“For them all is done.”

June 8, 2010 @ 7:38 pm | Filed under:

Scott brought home a library book I had requested, though my memory of doing so is fuzzy. Someone, somewhere, mentioned something about Rebecca West, and I looked her up and couldn’t find the book the someone was talking about (and I’ve since forgotten what it was), but there was this other book by West, and, well, you know how easy it is to click that “request a copy” box.

So here it is, a hulk of a book, approximately the size of my first car. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia. Will I read it? Seems unlikely that I’ll finish: if I do, it knocks my summer reading plans pretty well to smithereens. But I opened it, because it is here, and it feels like reading a letter from someone you like very much indeed, someone smart and perceptive and pleasantly obsessive.

“My dear,” she tells her husband in the prologue,

“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.”

These words are lost on her husband, who is asleep in his train berth. But she certainly has me at hello. And then this:

It was perhaps as well. I could not have gone on to justify my certainty that this train was taking us to a land where everything was comprehensible, where the mode of life was so honest that it put an end to perplexity.

About this, I must hear. Where the mode of life was so honest that it put an end to perplexity. She’s writing in 1940 (the book was first published in 1940 1941) about a journey undertaken in 1937, following a visit the previous year.

One the train from Salzburg (Austria) to Zagreb (Croatia), West and her husband share a car with two German couples, and the conversation turns to various difficulties the businessmen are suffering in the maze of new tax laws and red tape. One of the German women tells a story about her hairdresser’s assistant, who tearfully expresses a fear that she hasn’t passed an examination she was required to take in order to continue at her job:

She had said to the girl, “But I am sure you will pass your examination, for you are so very good at your work.” But the girl had answered, “Yes, I am good at my work. Shampooing can I do, and water-waving can I do, and marcelling can I do, and oil massage can I do, and hair-dyeing can I do, but keep from mixing up Goring’s and Goebbels’s birthday, that I cannot do.” They had all laughed at this, and then again fell silent.

The business man said, “But all the young people, they are solid for Hitler. For them all is done.”

The others said, “Ja, das ist so!” and the business woman began, “Yes, our sons,” and then stopped.

This is an 1150 page book. I need to read more of them.

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12 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Mary G. says:

    I know it’s a long read … but you’ll love it! The descriptions and asides are delicious and the living history filled in quite a few gaps of my education (I learned that the USSR was that big blob over by China and nothing about the individual nations or peoples!).

    Enjoy ….

  2. Jennifer says:

    I’m hooked on it already, just from your post. Sounds fascinating.

  3. MelanieB says:

    Oh no! Why do you do this to me?! I’m not going to surf over to the library’s web page. I’m not. I’m not!

  4. Jordin says:

    Yes, I agree with the last post, why do you do this to me! You make me want to read it! And I will never get though a book that big!!!

    But I love it already!!

  5. Emily says:

    That sounds fascinating! I’m obsessive about all things WWII, especially pertaining to the holocaust (as I had family members who died in concentration camps), and eastern European as that is where my family is from (though we’re more Hungarian and Lithuanian). This book sounds right up my ally. I’m off to go see if my library carries it.

  6. Becky says:

    My mother is Croatian (though before the “great schism”, we just considered her Yugoslavian lol), and Dame Rebecca’s book was a constant, hulking presence in our living room lol.

    It was “required” family reading when I around 15, and what a marvel. I can’t believe how often it’s still described as a travel book, when really it’s one of the best examples of living history, written at a time of incredible happenings by an unusually perceptive writer and thinker. If you do get caught up in it, it’s a very quick 1,150 pages. But lots to think about after…

    PS First published in 1941, and in The Atlantic. Just a wee picky thing : ). Also interesting to read, published in The Atlantic, is Roland Usher’s 1913 article on “The Balkan Crisis”. Those pesky Balkans, always popping up…

  7. Joann says:

    But on Kindle is doesn’t weigh a thing! Zipped part one onto my hard drive. I was looking for a nice long (Kindle)book for the summer.

  8. Melissa Wiley says:

    Becky, thanks for the info, and for the correction, which I always appreciate! I got 1940 from a hasty glance at the copyright page, which says copyright “1940, 1941,” but I should have looked more closely because it says it was first published by Viking in ’41. The Atlantic thing is fascinating—it was pub’d in installments first? How many?? How cool!

    I love that it was a kind of family book for you. When did your mother first read it?

    MaryG, nice to hear your review, too. Thanks!

  9. Lisa says:

    Sounds like my kind of book! The train conversation reminds me of interviewing applicants in the late 80s/early 90s in Malawi: “Name the four cornerstones of the Malawi Congress Party in their order.” Getting one in the wrong order just was not acceptable. I’ll look for the huge book–I like huge books!

  10. Diana says:

    This has been my summer book for several summers…

    I do love Rebecca West even if I haven’t made my way to the end of Black Lamb & Grey Falcon yet. The Return of the Soldier is one of my favorites- and its conveniently much shorter too 😉

    Your post has inspired me to dive back in. Thanks!

  11. Becky says:

    Lissa, my mother read it in the early sixties, after moving to the US and marrying my father, who felt she HAD to read it, especially having worked before marriage at The New Yorker, albeit in the advertising department.

    What brought me back here to the comments was rereading a Mollie Panter-Downes obituary — the one in The Independent by Anthony Bailey noted,

    “She died at 90, the same age as Rebecca West, whose death she had written about in a New Yorker Letter in 1983. Years before, she wrote, Rebecca West had sent some foie gras, a large bottle of scent, and a French taffeta scarf to ‘a younger woman writer who was going through a bad time of anxiety’. Panter-Downes typically didn’t say, but it can be guessed who the woman was who Rebecca West thought ‘needed a bit of spoiling’. But fortunately the bad times in the greater part of her life were not frequent. There were – and she shared them with her readers – many fine days.”

    I cannot think of more ideal, spoiling care package!

  12. Christian Gehman says:

    The first volume of Black Lamb is especially wonderful. She wrote it, I suppose you know, because – being a writer, and foreseeing that another War might be coming on — she thought rambling around the place where the first War had started and writing about what she found might somehow stave off the next one. Black Lamb has all the great stories of European history. But her novel The Fountain Overflows might be better summer reading. Or even The Birds Fall Down, though that’s neither an easy nor an uncomplicated read.