“What is Kaimakshalan? A mountain in Macedonia, but where is Macedonia since the Peace Treaty? This part of it is called South Serbia. And where is that, in Czechoslovakia, or in Bulgaria? And what has happened there? The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length. Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
THIS YEAR MARKS the 80th anniversary of the publication of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Written over five years and totaling more than 1,100 pages, it was almost immediately and universally acclaimed as a masterwork of 20th Century English literature—luster dimmed slightly by aspersions cast during the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. After 2000, however, this extraordinary book fell not just from favor but from popular consciousness. So much so that nobody noticed when its 75th anniversary passed in 2016.
Nobody, it seems, but me. In 2017 I wrote about this collective oversight in the Los Angeles Review of Books and defended West against the ludicrous accusation that her 1930s wayfaring prosopography fed Western inaction during the violent, genocidal breakup of the former Yugoslavia. To my surprise, West’s literary estate flagged my article and ordered an 80th anniversary edition. That edition is now available from Canongate with an introduction by Geoff Dyer.
This moment presents an opportunity to revisit the book in detail and in depth. In the coming weeks and months I will write here about the book as I move through it, region by region. The book is rich and dense with observation and moment so there will be plenty of material for digressions and diversions. I have visited several of the locations covered in the book, including Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia in addition to Austria, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria. My admiration of West and her work grew as I realized what she described in 1941 remained completely true to my own experiences.
I also believe reexamining this book will bring clarity to our own generational inflection point. As several commentators have noted, during her travels in the mid-1930s West saw and anticipated the crest of fascism preparing to crash across Europe. Black Lamb documented the damage of rank nationalism and the imperialism of centuries. West plainly saw the antecedents and historical analogies. “The difference between [Kosovo] in 1389 and England in 1939,” she wrote, “lay in time and place and not in the events experienced.”
Many thought 1989 was the last caesura with that legacy. But history has no end. The apex of post-Cold War democratic advance came in Tunis in 2011. Since then, more than a dozen countries have rallied to the cynical column led by Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran. Freedom House noted of 2020, “[D]emocracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.” Western democracies themselves have not been immune to this retrogression, as 2021’s capitol insurrection surely demonstrated.
West saw the same thing coming 85 years ago and warned us. We should listen.
I hope you’ll join me on this historiographical odyssey. Please feel free to comment below or e-mail me directly at the address listed under “About James Thomas Snyder”.