life comes from eating,” West concludes. Pleasure in life requires investment.
It is the point of travel to witness something you have never seen before and could not imagine based on your experience. West applies this to what she sees is the life-affirming aspect of Slavic culture. Korčula does not disappoint during her second trip. This time West and her husband wake in their hotel and step out with cups of coffee to watch a white steamer – “lovely as a lady and drunk as a lord” – drift to the quai. It is listing heavily to the port side, filled as it is with young army conscripts eager to see a new town. The quai is itself thick with waiting soldiers who are all singing together (an anti-government song, West’s guide notes). The soldiers board and the steamer sails away, sitting lower in the water. West hears all the young men on board singing, the song carrying across the water.
West wends biography inextricably into the landscape. She focuses in particular on Diocletian, a late emperor of Rome in the 3rd century. In Split he is best remembered for the retirement palace he built for himself in what is now the historic old town. It is a huge space – more than eight acres – that was until recently essentially reclaimed land. When West visited she saw the palace carved up into apartments and shops used by average people. Henry Andrews has carried with him a heavy book of lithographs by Robert Adams, who documented the palace and many other sites throughout the region in the late 18th century.
Diocletian was a Dalmatian born in Salonae to a poor family. He rose in the ranks of the Roman Legion and was proclaimed emperor after the death of Carus and Numerian on campaign in Persia. He presided over a relatively stable period of time for Rome, resolving the crisis in the 3rd century by instituting a co-emperorship called the Tetrarchy to rule over the four geographic regions of the empire. This shouldn’t have worked – power hates sharing much more than it abhors a vacuum – but it did until Diocletian abdicated his role. He died only a few years into his retirement.
Diocletian’s retirement appears, in the historical narrative, as a point of no return in classical antiquity. The Tetrarchy collapsed in his absence and Rome fell into civil war that lasted 15 years until Constantine (Flavius Valerius Constantinus, not incidentally born in Niš, Serbia, perhaps the reason why West gave her Serbian guide the same name) consolidated control. Constantine’s shift of the political center from Rome to what is now Istanbul set in motion the split between eastern and western empires in the 4th century and the collapse of Rome in the 5th century. In many respects, Diocletian was the last undisputed Roman emperor.
West has a guide in Split. As with most of the contemporaries she mentions, she applies a pseudonym. In this case, she is accompanied by a man she calls the Professor. Most of the details she provides for him – he is older but not aged, he has abundant physical energy, and he was a leader of the Mt. Marjan Association – suggests this is Prof. Umberto Girometta, who despite his Italian name was a Croatian who was born and died in Split. He epitomizes the late-19th century European adventurer. Girometta was an alpinist, mountaineer, spelunker, and paleontologist, expertise he trained almost exclusively on Split and Croatia.
Mt. Marjan itself is an extraordinary story of resource depletion and community restoration. When Venice controlled Split, the Italians stripped the entire mountainside for pine to build its trading fleet. After regaining sovereignty, Split embarked on a remarkable renewal project that continues today. The pine and macchia were replanted and what had been a naked hillock is once again thick with trees, a nature preserve known as “the lungs of the city”.
Here we find evidence of West’s endorsement of traditional notions of sex and gender. She admires the raw masculinity of local men practicing age-old craft like shipbuilding. “These were men, they could beget children on women, they could shape certain kinds of materials for purposes that made them masters of their worlds,” she writes. The work they do is simple yet rugged and perfectly adapted in form and function to their ascetic coastal life. She compares these men unfavorably to a “cityish” sort of man, preferred by the English, “in the Foreign Office who has a peevishly amusing voice and is very delicate….” She admires feminine beauty and sexual attraction in women. “She was elderly, though not old,” she describes a local matriarch, “and it could be seen that she had been very lovely; and immediately she began to flirt with my husband.” This is uncomfortably close to certain cultural norms held by the far right, then as now. But she elides outright homophobia and it is difficult to square these notions with her avant-garde feminism.
Her use of language would be found problematic by modern audiences. This includes a color descriptor involving a racial slur, which was commonly used a century ago, and also this: “It is doubtful if even our own times can provide anything as hideous as the Mongol invasion, as this dispensing of horrible death by yellow people made terrible as demons by their own unfamiliarity.” (The Balkans were spared long-term occupation due to a succession crisis in Mongolia.) But here again it is difficult to nail West to the pillory. Her next sentence reads, “It is true that the establishment of the Mongol Empire was ultimately an excellent thing for the human spirit, since it made Asiatic culture available to Europe.” And it is clear that she is describing an invasion from the point of view of the invaded who cannot be expected to receive pillage, rase, and rape with enlightened tolerance.
“Politics, always politics. In the middle of the night, when there is a rap on our bedroom door, it is politics.” (Croatia/Zagreb VII)
ENDING THE JOURNEY of the previous chapter, Rebecca West and her husband arrive in Zagreb proper. Three friends, standing in the rain, greet them on the railway platform. One of them is arguably the most important character of the book besides West and the other two play rhetorical archetypes to set up an argument that will weave its way throughout the book: the nature and benefit of Yugoslavism, the Yugoslav idea, and Yugoslavia itself.
West calls the three men Constantine, Valetta, and Marko Gregorijević. These are pseudonyms and eccentric ones at that. Valetta is described as a young Croatian from Dalmatia, 26 years old. He lectures in mathematics at the University of Zagreb. Gregorijević is an older Croatian journalist and critic, 57 years old. Based on the little biographical information West provides us, I was unable to determine the true identities of these two men (although Valetta may have been Stanko Bilinski, a mathematician of some renown, who matches Valetta’s profession and approximate birthdate but not his region of origin). I do not have access to West’s papers and the men are not described in her Selected Letters. They are not identified by even Croatian language references and sources I have searched.
Constantine, however, is much better documented, possibly because he is such a dynamic character in the book. He accompanies West throughout most of the journey she documents (and his wife, to appear later, will provide an archetype in another argument West sustains throughout the book.) Constantine’s real name is Stanislav Vinaver. West describes him as a poet, a Serb, an Orthodox, and a Yugoslav government functionary (as a censor). On the first page we meet him, she writes:
“Constantine is short and fat, with a head like the best-known satyr in the Louvre, and an air of vine-leaves about the brow, though he drinks little. He is perpetually drunk on what comes out of his mouth, not what goes into it. He talks incessantly.”
West relates that Constantine’s heritage is Jewish; his parents immigrated from the Pale of Settlement, at the time Russian Poland. He was born in Serbia and converted to the Serbian Orthodox Church. He is a Serb patriot in word and deed; he fought against Austria during World War I as part of the Serbian army. His father, a physician, was a medical officer during the war but died in a typhus outbreak in 1915. Constantine later fought in the royal Yugoslav army against the Germans during World War II. Captured, he was held as a prisoner of war but survived and died in 1955. His mother was less fortunate. She was murdered as a Jew by the Nazis during the occupation.
While compelling as a character in the book, Vinaver as an individual was more unnerving. In a letter to her sister during her first, unaccompanied visit, West recounts a harrowing experience with Vinaver in Ohrid, Macedonia. There, he attempts to sexually assault West in her hotel room not once but twice. Twice she fights him off, literally. But he is her official government minder and interpreter, she does not speak the language, has little money and no way to return to Skopje, so she is obliged to maintain his company until they return to the capital. On the return trip, she contracts a strep infection of the skin and runs a fever. She is confined to her hotel room, miserably ill. But this does not keep Vinaver from accosting her a third time. “For 3 hours,” she writes, “he stamped and raved and blustered beside my bed.” As a government official, he may have been unavoidable on her subsequent trips. But it also explains why West made this second trip accompanied by her husband.
In Zagreb, Constantine is the third leg on the uncomfortable stool that supports the political debate over Yugoslavia. Constantine is a Serb by adoption with the aggressive patriotic fervor of a convert. Gregorijević is an old Croat (West describes him as a dour version of Pluto, Mickey Mouse’s dog) who fought Hungarian domination of Croatia by the Habsburgs and sees Yugoslavia as a bulwark against imperial imposition. Valetta is too young to remember a time when Croatia was not part of Yugoslavia and views this political construct as a vehicle for Serb domination of its neighbors. (Yugoslavia’s King Alexander I and his issue, Peter II, who ruled Yugoslavia during this time, were Serbian by birth.) Although West finds their bickering tiresome, the debate personifies the political dynamics of the Balkans. I will discuss the idea of Yugoslavia in a later post. For now, you can see here the paradox of the Yugoslav experiment: individually, Yugoslavia’s constituent nations are too weak to defend themselves against their larger neighbors, but together Serbia dominates the union.
West and company visit St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb and another church in Šestine, in the mountains north of Zagreb. She does not name St. Mirko’s Church, which sits on a small rise at the town crossroads. But here again West’s description is so perfect that there is no doubt this is the church: “full to the doors, bright inside as a garden, glowing with scarlet and gold and blue and the unique, rough, warm white of homespun, and shaking with song.” I found this description of a Catholic mass bracing since good music has been thoroughly driven out of the Church in the United States.
They visit “Two Castles” that West also does not name. It is unclear why. They take government motorcars through heavy snow, which delights her and the locals who occasionally have to dig the vehicles out (“doubtless anxious to get back and tell a horse about it”). The castles can be found as she describes them. For example, she writes about the Trakošćan Castle as “something like a Balliol,” that is, the Oxford college (coincidentally Christopher Hitchens‘), which turns out to be perfectly apt. It dates to the 13th century but is stuffed full of Austrian cultural detritus – “a clutterment of the most hideous furniture…walloping stuff bigger than any calculations of use could have suggested, big in accordance with a vulgar idea that bigness is splendid….” This may appear frivolous – is there anything more poncy than English critique of interior design? – but it serves West’s larger argument that imperial imposition destroys and displaces local cultural expression that is delightful when left alone.
The second castle they visit was built by the same house that owned the first. A large hilltop fortification, it served during West’s visit as a tuberculosis sanitorium. Happily, today, Klenovnik Castle is a modern hospital treating pulmonary diseases. It remains the largest castle in the country.
“[T]he place was clean, fantastically clean, clean like a battleship,” she writes, noting that might be the only thing it had in common with English hospitals which she knows too well. West admires the hospital, its patients and doctors, and its methods precisely because they were un-English. The doctors are doting but forbearing with their patients, whom they treat in what we might call a holistic way. The food is excellent, grown on the castle grounds, and ample enough to send patients home several kilograms heavier. “[The patients] sometimes fall in love, and it is a very good thing,” the superintendent remarks. “It sometimes makes all the difference, they get a new appetite for living, and they do so well.” West approves. She writes:
“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. … Here a patient could be adult, primitive, dusky, defensive; if he chose to foster a poetic fantasy or personal passion to tide him over his crisis, so much the better. It was the tuberculosis germ that the doctor want to alter, not the patient….”
West delights in good things that give pleasure and she sees those things in the sanitorium. This is the soft edge of a sharper argument she makes more explicit later in the book: that good things are good on their own, they exist for our pleasure, and don’t require sacrifice, pain, or the prospect of death to enjoy. This almost feels like moral philosophy but as we might apply it to tangible things like the embroidered homespun, strong plum brandy, or “sucking-pig so delicate that it could be spread on bread like butter” that she enjoys while in Croatia.
West ends this chapter with a miniature social comedy. She, her husband, and Constantine visit the Gregorijevićs, husband and wife both described as long and melancholy as Great Danes. They have a small dog who expresses its outrage at these strangers by defecating on the living room rug. The Gregorijevićs are mortified, even more so as West and her husband try to defuse the situation with humor, a very English trait. The family’s maid, “in peasant costume,” comes to clean up, “grinning from ear to ear at the joke the dog’s nature had played on the gentry.” Constantine rescues the Gregorijevićs’ dignity by solemnly taking up the piano to play a Bach motet and then a Mozart sonata. This may appear to be simply an amusing endnote to her visit, but again West manages to weave her themes through it. Gregorijević takes Henry aside “to murmur in a voice hoarse with resentment that he had owned both the poodle’s father and grandmother, and that neither of them would ever have dreamed of behaving in such a away. ‘Nothing, man or beast, is as it was. Our ideals, think what has happened to our ideals…what has happened to our patriots.’…”
For some, the country has literally gone to the dogs.
“These were exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known; and there were sixty millions of them in the middle of Europe.” (Journey)
WITH HER HUSBAND Rebecca West travels by train from Salzburg, Austria, to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. They climb to Badgastein and the Hohe Tauern railway tunnel built in 1909 (bearing the name of the emperor Franz Joseph at its entrance) to Villach, high in the Austrian alps. They traverse the Wörther See to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and then on to Zagreb. West does not visit Slovenia and fails to mention Ljubljana at all in the text, marking that station only on the map on the endpaper of the 1st edition.
West and her husband are joined in the first class car by a klatch of Germans who left Berlin for a 30-hour rail trip to the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic. Here we see West’s keen personal and cultural critic emerge as she scrutinizes these thoroughly average people leaving the hothouse of their country. She hears them fuss about comfort and diet and work. She watches them visibly relax as soon as they enter Yugoslavia. She observes them chastise a young man who attempts to join them in first class with a second-class ticket. “The vehemence…was so intense that we took it for granted that it must be due to some other reason than concern for our comfort, and supposed the explanation lay in the young man’s race and personality, for he was Latin and epicene.” She remarks their delight in her husband’s excellent German – he was interned as an enemy alien in Ruhleben during World War I and worked in Berlin until he objected to a Nazi hack replacing a Jewish colleague – “as if they were complimenting him on being good as well as clever.”
She also listens to their stories of the political transformation under way at home. Their children, they confide, are all for Hitler. They are not upset about the Nazi’s ideology so much as its political interference in their everyday lives, especially commerce. One explains how her hairdresser had lost her job after failing the test for her license. “Yes, I am good at my work!” she quotes her hairdresser, who proudly enumerates her services, “but keep from mixing up Göring’s and Goebbels’s birthday, that can I not do.”
West’s companions bewilder her completely. She feels warmth for them when they react like children to seeing the snow in the alps and she commiserates with their tales of political and economic chaos after 1918. This aside, she finds them irritating. They view the country they are passing through with naked contempt. Dalmatia is redeemed only because that is where Germans go and, as a result, they believe the hotels and food they are accustomed to at home will follow. West, piqued, insists that the local cuisine and accommodations are excellent.
They are prototypically middle-aged and middle-class. West might appear to have succumbed to anti-bourgeois sentiment common among leftists of the age but for a jarring, “climactic mystification” she witnesses as they reach their first station in Yugoslavia. As they are approached by a Croat conductor, West is astonished to discover all four Germans were squatting in the first class cabin on second class tickets. This explains their strange vehemence when ejecting the alien young man who had tried to do the same thing. The Germans try to bribe the Croat conductor, who turns purple in rage and indignation. He shouts them down and they meekly submit. West and her husband are quietly appalled at this “most monstrous perfidy”.
Most of this could pass as social commentary in the vein of E.M. Forster or P.G. Wodehouse, a slight comedy of manners diverting from the main argument of the book. But West hides in plain sight a cutting indictment in miniature of the regime that at the moment of writing controlled all of Europe. The lack of moral awareness evidenced by her German cabinmates, combined with their reflexive deference to authority and force, goes very far to explain Germany in the 1930s.
“It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and so apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted,” she writes. That is an extraordinary prediction given the book was published in 1941. Somehow even in that dark moment she saw the Armageddon that awaited Germany in 1945.
This section and the Prologue before it are comparatively shortish examples of West’s creative approach. She marries an astonishing attention to detail to very long exposition which can appear to meander, the interest in a shiny new thing taken to its logical extreme. But West always tells a story to reach its moral. She foreshadows what becomes reality outside the book but also, as we will learn, an individual exemplar who arrives in the narrative later. She is at once anticipating, observing, and explaining the reductive seduction of fascism.
She is also contrasting these fussy Bürgers to the Yugoslavs they scorn in relation to her own experience. As the train approaches a suburban station outside Zagreb, she observes:
“An elderly man, his thin body clad in a tight-fitting, flimsy overcoat, trotted along beside the train, crying softly, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’ He held an open umbrella not over himself but at arm’s length. He had not brought it for himself, but for the beloved woman he was calling. He did not lose hope when he found her nowhere in all the long train, but turned and trotted all the way back, calling still with anxious sweetness, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’”
As the train pulls away, she notes:
“A ray of light from an electric standard shone on his white hair, on the dome of his umbrella, which was streaked with several rents, and on the strong spears of the driving rain.”
In that evocative sketch, we see her repose, the strain of social pretense evaporating. She is relieved: “I was among people I could understand.”
“And the death of Elizabeth had shown me the scourge of the world after the war, Luccheni, Fascism, the rule of the dispossessed class that claims its rights and cannot conceive them save in terms of empty violence, of killing, taking, suppressing.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
REBECCA WEST BEGINS her book and her journey justifying this eccentric visit to her husband, Henry Andrews, who she discovers is already asleep in the neighboring wagon-lit. It is spring 1937. Alone with her thoughts, she recalls “the first time I ever spoke the name ‘Yugoslavia’ and that was only two and a half years before, on October the ninth, 1934.”
At that time she was recovering from surgery in a London hospital. By chance she learns from a radio broadcast that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was assassinated while on a state visit to Marseilles. As the king left the quai, the killer approached Alexander’s car and shot him four times with a semi-automatic pistol. The fatal round pierced the king’s torso. The French Foreign Minister, Louis Bartou, who had accompanied the king, picked up a ricochet and later died in hospital. The assassin, a Bulgarian revolutionary named Vlado Chernozemski, was cut down by a French gendarme and beaten to death by the crowd in the street. Several others were wounded in the ensuing pandemonium. It was the first assassination captured in motion pictures:
This jolts West’s memory of another Balkan assassination, that of Austrian Empress Elizabeth, in 1898, when West was a girl. Then 60 years old, Elizabeth was traveling incognito in Geneva, Switzerland, when her hotel tipped off a newspaper to her presence. An Italian, Luigi Lucheni, was in town planning to kill Prince Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the pretender to the French crown, who had not actually come to Geneva. Instead he attacked Elizabeth, who was with her lady-in-waiting and preparing to embark on a boat at the lakeside. Lucheni stabbed Elizabeth in the chest with a sharpened file and ran off. Elizabeth, who initially thought she had merely been knocked down, boarded the lake boat. Her tightly corseted dress slowed and hid but did not stop the internal hemorrhage. She collapsed on the boat and died shortly afterwards.
Both crowns were important figures in their day and both assassins represented revolutionary movements au courant at the time. Elizabeth was noted for her intelligence and beauty and whose death was mourned in ways similar to the death of Diana Spencer in 1997. Her assassin was an anarchist, an ideology that drew as much alarm at the fin de siècle as the self-styled revolutionaries of the Red Army Faction and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s. Alexander, descended from rootless Serbian aristocracy, had been king of Yugoslavia for barely five years. He became a target of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. If this appears confusing because Chernozemski was Bulgarian, it won’t be the last time. Chernozemski remains a controversial figure in both Bulgaria and Macedonia.
To an observer in the 21st Century, these events appear obscure, their connections vague. What could possibly link a stabbing in 1898 Geneva and a shooting in 1934 Marseilles? They were, in fact, singular moments in the advance of the most disruptive political movement in European history: the abandonment of hereditary monarchy as a system of rule and government in favor of republicanism and democratic parliaments. World War I accelerated this collapse by breaking up the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. World War II liberated nations, moved borders, and fatally weakened the remaining empires of France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Most importantly, the war smashed the last vestige of ruling monarchies in Europe. The only royalty to survive 1945 retained ceremonial titles only. They were eliminated entirely in eastern Europe. In Western Europe, parliaments and ministers ruled. The war finished what a long string of assassinations had started. In the late 1930s, with the second war not yet in prospect, West was reaching back to understand what would happen to her, her country, and Europe in the coming years.
To West, the revolutionaries, national movements, and assassins demonstrated not a violence unique to this small corner of the world (“Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans,” she admits) but the ruin and misery empires impose while dominating subject nations. She is keen enough to foresee that the cruelty loosened by empire and exacerbated by the unaccountable political organizations that opposed them seeded the ground for state terror and fascism. “Luccheni has got on well in the world,” she writes. “But now Luccheni is Mussolini.” Lucheni, a bastard abandoned as an infant and raised in orphanages and foster homes, took out his individual rage on the political system. But this did not make it legitimate:
His offense is that he made himself dictator without binding himself by any of the contractual obligations which civilized man has imposed on his rulers in all creditable phases…. This cancellation of process in government leaves it an empty violence that must perpetually and at any cost outdo itself, for it has no alternative idea and hence no alternative activity.
In addition to a mordant summation of fascism’s appeal and agenda, West demonstrates a much more sophisticated historical understanding of actual events than she is normally given credit for. The original sin, in her mind, was European imperialism that sought to divide and conquer, setting the weak off against one another rather than Rome. That Cain slew Abel was its logical, if not inevitable, result.
“He does not so much split his infinitives as disembowel them.” (Rebecca West on Dr. Lionel Tayler, The Clarion, 1913)
CONSIDER THIS INTERACTION recorded by Ian Parker about the late Christopher Hitchens in The New Yorker:
And then the young doctor to [Hitchens’] left made a passing but sympathetic remark about Howard Dean, the 2004 Presidential candidate; she said that he had been unfairly treated in the American media. Hitchens, in the clear, helpful voice one might use to give street directions, replied that Dean was “a raving nut bag,” and then corrected himself: “A raving, sinister, demagogic nut bag.” He said, “I and a few other people saw he should be destroyed.” He noted that, in 2003, Dean had given a speech at an abortion-rights gathering in which he recalled being visited, as a doctor, by a twelve-year-old who was pregnant by her father. (“You explain that to the American people who think that parental notification is a good idea,” Dean said, to applause.) Dean appeared not to have referred the alleged rape to the police; he also, when pressed, admitted that the story was not, in all details, true. For Hitchens, this established that Dean was a “pathological liar.”
“All politicians lie!” the women said.
“He’s a doctor,” Hitchens said.
“But he’s a politician.”
“No, excuse me,” Hitchens said. His tone tightened, and his mouth shrunk like a sea anemone poked with a stick; the Hitchens face can, at moments of dialectical urgency, or when seen in an unkindly lit Fox News studio, transform from roguish to sour. (Hitchens’s friend Martin Amis, the novelist, has chided Hitchens for “doing that horrible thing with your lips.”) “Fine,” Hitchens said. “Now that I know that, to you, medical ethics are nothing, you’ve told me all I need to know. I’m not trying to persuade you. Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No. I’m telling you why I disagree with you. That I do care about. I have no further interest in any of your opinions. There’s nothing you wouldn’t make an excuse for.”
“That’s wrong!” they said.
“You know what? I wouldn’t want you on my side.” His tone was businesslike; the laughing protests died away. “I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud, and you say, ‘That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards, and you say, ‘What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq war.’ Fuck. Off. You’re MoveOn.org. ‘Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush, he can say what he likes.’ Fuck off. You think a doctor can lie in front of an audience of women on a major question, and claim to have suppressed evidence on rape and incest and then to have said he made it up?”
“But Christopher . . .”
“Save it, sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it. I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference—I hope—in the world.”
This is very confusing. When Hitchens died ten years ago, his many friends heaped praise on the pyre. So where in this boorish altercation is that “fine, funny orator,” “quietly self-parodying,” (Ian Parker)? Is this an example of the “master of the extended peroration, peppered with literary allusions, and of the bright, off-the-cuff remark” (William Grimes)? What happened to the “brilliant speaker and debater,” “in conversation incomparably interesting and engaging” (James Fenton)? Did I miss the “elegance, wit, and brilliance” (Victor Navasky)? The “mischievous laugh,” “mock outrage,” “devilishly clever,” “devastatingly pointed phrase,” “…striving for some conversational prize in erudition” (Meryl Gordon) must have passed over my head. Did the transcriber fail to underline that this exchange was uttered in “that insouciantly charming tone of his” (Fred Kaplan)? Were these women unaware that he was “the thinking woman’s crumpet” (Joanna Cole)? Is this some hidden example of his “intense personal generosity and kindness” (Hussein Ibish)? Did he pick a fight with two young women in the absence of “starting fights with God, assuming there is one, which he doesn’t” (Alexander Chancellor)?
I cannot see any of that. What I see is a mean drunk, the fuel for which has been amply and admiringly documented; a wolfish domesticate. The misogyny is plain on the surface: The need to dominate, the dismissiveness triggered by disagreement, the sexist apodo, the abrupt fellatory vulgarism. The constellation of logical fallacies (I count six) that must have been learned while studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Balliol College of Oxford University in the late 1960s.
Reading Christopher Hitchens after this very unnerving dust-up it is impossible not to see his sexism everywhere. Visiting Afghanistan in 2004, he is “obsessed with women” which manifests itself in the actually common and prosaic revulsion that consumes Europeans confronting the veil. “My sex obsession got the better of me again” meeting a female Afghan doctor who survived detention under the Taliban to become the only woman candidate for the presidency of Afghanistan. He “made bold to inquire” about “a headscarf that didn’t seem all that comfortable”: “How long have you been wearing that? Have you always worn one?” He writes:
Her downcast-eyed yet stirring reply was that, in her days as a medical student, she had worn what she liked. This was a nervous compromise. Even her revolutionary candidacy was, in a sense, being conducted with male permission.
This would be very funny – “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad” (Mark Twain) – but for the wager Hitchens solemnly places at the very top: “the future of democracy may be at stake.” These are abstract stakes for him but very much not so for the woman sitting in front of him.
Back in the gender-liberated citadel of American democracy he crumpets on. Asked “what’s it like to be a minority of one,” when it comes to his ill-considered stance on invading Iraq, he responds, “It washes off me like jizz off a porn star’s face.” To his wife: “Darling, you would be so much more convincing if you were dressed.” About Ann Coulter: “If I can’t fuck up Ann Coulter before lunch, then I shouldn’t be in this business.” In Vanity Fair he wrote a thoroughly unnecessary and unconvincing paean to head and its alleged American character. His opening salvo, as it were, was a complete misread of Lolita as an erotic novel – his commonplace error compounded by a shuddering appropriation of the world’s most famous book depicting child rape to rhapsodize about oral sex. He stumbles forward (“Stay with me,” he begs the reader. “I’ve done the hard thinking for you.”). Rhetorically he asks why Nabokov refused to apply the English translation of souffler as if there were some profound Platonic form to be elided from the text. In reality, the answer is easily available given Lolita’s colorful publication history: even when self-scrubbed of explicit descriptions of sexual acts, the first edition had to be printed by a French pornographer rather than an English or American publisher. Hitchens considers the virtues of the gay hummer – he partially admits to such activity in English boarding school – which is not a very brave or original argument to make in 2006.
Hitchens was at least as famous for his enemies as for his friendships. He emigrated to the United States in 1982 and quickly ingratiated himself with the ruling class of Washington, D.C. It is telling that most of those who wrote eulogies for Slate’s Hitchens tribute tell banal anecdotes rather than assess the character of the man. This suggests to me that Hitchens didn’t have friends so much as potential adversaries. As Meryl Gordon describes him, in “Washington society these days, he’s like a gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger.” In other words, a very dangerous man. In his career he managed to estrange Eric Alterman, Colin Robinson, Alexander Cockbridge, Michael Kinsley, his own brother Peter (for four years), his first wife (until after the baby), and most famously, Sidney Blumenthal. In most of these cases the split was the result of personal or political differences, which means Hitchens was willing to abandon friends and family over his opinions. That is the very essence of the fanatic whom Hitchens insisted he hated.
Never mind. Hitchens was an acolyte of George Orwell, who like Hitchens was not a uniquely gifted or capable writer. Still, profundity can emerge from prose but only if the source itself is pure. Orwell’s canny judgment – of the reality in front of him and its moral implications – distinguished him among his generation. It also separates Hitchens most starkly from his hero. Hitchens was wrong about almost everything he ever wrote about. Orwell was right about fascism and communism at the same time. He was right about socialism. He was right about the Soviet Union. By contrast Hitchens was wrong about communism, Trotsky, Iraq (twice!), “Islamofascism,” Mother Teresa, Paris Hilton, female humor, and atheism. On those subjects where he coincided with historical judgment, he was late to join an already crowded field. So he discovered The Clintons were corrupt the year after the president was impeached. Henry Kissinger was deemed a war criminal 26 years after the end of the Vietnam War. George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were good men and very smart. In other words, all of his opinions about important public subjects were wrong, tardy, or commonplace. And this is because instead of being a moralist, which is the role of a great writer like Orwell, Hitchens was mercenary. He had no moral core beyond the fight itself. He was a pugilist. Fighting was all he knew how to do, and if he was not fighting, the vacuum was plain. And like a boxer taking too many roundhouses to the skull, the constant fight did not improve his judgment.
Still, I continue to search for this reputed rhetorician, the “easiest job in journalism” (June Thomas), “who didn’t need much editing” (Jonathan Karp), the sharp insight, cutting moral judgment, or mordant summary that define a keen observer and vital journalist. Or at least that is what very many other writers publishing in legacy media insist is there. What I find instead is slack prose, literary cliché, and astonishing ignorance. While Hitchens accurately if obviously describes Kabul in 2004 as “battered and filthy” he also reads too much meaning in a restaurant sign titled “Shame,” ignorant of the anglicization of the Dari word for “dinner”. He cites “David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia” for no apparent purpose, in addition to Harry Flashman and Rudyard Kipling, the default settings to any discussion of colonialism. What on earth does this mean: “A Kuwaiti woman, who hadn’t wanted to dismount from the bus, found her privacy and modesty invaded by a small lad who nevertheless proffered a sharp knife.” In 1992, he asked the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ilija Izetbegovic – while under active mortar fire – his opinion on the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued in 1988.
To borrow a phrase, I now know what his standards are and that’s all the difference in the world.
It was this Christopher Hitchens who was asked, for reasons unknown, to write an introduction to the 2007 Penguin single-volume edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. All the precipitate pugilism, simmering misogyny, masculine toxicity, and inattention are manifest here. On the surface, at least, it appears that he knows what he is doing, which is a hachet job disguised as an encomium. By treating a clear superior as an equal, he boosts himself up a notch by taking her down. But given his record outlined above, I cannot confidently say that’s what he meant to do.
I will give Hitchens one point: he was right about Bosnia and the whole of Yugoslavia during the 1990s. And he was courageous, at least, visiting the country during the war in addition to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Romania in 1989. He wrote compellingly, if not originally, about the siege of Sarajevo as early as 1992. But while his reportage crossed the conventional wisdom in Washington and Brussels, he reported what better observers than he – Samantha Power, Christiane Amanpour, Pierre Hazan, Roy Gutman, among many others – were seeing at the same time. And then he made his career-ending error, also quite common among ex-leftist interventionists, by extrapolating what should have been done in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and Rwanda (in the last country a fait accompli by the time he writes about it) to Iraq in 2003. Here again his judgment is not just poor but unoriginal.
By contrast Rebecca West, like Orwell, did not lack for good judgment in anything other than her personal life. She was right about feminism, suffrage, socialism, fascism and communism (at the same time), Yugoslavia, Germany, Italy, World War II, the meaning of treason, and Margaret Thatcher. Unlike Hitchens, her astute observation came from a moral core. While he kept looking for the fight and adapting his sophistry to the argument, she argued for what she truly believed in. She was also intensely loyal to friends, even those (like H.G. Wells and her own sisters) with whom she had difficult relationships over the course of her tumultuous life.
In his introduction, Hitchens logs a small handful of the standard panegyrics to build rapport with the reader and establish that West is worth his time. From this low mezzanine he slowly descends into his very English oblique reproach. While no author is beyond scrutiny – although, ironically, Hitchens’ literary estate does not apparently believe that – introductory writers do not normally disparage their subjects. Whether Hitchens saw this opportunity or not, he took to it with his patent combination of latent misogyny and misapprehension as amply documented above.
One of the strange and irrelevant strands Hitchens picks up stems from his hackneyed student days as a “Baillol Bolshevik” at Oxford. That is when he realized Joseph Stalin’s genocidal paranoia was no longer socially acceptable in polite company. So he shifted allegiance to the original communist martyr, Leon Trotsky, who did not live long enough to direct the repressive and failed political and economic experiment of the Soviet Union. Like a tic from the old days, he lays Stalinist sympathies at West’s feet. This is bizarre and untrue. Hitchens quotes a vague reference to Soviet agriculture policy to pin on West support for its murderous collectivization. Additionally, he rather specifically notes “her complete failure to anticipate the rise of Yugoslav communism during the Second World War.” This is nonsense. Following her British Council visit in 1936, as part of the official report to her sponsors she warned that Yugoslavia risked being “overrun either by Germany or, under Russian direction, by communism; which would destroy its character, blot out its inheritance from Byzantium.” West in fact denounced Stalin, the Soviet Union, and communism. More importantly, she helped regime apostates like Emma Goldman, who came to England following her departure from the Soviet Union and her deportation from the United States.
Hitchens continues to descend. He attacks West’s work as “not history. It is not even journalism. It is passion.” Elsewhere, he accuses her of “gushing” romantically about the peoples of the region. While there is certainly an argument to be made about Orientalism and the Western Gaze, he does not make it here. And in any event, Hitchens might know more about gushing passion than he would let on. As his friend Martin Amis wrote about him (while he was still alive): “Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly.” Gushing indeed.
Hitchens takes as easy bait West’s preoccupation with sex and gender. He luridly focuses on West’s use of “impotent,” a word that appears very rarely in the book. He revels in her account of the homespun trousers of Macedonian Albanian men adorned with exaggerated representations of the male member. His sexism then precipitates. He gleefully touts West’s “ability to detect a pure bitch at twenty paces” in her criticism of Austrian Archduchess Sophie. “Against this woman,” he writes, West “deploys a rhetorical skill that is perhaps too little associated with feminism”. With the viscera of modifiers slip-sliding across the butcher’s table it is not precisely clear exactly what he means. In any event he appears to be set off by West’s ultimate cut: “[Sophie] was also a great slut”. I will skip the etymology of this term but it is likely it meant something completely different in 1941 than Hitchens thought it did in 2007. All of this was purely unnecessary, the result of scratching at some subdural burr. I would not dare to suggest it has anything to do with his mother abandoning his father and committing suicide with her lover in Athens in 1973.
Hitchens’ creepiness extends and pervades. He blames West, as did so many men during the 1990s, for influencing Western inaction in Yugoslavia. He blasts her sincere defense of English-ness, a plaint she also shares with Orwell. This, Hitchens argues, “must count as one of the most halting and apologetic proclamations of patriotism ever uttered.” This is extremely hard to take given his own, very English, overreliance on modifier mash-ups, meandering subordinate clauses, and maddening imprecision. He states “the book fails certain tests as a history, and even as a travelogue, and …it has little predictive value…and it shows some ‘unreliable narrator’ characteristics.” “[W]hy should it remain a classic?” he asks rhetorically. His own “tentatively offer[ed]” (halting?) response is that Rebecca West is very very smart, and she “makes a sincere and admirable effort,” and that she “understands that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for.” In other words: clever girl! But it is hard to stomach that epithet as applied by a dilettante who was neither.