Rebecca West is one sassy broad. She is a highly opinionated author and will provide elaborate and obscure historical allegories in order to prove her point. Similar to an embedded NPR correspondent, she is willing report the entirety of a foreign crisis – its development, meaning and most likely outcome – based on a conversation with a local academic in a Croatian plaza. Then, her judgement of the beauty and importance of the plaza itself will often be measured upon how well she approves of the conversation.
She’s an Englishwoman writing in 1940, so I forgive her for her extreme prejudice and hostility towards every German she comes across, but her subtle way of infantilizing the Slavic people, even while praising them, is perhaps unforgivable. Yet, for the English speaking world, her book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is perhaps the classic piece of literary (whatever that means) travel writing of the 20th century. And because it’s focused solely on what is now “the Former Yugoslavia”, where Molly and I are currently traveling, I feel obligated to read it from cover to cover. Every night I go to bed with Dame Rebecca West’s book, my pen in hand for notes and a small map of the Balkans by my side to retrace the 2000 year history she lays out.
For me, reading about a place, especially a subjective travel-history, adds a third heat, so to speak, to my usual travel routine of walking curiously around a place and then later reading about it in some sort of textbook-style history. I love looking at a city or town, walking through its streets and seeing what I see, hiking to a hillside above and looking down to see it as a whole. Then I like understanding its past, trying to figure out how it became and who made it so. But there’s really just two characters in such an experience of a place, my subjective one-time view and the standardized and, at times, glossy history.
Reading Goethe’s Italian Journey, for example, adds another all too under-appreciated character to a trip to Rome. He provides the viewpoint of the traveler in a time gone by, walking the same streets but with a completely different worldview. While I find Rome to be the most energetic and lively city I’ve ever seen and assumed it had always been so, Goethe found Rome extremely boring and stale: “architecture rises out of its grave like a ghost,” he explained while complaining that all the city could offer him was the ability to admire dead societies. Spending the morning walking around the forum buildings and spending the afternoon learning about the Roman Senate is a very excellent exercise but seeing what Goethe saw of the senate buildings and the city around them tells me exponentially more about Rome (and Goethe) – something between my static present and the distant unfocused past.
So, having three months, as we do, to explore the entirety of the countries formerly comprising Yugoslavia, I’ve taken it upon myself to read Rebecca West’s magnum opus and to see this place not just through my own eyes nor just through the eyes of the many (always conflicting) historians, but also through Rebecca West as she documents her travels through Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. She came here on the brink of the Second World War, trying to understand the place which served as the furnace for the First. As she arrives in Yugoslavia for the first time, Hitler has already become a threat and a menace to all of Europe, which explains her extreme prejudice towards all the Germans she comes across. By the time her travels are done, Germany has invaded Yugoslavia, most likely killing many of her new friends; she is in England, living in a house with blacked-out windows, trying to survive the Battle of Britain.
She travels with her husband and several different local academics and politicians who guide her through the landscape and inform her history and sense of the place. She moves back and forth seamlessly between their conversations, descriptions of the cities and landscapes she’s traveling through and long detailed histories dating back to the Roman Empire. Of the many guides and friends we meet along the way, Constantine stands out as a blunt, overbearing, opinionated Serb, devoted to keeping Yugoslavia together as a united South Slavic country. Stanislav Vinaver is Contastine’s real name, a poet, essayist, soldier and leader of the Yugoslavian arts community between the wars. Rebecca West changed his name (along with most everyone she meets) for fear that the opinions attributed to them in the books would provide the Nazis and the Ustaše with reason to execute them. Vinaver would spend the entirety of the war in a concentration camp for opinions he expressed in other publications.
Rebecca West’s many credentials as a novelist, feminist, essayist and journalist are too long to list, but she was very much a journalist of her time, seeking an accurate story through the mixture of subjective experiences and objective reporting. She was a towering figure over London’s literary scene in the first half of the 20th century, prolific in her creative, critical and political writings and able to claim canon level works in literature (Return of the Soldier) and journalism (her coverage of the Nuremberg trials). Even Black Lamb and Grey Falcon stands atop the tree in the genealogy of thought towards the Balkans in the West: when evaluating the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, Bill Clinton could be seen walking around the White House with a copy of Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, a book written very much as an homage to Rebecca West’s travels.
Thus far I’ve read her sections on Croatia and Dalmatia, just yesterday finishing the part on her expedition of Kotor. Of the Bay of Kotor, a body of water I currently sit overlooking, she says: “it made an effect that was to the ordinary landscape as ballet-dancing is to walking.” Standing, peering down towards the beautiful end of the bay she describes the mountainsides as: “cut with ledges where spring stood at different stages, sometimes showing the clearest green of early woodlands, laced with wild fruit-blossom . . . and high above all, pricking the roof of the sky at its full height, was the snow-covered peak of Mount Lovchen.” Various seasons do rise along the mountain walls here and I read this most astute and lasting observation while Molly and I sat in the sun, feeling like summer, with the subtle smell of the ocean, looking up at the very same snow-capped peak.
She also points out the great number of churches and chapels that fill the interior of Old Town Kotor, all of which very much dominate the feel of the city to the current traveler. The mix of Orthodox and Catholic churches is to her, however, much more worthy of note than it ever would have been to me, traveling after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The nationalities of the Slavs living in the Balkans have always been defined via religion: Muslim Slavs identify as Bosniaks, Orthodox Slavs identify as Serbs and Catholic Slavs identify as Croats. The atrocities committed by Serbs and Croats against each other (and each against the Bosniaks) during World War II and then again during the breakup of Yugoslavia, were always, at their core, about a difference of religion. If we went back in time to visit the Balkans of the early 20th century and saw a Catholic Church across the square from an Orthodox church it would either indicate a place that would endure future struggle and unharnessed violence, or, much less commonly, indicate a more accepting and peaceful city. Luckily, for this beautiful bay and all its inhabitants, it has proven to be the latter.
Natural beauty and unique architecture are the strong points of Rebecca West’s book in terms of pure accurate journalism. Because they are the strong points of Kotor as well, her few short pages on the place are haunting to read at times, as though she’s standing next to me, whispering into my ear. But this isn’t always the case: to her, the Kotor of the 1930s was a sleepy, dying city where as today it’s a thriving active bay, even in late winter. Its citizens line the streets of Old Town and the paths along the waterfront every evening to stroll with their families. And she mentions the fortifications above town but gives no history of them nor climbs to the top to see the bay and the city as a whole whereas for me they are an essential component of the history of Kotor.
She focuses heavily on the fallacies of the Croats but details only the virtues of the Serbs, which for a modern reader without a more updated history lesson, would incite inaccurate judgements of both sides. And she’s constantly contracting herself: in regards to previous wars, she’ll often go to great lengths to use history to justify violence before condemning a group’s right to actually commit it. But what she does wrong, she does very well and she does it with great purpose. And when you sit in an outdoor cafe reading about her sitting in the very same square contemplating her surroundings, she gives you the unique opportunity to live across the spectrum of a place’s many pasts. She also gives us the unique opportunity to see the prejudices all people have when writing about history and the ingrained imperialism inherent in even the most liberal of English thinkers. And most importantly, she gives us the ability to engage her in a good long argument. As we travel outwards to Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo, it’s my intention to continue that argument with her, one cafe at a time.
Among the tower of themes in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, this 1200 page behemoth of travel-history, what stands out is her desire to learn something about herself by learning something about the Balkans. This may be an admirable mission but it can be a difficult one to witness. There’s something always exploitative in her interactions and observations, as though the people she’s meeting are just fodder for her intellect, characters to be extracted and shaped for her coming story or objects to be studied, informing her own understanding of her life and justifying her place in the world.
But I am in no way different from her in that sense and there is always something exploitative and selfish in traveling. Like any traveler in a foreign land, she is using the place and its people to advance her own self, to improve and advance her own life, just as I am. I am here in Europe and in Montenegro to be someone else for a while, to grow a little from seeing parts of the world I’ve never seen, to take at least a little something with me from those I meet in order to perhaps learn about the significance of my life as a whole, to better learn about my place in the world and to process my past and my ever coming future. And yes, though often exploitative and seemingly selfish, reading this book reminds me just how important traveling across borders and seeing new lands actually is. It helps focus our own world and our own history and strengthens the forms by which we understand our place in the world. As Rebecca West says: “If one’s own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book.”