Thursday, December 27, 2007

Rebecca West: Black Lamb, Sharp Teeth

Rebecca West, discussing the law's ancient pedigree in eastern Europe:

It is a thing to be noted, the age of legalism in these parts. It is our weakness to think that distant people became civilized when we looked at them, that in their yesterdays they were brutish.
This is from her 1150-page tome on Yugoslavia published in 1941, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.Worth reading? Well, I'm only on p. 49 so far (which is where the quote above comes from), but so far, I can tell you that critics call it one of the greatest books of the 20th-century, and that the prologue is worth the price of admission. Nobody today writes with such final authority, casual erudition, or unexpected battiness.

Writing about the Emperor Franz Joseph (of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for those of you who slept through European history), she observes,
He was certain of universal acclamation not only during his life but after his death, for it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, "Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens when has gone!" It was true that there was already shaping in his court a disaster that was to consume us all; but this did not appear to English eyes, largely because Austria was visited before the war only by our upper classes, who in no country noticed anything but horses, and Austrian horses were good.
That's from p. 10, in the prologue, and is soon followed by this from p. 14, after she discusses the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Franz Joseph, whose death was used as pretext for the war that soon became World War I:
Of that assassination I remember nothing at all ... I was then very busy being an idiot, being a private person, and I had enough on my hands. But my idiocy was like my anaesthetic. During the blankness it dispensed I was cut about and felt nothing, but it could not annul the consequences. The pain came afterwards.
By her "idiocy," West means her infamous, 10-year affair with the much-older-and-married H.G. Wells, by whom she had a son. She sets up this metaphor at the start of her prologue, when she mentions the wonders of modern surgery: "[t]hey had taken me upstairs to a room far above the roofs of London, and had cut me about or three hours and a half, and had brought me down again ..." -- as well, obviously, as the pain of her breakup with Wells, and the horror brought by the Great War. Absolutely killer.

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