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Tag Archives: travel books
Croatia (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
“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.
Working Titles (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
“I write books to find out about things.” (Paris Review, 1981)
FOR THIS PROJECT I have four individual editions of Black Lamb separated in publication by 80 years. More than 25 years ago I started reading the 1994 Penguin Books single-volume paperback. It was published without an introduction. I don’t recall purchasing this book, but I had likely read Balkan Ghosts (1993) around this time. This was author Robert Kaplan’s paean to “Dame Rebecca” and her life-defining tome, which he considered more valuable than his passport. That same year my first article for the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, was about European attempts to end the war in the former Yugoslavia.
I started reading this edition in 1997 with my coffee at five o’clock in the morning. I got about 300 pages into it (according to the book darts I left in the pages, I appear to have gotten as far as Sarajevo) before abandoning the effort. I really was not equipped to make sense of the book. A mere undergraduate education (more than what Dame Rebecca managed, which is all the more telling) and an undisciplined interest in Yugoslavia were insufficient. I knew none of the region’s histories, languages, or literature. I didn’t even know anyone from Yugoslavia. Consequently, each page I turned was an isometric effort: laborious but unproductive.
After graduate school – where I watched Allied aircraft pummel Serbia in 1999, televised havoc I would later see with my own eyes visiting Belgrade as a NATO official – I moved to Europe and eventually to Brussels and the North Atlantic Alliance itself. When I joined in 2005, Kosovo was NATO’s largest out-of-area deployment with about 15,000 troops. Catching up on this important Allied theater of operations, I schooled myself on the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia and began visiting the region as the new republics aligned themselves with NATO and the European Union. As a result, I met people across the region trying to build a new regional politics, liberal, internationalist, and Western-leaning.
My Penguin paperback with a homemade cardstock cover protecting it accompanied me during my trips. I found it easier to approach the book by sections that corresponded to where I was visiting. West described places and history I could visit and see and touch. The more I read, and the more I traveled, the more I could connect the parts of the books into a coherent regional narrative. It was a productive re-introduction to the book.
That led to criticism and commentary of West, including Geoff Dyer, Brian Hall, and Larry Wolff. Richard Holbrooke and Lord David Owen, policy-makers, followed. Holbrooke coined the pejorative “bad history, or the Rebecca West Factor” – a line Christopher Hitchens would parrot – and piled on Hall’s allegations that West was a pro-Serb crypto-nationalist and Islamophobe. That verdict perfectly but inaccurately explained what had just happened in Bosnia as Serb-dominated Yugoslav federal forces reinforcing Bosnian Serb irregulars “cleansed” Muslim-majority cities through siege and massacre. Never mind that West’s intended destination was Macedonia, not Serbia, and she visited Montenegro, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Herzegovina as part of her research. Only in retrospect – actually a narrative heuristic similar to post hoc fallacy – does Kaplan and, by extension, West appear to be prophetic. Robert Kaplan felt the need to defend himself and his West-derived “bad history” in later editions of Balkan Ghosts (in Yugoslavia, he visited only Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia and spent the other three-quarters of his book in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania). His main thesis was the best way to understand contemporary politics is through history, which Rebecca West well understood. The past is prologue to what follows but it is not necessarily the provocateur.
There began my initial intuition that these critics, writers and statesmen (they were all men), with the exception of Kaplan, had got something fundamentally wrong about Dame Rebecca. My sporadic reading of Black Lamb, while incomplete, did not fit the accusation of an ethnic polemic. Racist screeds usually burn themselves out well before 1,100 pages. So I returned to the book looking for bias with an eye toward writing an apologia in the old style.
That opportunity came in 2016 as the 75th anniversary of the publication approached. West originally serialized what became the book in The Atlantic and Harper’s Bazaar in early 1941. The first two-volume editions were published by The Viking Press in the United States and Macmillan in the United Kingdom later that same year. To my surprise nobody noted the anniversary date given how much-discussed the book had been just 20 years earlier. NATO was still on the ground in Kosovo and so was a European Union peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
Augmenting my research was a Kindle version of the Penguin 2007 edition published with Christopher Hitchens’ introduction, which he unsurprisingly handled like an dull mattock. Irritation aside, the Kindle edition features searchable text, bookmarking, highlighting, and a dictionary. This facilitated certain research. For example, the easy exenteration of Hitchens’ claim that “the most repeatedly pejorative word in [West’s] lexicon is ‘impotent’”—a word that appears just six times in the entire book. Likewise “Greater Serbia”—which, like Hall, Hitchens uses to bind West in a chain of causality leading to Serb ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina and specifically the Srebrenica genocide in 1995—West mentions twice. (More Hitchens gralloch in a future post.)
I published my article in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July 2017. It had an immediate and thoroughly unexpected result: the executor of West’s literary estate read my article and ordered up a new edition in time for the book’s 80th anniversary. Coincidentally, the global COVID19 pandemic gave claustrophobic adventurers reason to travel virtually the old-fashioned way. So Black Lamb has enjoyed a minor renaissance as more readers with more time rediscover it for an ambitious long read.
With this turn of events, I had to possess the alpha and the omega. Working with Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C., I bought the two-volume US first edition. These volumes include photographs and maps. The endleaves feature a visual log of West’s travels. The photos are not terribly good, not even qualifying as postcards. Occasionally, however, they provide insight, such as illustrating West’s astonished description of covered Muslim women’s dress in Mostar “consist[ing] of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it.” The photo confirms her power of description.
Finally, I ordered the new Canongate edition which at this time is only available for sale from the UK. It was delivered with the satisfaction of seeing my original LARB article prominently blurbed in the front leaf.
Blogging ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’
“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”.