Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rebecca West - Tart and Acid

More evidence in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon of Rebecca West’s dry wit and acid tongue. First, the dry (or tart). Speaking of the emperor Diocletian, she observes,

It would have been easier for him if what we were told when we were young was true, and that the decay of Rome was due to immorality. Life, however, is never as simple as that, and human beings rarely so potent. There is so little difference between the extent to which any large number of people indulge in sexual intercourse, when they indulge in it without inhibitions and when they indulge in it with inhibitions, that it cannot often be a determining factor in history (145).

(She goes on to add, wisely, “The exceptional person may be an ascetic or a debauchee, but the average man finds celibacy and sexual excess equally difficult.”)

The acid comes into play when West goes on to describe the abuse and bloody violence to which Diocletian’s daughter was eventually subjected after her brutish husband died. She refused to marry another powerful man, who then brought “fraudulent legal proceedings against her. All her goods were confiscated, her household was broken up, some of her women friends were killed, and she and the boy Candidianus were sent into exile in the deserts of Syria. It is only in some special and esoteric sense that women are the protected sex” (147-8).


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Monday, January 21, 2008

Bonfliglioli's Wit - Redux

I just got my hands on another volume by Kyril Bonfiglioli, whom I quoted at length a while back. Nobody beats this guy for sly wit. Here’s an example.

After being violently chased from the scene of a romantic assignation, Karli – the peerless rogue and star of Bonfiglioli’s 1978 All The Tea In China– meets up with the object of his second assignation of the night:

“Karli,” she murmured as we drew apart after our first frantic embrace, “why does your heart thump so?”

“For love of you,” I lied valiantly. “It always thumps so when you are near, dearest one.”

“I am so happy that you feel so,” she said, still murmuring, “because I have such a wonderful piece of new for us.” My heart missed a thump. I cocked an ear for the baying of [pursuing] hounds but there was only the rustle of magnolia leaves, and two hearts beating as one, though for different reasons.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rebecca West on d'Annunzio and Male Privilege

You don't have to know what Italian writer Gabriele d'Annunzio did in Fiume after World War I to enjoy Rebecca West's scorn for him, but if you do, you'll share her disgust (and she has a point, besides):

I will believe that the battle of feminism is over, and that the female has reached a position of equality with the male, when I hear that a country has allowed itself to be turned upside-down and led to the brink of war by its passion for a totally bald woman writer. Years ago, in Florence, I had marvelled over the singular example of male privilege afforded by d'Annunzio. Leaning from a balcony in the Lung' arno I had looked down on a triumphal procession. Bells rang, flags were waved; flowers were thrown, voices swelled in ecstasy; and far below an egg reflected the rays of the May sunshine. Here in Fiume the bald author had been allowed to ruin a city: a bald-headed authoress would never be allowed to build one.
--from p. 124 of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

West's Voice of Authority

I've mentioned before, in a previous post on Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, that West is authoritative in a way we don't see anymore. Her cultural references and some of her witticisms are built upon certainties about what she shares with her audience, certainties no one writing today could possibly share -- but also on an apparent confidence that she knows everything required for the subject, and what she doesn't know, she can learn so thoroughly that there will be no room (or need) for disagreement.

I've been enjoying that voice of hers as I make my way through her book, while at the same time musing on its variability, the way it will suddenly downshift from history lesson to making tender fun of someone, then climb swiftly to scorn for the Hungarians (who had so recently been overlords in Croatia). Consequently, I found Cynthia Ozick's observations on T.S. Eliot's voice particularly relevant:

That charm of intimacy and the easy giving of secrets which we like to associate with essayists -- Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt, George Orwell, and Virigina Woolf when the mood struck her -- was not Eliot's. As in what is called the "familiar" essay, Eliot frequently said "I," but it was an "I" set in ice cut from the celestial vault: uninsistent yet incontestable, serenely sovereign. It seemed to take its power from erudition, and, in part, it did. But really this power derived from some proud inner figuration or incarnation -- as if Literature itself had been summoned to speak in its own voice ...

Who could talk back to that? Such sentences appear[ed] to derive from a source of knowledge -- a congeries of assumptions -- indistinguishable from majesty.
What Ozick is describing is a voice of great remove, of a sort I find dry and immensely unappealing. I like West precisely because she is familiar at times (in fact, her notional assumption that her readers share her erudition draws them closer); after all, who wants to tour Yugoslavia with Literature, forever making drearily icy pronouncements? I'd rather go with a human being, someone who can be out of countenance; someone who's amused, sharp and passionate; someone who will do me the courtesy, however undeserved, of pretending that she's providing me with summaries of medieval Balkan history merely to get me up to speed on a subject I used to know a lot about but have since had to neglect in favor of my efforts to sort out the war in China ...

So shove over, Tom Eliot, you old fraud. When Rebecca West says she's driving us somewhere, I call shotgun.

--Quotation from "T.S. Eliot at 101," The New Yorker, November 20, 1989, p. 138.

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Most Amusing Metaphor of the Week - Rebecca West

From (where else?) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in which Rebecca West discusses the daughter of couple she knows:

There was also a daughter, very short, very plump, very gay, an amazing production for the Gregorievitches. It was as if two very serious authors had set out to collaborate and then had published a limerick (118).

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How to Be Certain Your Living Goddess is the Real Thing

Nepal has a 10-year-old living goddess -- the "incarnation of the powerful Hindu deity Taleju." The post rotates among young girls. Selected at a very young age from among the children of a specific village of goldsmiths, the goddess is taken off to live in seclusion until the onset of menses, at which time she returns to normal life, and a new goddess is selected.

I learned all this from an article in a local paper on the current goddess, in which the following fascinating information was included:

"At the age of four, a panel of judges examined her in a series of ancient ceremonies -- checking her horoscope, searching for physical imperfections, and, as a final test, seeing if she would be frightened after a night spent in a room filled with 108 freshly decapitated animal heads. She was not."

--The Asian Reporter, January 1, 2008, p. 5.

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