With many thanks to the Remembering Yugoslavia podcast and Peter Korchnak!
“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.
“My dear, I know I have inconvenienced you terribly by making you take your holiday now, and I know you did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all. But when you get there you will see why it was so important that we should make this journey, and that we should make it now, at Easter. It will all be quite clear once we are in Yugoslavia.” (Prologue)
REBECCA WEST MADE three trips to Yugoslavia in the late 1930s but never again visited the country, even after the end of World War II. The single volume treats these three journeys as one long meditation. She first visited for a lecture tour organized by the British Council in the spring of 1936, which explains in part her delight in Orthodox Easter while she visited Skopje and Ohrid in Macedonia and Belgrade in Serbia. She was seriously ill in Yugoslavia and sought treatment outside the country. It was during this travel to and from Yugoslavia through Central Europe that she witnessed the cultural shift and aggressive preparation in Germany in particular that presaged World War II.
West made her second visit, this time with husband Henry Andrews accompanying her, in spring of 1937, returning that May. He is not named but provides quiet observation and mordant commentary throughout the narrative. Under deadline pressure for an opus that was ballooning into two volumes, West returned a third time in 1938. The book was published shortly after the Battle of Britain during World War II, the result of five years’ writing and research.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has always been classified as a travel book or travelogue since it describes itself as “a journey through Yugoslavia.” As I and other authors have noted, it remains indispensable as an accompaniment to visiting the region because it describes with such clarity what still remains there. But it is evident from the start that the story is not really about a journey, country, or even history. She is working on something much larger. The place in time and the journey through it are framing devices for expansive interrogations of politics, identity, gender, historiography, religion, the nature of good and evil, empire, life, pleasure, pain, liberty, and death. These were all topics West spent much of her life thinking and writing about, and they all came together in this book. “It was much more than a travel book,” writes biographer Victoria Glendenning. “It turned out to be the central book of her life.”
Nevertheless, without recourse to an established genre it is difficult to explain the book at all. I borrowed prosopography as the closest, if unfamiliar, descriptor: a history of a people as a collective, particularly in contrast to other groups. In any event, the term helps explain how West categorizes people according to (currently outdated) notions of race or nation. In West’s Europe there are Germans and Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, Jews and Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, Turks and Macedonians, Serbs and Croats, and so on. Using this sorting tool, she draws lessons from the experiences of individual nations, for this is how millennia of conquerors, colonizers and empires viewed them. It is also how they saw themselves.
Yugoslavia was at the time of her first visit not even 20 years old. The idea of a federated polity of Slavic-language speakers in Southern Europe dates to the late 17th century, but it was created only in 1918 from the possessions of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and included the independent Serbia in the aftermath of World War I. The ethnic, religious, and linguistic regions had existed for centuries and throughout its tortured history regional and global powers exploited those fractures. Over time the area late known as Yugoslavia was occupied, annexed, colonized, or conquered by Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, Italians, and Turks. This explains in part the Yugoslav experiment: a modern federation was stronger than any of its individual member republics against the predations of its more powerful neighbors.
Some of those constituent republics West visited don’t really exist. At least one country she didn’t visit at all. In the book’s table of contents West lists, in order, Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Old Serbia and Montenegro. Today Macedonia is officially North Macedonia. Herzegovina is an historic region of Bosnia but has never been geographically defined and serves no administrative purpose. The Croatian peninsula of Dalmatia is similarly an undefined historical region and former kingdom.
Old Serbia is Kosovo, which for most of its modern history was part of Serbia. It was an eyalet, or province, under Ottoman rule. Socialist Yugoslavia declared Kosovo an autonomous area, a status that was revoked after 1989. Following the federal campaign against Kosovo in 1999, NATO secured the territory, which declared itself an independent state in 2008. West visited Kosovo but not Albania, which while not part of Yugoslavia shared the language and religion, Islam, of the majority of Kosovars then as now.
But as we will soon see, West’s omnivorous appetite for detail provides her a critical tool that even many academics and certainly most journalists do not possess. From this book, West is often quoted that she “had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood.” That serves certain easily digested narratives. Her real agenda is more comprehensively summarized by a story she recounts in the prologue. She discovers to her horror and despair that a Viennese laundry has completely destroyed the Macedonian peasant dresses she had brought with her. This acts as a parable about how the West broadly and imperialism in particular devalue and degrade small vibrant cultures and communities. Oppressive reign ruins those it rules. West’s husband does not understand her emotional reaction and wonders what Macedonia could possibly have that could upset her so much. “Well, there is everything there,” she says. “Except what we have. But that seems very little.” This is a powerful display of empathy that is the root and branch of all great writing.
“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”.