Happy Birthday, Rebecca West


Dame Rebecca West is the grand pooh-bah on my short list of “intellectual idols”.

It is her birthday today.

It is hard to talk about her without referencing the generations of writers she inspired, all of whom admit their debt to her. Robert Kaplan is the most open about it (his Balkan Ghosts, which really launched his career, is a following-in-Rebecca-West’s-footsteps through Yugoslavia, when it was still, you know, Yugoslavia.)

A journalist, novelist, Suffragist, Socialist (and critic of Socialism and the pacifist Left), as well as author of one of the most important books of the 20th century, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

One of the things that is so extraordinary about Rebecca West, and why she is so revered by anyone who wants to write thoughtfully about history and politics, is that she was able to see things before others did. She somehow seemed to have a higher foothold, so she could peek above everybody else’s head. She had context. She was not swept away by emotion. She was not so blinded by her own time, or by her own nationalism/political loyalty that she was unable to sense the vast heaving trends around her. She was an iconoclast, an independent thinker, although she was involved with the “isms” of the day. But there was something in her that never went along with the “group”. Perhaps her gender had something to do with it. She was already a weirdo and an outsider, merely from her gender. She was used to steering her own course.

She grew up in a family who came from great wealth, but for many reasons, had lost that wealth in West’s time. So there was an air of faded grandeur about her family, and it seems like her parents sort of let their children run free and wild. Rebecca West went to school, but other than that, she spent her time un-managed, un-watched-over, unmonitored. Her parents didn’t impose any limitations on her just because she was a girl. She grew up in a fairy-tale childhood where she could do whatever the hell she wanted to do. While that may have made life tougher for her later (to be taken seriously as a political writer at the time was no small task), it also gave her that clear-sighted unmistakable voice. She is unafraid of her own opinions. She does not sugarcoat them to make them more palatable for someone who may disagree. (You can see the same thing going on in her “witness” footage in Reds.)

She traveled through Yugoslavia with her husband in 1937 and 1938. Not only could she sense the cataclysm that was to come in WWII (she is especially brutal about some German tourists she observed on the train) but she also predicts the breakup of Yugoslavia some 50 years later, and the genocidal campaigns of people like Slobodan Milosevic. Nobody who read her book would be at all shocked that Serbia would rise in such a monstrous way. Retrospect makes prophets of us all, and there are many who said, “I saw it coming …”

Yes: but could you have seen it coming in 1938?

She seems always to have been on the side of the individual, which again separates her from her contemporaries, especially in the 1930s, when the worldwide collapse of the economy made Socialist ideas extremely attractive, putting the Group above the Individual. She certainly had political ideals and convictions. She considered herself a radical and a feminist, but she always had a very healthy suspicion of any group, and any group that tried to tell one how to think. West saw what group-identity-politics could wrought, in places like Yugoslavia, and then also in places like Germany, and she consciously separated herself from the pack: “No, thanks. Not for me.” Not an easy stance to take, and she is often mistaken for a reactionary which makes me chuckle, because that is so often the accusation thrown towards someone who refuses to “play well with others”, who never drank the Kool-Aid in the first place.

To the Left, if you do not join their rank-and-file with equal fervor, you are a “reactionary”. This is still true today. I know of what I speak. (The conservatives are equally as bad in this regard, as I have also experienced, although their focus is usually more on family values, two words they have corrupted almost entirely. Even if you agree with some conservative political ideas – as I do – see: Edmund Burke – , but you do not sign up with their family-values-moral-high-ground bullshit then they will attack you like a swarm of angry shrieking hornets). But the Left is often more organized in its ferocity against “apostates”. A shunning takes place. You are outside the charmed circle. You are beyond the pale. Rebecca West, and Orwell, and others, all felt that wrath.

You can see the groupthink involved in such simplistic thinking. To anyone who prizes independent thought in the midst of great pressure to believe otherwise, Rebecca West is a hero.

Her book A Train of Powder is made up of four very long essays having to do with various trials that West, as a journalist, covered, one being the Nuremberg Trials. She sat in the press box in the court room at Nuremberg, for months on end, and observed, taking in everything: the zaniness of much of it (due, perhaps, to the fact that a trial like this had never occurred before), the behavior of the “defendants”, and thoughts on what all of this would actually mean. What exactly was going on here? She makes insightful observations which probably rang uneasily in the minds of her contemporaries, who were still under the sway of the glorious revolution going on in Russia, something she did not fall prey to. For example, she notes that the international judges each read different parts of what each defendant was accused of. Here she writes:

It turned out that the Russian was reading the part of the judgment that condemned the Germans for their deportations: for taking men and women away from their homes and sending them to distant camps, where they worked as slave labour in conditions of great discomfort, and were often unable to communicate with their families. There was here a certain irony, and a certain warning.

The essay was written in 1946. It was unpopular, at that moment in time, to criticize Russia for various reasons and many just decided to stick their heads in the sand, to avoid uncomfortable truths. They were true believers in Socialism. To make an omelette, you have to break eggs, right? Phone call for Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the #1 “useful idiots” in the world at that time along with NY Times columnist Walter Duranty who swallowed the lie of the Great Purge in mid-30s Russia hook, line, and sinker, taking the show trials at face value – he is a disgrace – but there were many many more (including Rebecca West’s former lover and father of her child, H.G. Wells who declared Stalin an “honest” man after meeting him. Wells eventually backtracked on that statement but sorry, too late. He had been used by Stalin as the “idiot” that he was.). Those who turned on Russia once it became clear what was happening under Stalin are Heroes to me still, because they are the ones who experienced what amounts to shunning by their former ideological best pals, they were treated as traitors and branded right-wing reactionaries.

I try never to mess with True Believers. They do not think rationally.

To suggest that things were less-than-perfect in Socialist Russia was to be a traitor to the Cause. (You can see why Warren Beatty was so excited, like little-boy-at-Christmas excited – that he got Rebecca West to be one of the “witnesses” in Reds. She had a grounds-eye view of that whole fight in the Left in the 1920s, 1930s.)

In Train of Powder, I was particularly riveted by West’s thoughts on Goering.

She certainly had a way with words.

And though one had read surprising news of Goering for years, he still surprised. He was so very soft. Sometimes he wore a German Air Force uniform, and sometimes a light beach suit in the worst of playful taste, and both hung loosely on him, giving him an air of pregnancy. He had thick brown young hair, the coarse bright skin of an actor who has used grease paint for decades, and the preternaturally deep wrinkles of the drug addict. It added up to something like the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy. He looked infinitely corrupt, and acted naively. When the other defendants’ lawyers came to the door to receive instructions, he often intervened and insisted on instructing them himself, in spite of the evident fury of the defendants, which, indeed, must have been poignant, since most of them might well have felt that, had it not been for him, they never would have had to employ these lawyers at all. One of these lawyers was a tiny little man of very Jewish appearance, and when he stood in front of the dock, his head hardly reaching to the top of it, and flapped his gown in annoyance because Goering’s smiling wooden mask was bearing down between him and his client, it was as if a ventriloquist had staged a quarrel between two dummies.

Goering’s appearance made a strong but obscure allusion to sex. It is a matter of history that his love affairs with women played a decisive part in the development of the Nazi party at various stages, but he looked as one who would never lift a hand against a woman save in something much more peculiar than kindness. He did not look like any recognized type of homosexual, yet he was feminine. Sometimes, particularly when his humour was good, he recalled the madam of a brothel. His like are to be seen in the late morning in doorways along the steep streets of Marseille, the professional mask of geniality still hard on their faces though they stand relaxed in leisure, their fat cuts rubbing against their spread skirts. Certainly there had been a concentration on appetite, and on elaborate schemes for gratifying it; and yet there was a sense of desert thirst. No matter what aqueducts he had built to bring water to his encampment, some perversity in the architecture had let it run out and spill on the sands long before it reached him. Sometimes even now his wide lips smacked together as if he were a well-fed man who had heard no news as yet that his meals were to stop. He was the only one of all these defendants who, if he had the chance, would have walked out of the Palace of Justice and taken over Germany again, and turned it into the stage for the enactment of the private fantasy which had brought him to the dock.


In 1981, Rebecca West was interviewed by The Paris Review. She was 90 years old and living in London. Cataracts had ruined her eyes, she wore glasses that distorted her eyes completely. She was also arthritic. But her mind was sharp and she was still working, writing book reviews, keeping up to date on things, and she’s a lively and beautiful interview. She can be biting in her criticism, especially of other writers.

To her, there were no Sacred Cows. It is an important point.

The interviewer asks her if she does many drafts of her writing. She replies, “I fiddle away a lot at them. Particularly if it’s a fairly elaborate thing. I’ve never been able to do just one draft. That seems a wonderful thing. Do you know anyone who can?” The interview says, “I think D.H. Lawrence did” and Rebecca replies, “You could often tell.”

It is, indeed, hard to reconcile the little white-haired old lady (or her younger glamorous self) with the writer of some of the most insightful analyses of fascism and totalitarian politics of the 20th century, but that’s the beauty of Dame Rebecca. She got her start writing for a suffragette newspaper in 1912 and while she always considered herself a feminist, for very good reasons (the struggles of the day being what they were), she separated herself from the group a little bit later, because of its focus on chastity and birth control and moral issues, which didn’t interest her in the slightest. She didn’t judge those who subscribed to those views (she talks about it a bit in the interview with Paris Review), it was just that she was into political power and equality, and the focus on sex seemed to take the movement in another direction. It bored her tremendously.

She speaks in the interview about her break with the suffragette movement: “I admired them enormously, but all that business about venereal disease, which was supposed to be round every corner, seemed to me excessive. I wasn’t in a position to judge, but it did seem a bit silly.” She talks of Christabel Pankhurst, a leading suffragette, who ran a chastity campaign for women. While she disagreed with many of Pankhurt’s opinions, she despised all of the retrospective analysis done on her by people who weren’t there, who didn’t know what it was like on the ground at the time, and frankly didn’t know what they were talking about. For example: The name David Mitchell comes up. West mentions him as the man who “writes silly, hysterical books about Christabel Pankhurst. What is he? Who is he?” West goes on to destroy him in a couple of paragraphs which shows her logical, flexible, and sometimes startling brain:

“[His book was] absolutely rubbish and nonsense. He writes about how she went to Paris and how she didn’t go down to the cafes and meet the young revolutionaries. But how on earth was she to find out where they were? Because, you see, the Bolshevik generation was not yet identifiable. How would she find out any of the people, who hadn’t really made their mark? It was an obscure time in the history of revolution. It was a time when very remarkable people were coming up, but they weren’t visible yet. She did know the people like Henri de Rochefort very well. Mitchell also says she took a flat and had a housekeeper, who was also a very good cook, and didn’t that show great luxury? Well, if he’d asked anybody, he would have found that, in those days, you couldn’t take a furnished flat or house in Paris, nor, so far as I know, in most parts of France, unless you took a servant, who was left by the owner. All the furnished houses I ever had in France, modest as they were, had somebody that I had to take with the house.”

While this may seem like a minor thing to get up in arms about, it is not. Mr. Mitchell was making a judgment on Pankhurst’s seriousness as a revolutionary and thinker by making a false assumption. He makes that false assumption because he comes from an ideological standpoint. Ideological purity can actually narrow how the brain allows itself to function. (See Michele Bachmann.) Mr. Mitchell had a bone to pick with Christabel Pankhurst, and wanted to take her off her pedestal (“some revolutionary – she had a maid!!”) and Rebecca West calls him out on it, despite her own feelings about Pankhurst’s later work and how she broke with the movement because of it.

Look at how clear-headed one must be, how unaffiliated with ANY group, to make all of those distinct analytical points. She doesn’t like sloppy writing, certainly, but more than that she doesn’t like sloppy thinking. And those who are hell bent on making their own point, out of their defensive attitude for whatever cause they stand for, are sloppy thinkers, more often than not.

She paid a price eventually for her outsider status made even worse by her scandalous affair with HG Wells, which ended in a baby, but she just kept working.

I also was fascinated by the fact that she says she always wished she could write like Mark Twain. What?? I would never have guessed that in a million years, yet when you hear her reasons why, it makes perfect sense. I love that not just because I love Mark Twain, but that it just goes to show you that West was unconnected from the typical influences of her generation. She didn’t care. She grew up reading whatever the hell she wanted to read. She didn’t think you HAD to like Tolstoy. She made the decision about what she liked for herself.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

“From an early age – but it was not detected for many, many years – I’ve had difficulty about hearing. Finally, I lost my hearing almost entirely in this ear, I got pneumonia in it, which I think is rather chic.”

“We had large classes [at school], which was an ineffable benefit, because the teachers really hadn’t time to muck about with our characters.”

“[Women] are idiots and men are lunatics. It’s a perfectly good division. The Greek root of idiot means “private person”; men “see the world as if by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature”. It seems to me in any assembly where you get people, who are male and female, in a crisis, the women are apt to get up and, with a big wave of the hand, say, It’s all very well talking about the defenses of the country, but there are thirty-six thousand houses in whatever (wherever they’re living) that have no bathrooms. Surely, it’s more important to have clean children for the future. Silly stuff, when the enemy’s at the gate. But men are just as silly. Even when there are no enemies at the gate, they won’t attend to the bathrooms, because they say defense is more important. It’s mental deficiency in both cases.”

“I should like to be approved of, oh, yes. I blench. I hate being disapproved of. I’ve had rather a lot of it.”

“Well, I longed, when I was young, to write as well as Mark Twain. It’s beautiful stuff and I always liked him. If I wanted to write anything that attacked anybody, I used to have a look at his attack on Christian Science, which is beautifully written. He was a man of very great shrewdness. The earliest article on the Nazis, on Nazism, a sort of first foretaste, a prophetic view of the war, was an article by Mark Twain in Harper’s in, I should think, the nineties. He went to listen to the Parliament in Vienna and he describes an awful row and what the point of view of Luger, the Lord Mayor, was, and the man called George Schwartz, I think, who started the first Nazi paper, and what it must all lead to. It’s beautifully done. It’s the very first notice that I’ve ever found of the Austrian Nazi Party, that started it all.”

“I just saw violence [before the First World War]. There was the race thing and sacred Germanism and all that, but the enemy before the First World War you can’t really compare with fascism. It was the imperialism of Germany and the supremacy of the army, but that isn’t exactly fascism. I think you could say, there was more fascism, but of an intellectualized kind, in France. The crux of the Dreyfus case was that it didn’t matter whether Dreyfus was guilty or not, you mustn’t spoil the image of the army. That was more or less fascist.”

“If there is a God, I don’t think He would demand that anybody bow down or stand up to Him. I have often a suspicion God is still trying to work things out and hasn’t finished.”

“People were very rude just because they’d heard I was a woman writer. That kind of rudeness is as bad as ever.”

“No [advantages in being a woman] whatsoever. You could have a good time as a woman, but you’d have a much better time as a man. If in the course of some process, people turn up a card with a man’s name on it and then a card with a woman’s, they feel much softer toward the man, even though he might be a convicted criminal. They’d treat the man’s card with greater tenderness.”

“You know, I don’t really appreciate the Virgin Mary. She always looks so dull. I particularly hate Raphael, Raphael’s Madonnas. They are awful, aren’t they?”

“My life has been dictated to and broken up by forces beyond my control. I couldn’t control the two wars! The second war had a lot of personal consequences for me, both before and after. But I had enough money at that time, because I had a large herd of cows and a milk contract. I had to take some part in looking after the cows, but the dear things worked for me industriously.”

“I’m a heretic about Tolstoy. I really don’t see War and Peace as a great novel because it seems constantly to be trying to prove that nobody who was in the war knew what was going on. Well, I don’t know whoever thought they would – that if you put somebody down in the wildest sort of mess they understand what’s happening.”

“I write books to find out about things. I wrote Saint Augustine because, believe it or not, there was no complete life in English at that time.”

“It’s an absurd error to put modern English literature in the curriculum. You should read contemporary literature for pleasure or not read it at all. You shouldn’t be taught to monkey with it. It’s ghastly to think of all the little girls who are taught to read To the Lighthouse. It’s not really substantial food for the young because there’s such a strong feeling that Virginia Woolf was doing a set piece and it didn’t really matter very much. She was putting on an act. Shakespeare didn’t put on an act. But Orlando is a lovely original splash, a beautiful piece of fancy. Leonard Woolf had a tiresome mind. When you read his books about Malaya, and then the books of the cadets who went out there, he’s so petty, and they have such an enthusiasm and such tolerance for the murderous habits of the natives. But he was certainly good to Virginia. I couldn’t forgive Vanessa Bell for her awful muddy decorations and those awful pictures of Charlotte Bronte. And I hated Duncan Grant’s pictures too. The best thing that was ever said about Bloomsbury was said by a lovely butler of mine. At dinner one evening, they began to talk of Faulkner’s book in which someone uses a corncob for the purposes of rape. They were being terribly subtle, and doing this and that gesture over the table. The butler came into my son Anthony’s room and asked, Do you know where they keep the Faulkners? It seems they’re very saucy. Virginia Woolf’s criticism was much better than criticism others were writing then.”

“I wanted to write a book on Finland, which is a wonderful case of a small nation with empires here and there, so I learned Finnish and I read a Finnish novel. It was all about people riding bicycles. But then, when I went to Yugoslavia, I saw it was much more exciting with Austria and Russia and Turkey, and so I wrote that. I really did enjoy it terribly, loved it.”

“I find Tom Stoppard just as amusing as I ever found Shaw. Very amusing, both as a playwright and as himself. But I’m not now an admirer of Shaw. It was a poor mind, I think. I liked his wife so much better. He was conceited, but in an odd way. Usually, you know, it’s people shouting to keep their spirits up, but he really did think he was better than most people.”

“What [Yeats] liked was solemnity, and, if you were big enough, heavy enough, and strong enough, he loved you. He loved great big women. He would have been mad about Vanessa Redgrave.”

“I’ve aroused hostility in an extraordinary lot of people. I’ve never known why. I don’t think I’m formidable.”

“[Augustine] wasn’t a heretic. Most of his life he wasn’t at all a nice man, but that’s quite a different thing. I like to think about people like the Donatists, who were really suffering agonies of one kind and another because the Roman Empire was splitting up and it was especially uncomfortable to be in Roman Africa. But they didn’t know anything about economics, and did know about theology. Theology had taught them that if you suffered, it was usualy because you’d offended God – so they invented an offense against God, which was that unworthy priests were celebrating the Sacraments. So that satisfied them and then they went round the country, looting and getting the food and the property they wanted because they said that they were punishing heretics. I think it’s wonderful that in the past people overlooked things that now seem to us quite obvious, and thought they were doing things for the reasons they weren’t, and tried to remedy them by actions. Perhaps there’s some simple thing we’ll think of someday, which will make us much happier.”

She’s funny. She’s smart. She’s a little bit scary. You want to listen to her forever.

(For a really interesting take on what it was like to be in her presence, watch the Making-Of documentary that accompanies the 25th anniversary DVD of Reds, where Warren Beatty talks about what it was like to talk to all of those witnesses. He has some beautiful things to say about Dame Rebecca and how much he enjoyed her.)

Here are some excerpts from the towering Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, the first being about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 (the entire section is a masterpiece, but this excerpt will hopefully wet your whistle).

June 28, 1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie setting out in their motorcade in Sarajevo that fateful morning.

This [June 28th] was a day of some personal significance to him [Franz Ferdinand]. On that date in 1900 he had gone to the Hofburg in the presence of the Emperor and the whole court, and all holders of office, and had, in choking tones, taken the oath to renounce the royal rights of his unborn children. But it was also a day of immense significance for the South Slav people. It is the feast-day of St. Vitus, who is one of those saints who are lucky to find a place in the Christian calendar, since they started life as pagan deities; he was originally a Vidd, a Finnish-Ugric deity. It is also the anniversary of the battle of Kossovo, where, five centuries before, the Serbs had lost their empire to the Turk. It had been a day of holy mourning for the Serbian people within the Serbian kingdom and the Austrian Empire, when they had confronted their disgrace and vowed to redeem it, until the year 1912, when Serbia’s victory over the Turks at Kumanovo wiped it out. But, since 1913 had still been a time of war, the St. Vitus’s Day of 1914 was the first anniversary which might have been celebrated by the Serbs in joy and pride. Franz Ferdinand must have been well aware that he was known as an enemy of Serbia. He must have known that if he went to Bosnia and conducted maneuvres on the Serbian frontier just before St. Vitus’s Day and on the actual anniversary paid a state visit to Sarajevo, he would be understood to be mocking the South Slav world, to be telling them that though the Serbs might have freed themseves from the Turks there were still many Slavs under the Austrian’s yoke.

To pay that visit was an act so suicidal that one fumbles the pages of the history books to find if there is not some explanation of his going, if he was not subject to some compulsion. But if ever a man went anywhere of his own free will, Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo.

More from West on that same world-changing event:

In January 1913 [Danilo Ilitch] had gone to Toulouse with a Moslem friend and had visited the wonderful Gachinovitch, the friend of Trotsky. He had received from the leader weapons and poison for the purpose of attempting the life of Genera Potiorek, the Military Governor of Bosnia, but on the way he and his friend had thought better of it and dropped them out of the carriage window. Ilitch had also enrolled two schoolboys called Chubrilovitch and Popovitch, and gave them revolvers. Neither had ever fired a shot in his life. The few days before the visit of the Archduke Ilitch spent in alternately exhorting this ill-assorted group to show their patriotism by association and imploring them to forget it and disperse. He was himself at one point so overcome by terror that he got into the train and travelled all the way to the town of Brod, a hundred miles away. But he came back, though to the very end he seems at times to have urged Princip, who was living with him, to abandon the attentat, and to have expressed grave distrust of Chabriovitch on the ground that his temperament was not suited to terrorism. It might have been supposed that Franz Ferdinand would never be more safe in his life than he would be on St. Vitus’s Day at Sarajevo.

This very nearly came to be true. On the great day Ilitch made up his mind that the assassination should take place after all, and he gave orders for the disposition of the conspirators in the street. They were so naive that it does not seem to have struck them as odd that he himself proposed to take no part in the attentat. They were told to take up their stations at various points on the embankment: first Mehmedbashitch, then Chabrinovitch, then Chubrilovitch, then Popovitch, and after that Princip, at the head of the bridge that now bears his name, with Grabezh facing him across the road. What happened might easily have been foretold. Mehmedbashitch never threw his bomb. Instead he watched the car go by and then ran to the railway station and jumped into a train that was leaving for Montenegro; there he sought the protection of one of the tribes which constituted that nation, with whom his familiy had friendly connexions, and the tribesmen kept him hidden in their mountain homes. Later he made his way to France, and that was not to be the end of his adventures. He was to be known to Balkan history as a figure hardly less enigmatic than the Man in the Iron Mask. The schoolboy Chubrilovitch had been told that if Mehmedbashitch threw his bomb he was to finish off the work with his revolver, but if Mehmedbashitch failed he was to throw his own bomb. He did nothing. Neither did the other schoolboy, Popovitch. It was impossible for him to use either his bomb or his revolver, for in his excitement he had taken his stand beside a policeman. Chabrinovitch threw his bomb, but high and wide. He then swallowed his dose of prussic acid and jumped off the parapet of the embankment. There, as the prussic acid had no effect on him, he suffered arrest by the police. Princip heard the noise of Chabrinovitch’s bomb, and thought the word was done, so stood still. When the car went by and he saw that the royal party was still alive, he was dazed with astonishment and walked away to a cafe, where he sat down and had a cup of coffee and pulled himself together. Grabezh was also deceived by the explosion and let his opportunity go by. Franz Ferdinand would have gone from Sarajevo untouched had it not been for the actions of his staff, who by blunder after blunder contrived that his car should slow down and that he should be presented as a stationary target in front of Princip, the one conspirator of real and mature deliberation, who had finished his cup of coffee and was walking back through the streets, aghast at the failure of himself and his friends, which would expose the country to terrible punishment without having inflicted any loss on authority. At last the bullets had been coaxed out of the reluctant revolver to the bodies of the eager victims.

Rebecca West and her husband traveled by train to Zagreb in 1937. Europe teeters, teeters, on the edge of the abyss. The train is full of primarily Germans, on their way to vacation on the Adriatic coast. This is what I mean when I say this is not just a book about politics. She observes human behavior, she watches closely, she picks up on every signal and then makes huge assumptions based on her observations. This type of writing can be extremely obnoxious when not utilized sharply and concisely. Rebecca West, with her cold detached glare, saw something, saw something true beneath the surface. It takes courage to not only write, but think, like this.

I got up and went out into the corridor. It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted. Their helplessness was the greater because they had plainly a special talent for obedience. In the routine level of commerce and industry they must have known a success which must have made their failure in all other phases of their being embittering and strange. Now that capitalism was passing into a decadent phase, and many of the grooves along which they had rolled so happily were worn down to nothing, they were broken and beaten, and their ability to choose the broad outlines of their daily lives, to make political decisions, was now less than it had been originally. It was inevitable that the children of such muddlers, who would themselves be muddlers, would support any system which offered them new opportunities for profitable obedience, which would pattern society with new grooves in place of the old, and would never be warned by any instinct of competence and self-preservation if that system was leading to universal disaster. I tried to tell myself that these people in the carriage were not of importance, and were not typical, but I knew that I lied. These were exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known; and there were sixty millions of them in the middle of Europe.

Here she is on the assassination of the King of Yugoslavia in Marseille, which Rebecca West heard about from her sick-bed in the hospital, and is what triggered her second visit to the Balkans. She knows she MUST go back before it is too late. She requests to watch the existing film of the assassination. Here is what I mean when I say she sees EVERYTHING. There’s a reason why other journalists bow down before this woman. She’s got the context, it’s all about context.

A few days later my husband told me that he had seen a news film which had shown with extraordinary detail the actual death of the King of Yugoslavia, and as soon as I could leave the nursing home I went and saw it. I had to go to a private projection room, for by that time it had been withdrawn from the ordinary cinemas, and I took the opportunity to have it run over several times, while I peered at it like an old woman reading the tea leaves in her cup. First there was the Yugoslavian warship sliding into the harbor of Marseille, which I know very well. Behind it was that vast suspension bridge which always troubles me because it reminds me that in this mechanized age I am as little unable to understand my environment as any primitive woman who thinks that a waterfall is inhabited by a spirit, and indeed less so, for her opinion might, from a poetical point of view, be correct. I know enough to be aware that this bridge cannot have been spun by a vast steel spider out of its entrails, but no other explanation seems to me as plausible, and I have not the faintest notion of its use. But the man who comes down the gangway of the ship and travels on the tender to the quay, him I can understand, for he is something that is not new. Always the people have had the idea of the leader, and sometimes a man is born who embodies this idea.

His face is sucked too close to the bone by sickness to be tranquil or even handsome, and it would at any time have suggested a dry pedantry, unnatural in a man not far advanced in the forties. But he looks like a great man, which is not to say that he is a good man or a wise man, but that he has that historic quality which comes from intense concentration on an important subject. What he is thinking of is noble, to judge from the homage he pays it with his eyes, and it governs him entirely. He does not relapse into it when the other world fails to interest him; rather does he relapse into noticing what is about him when for a moment his interior communion fails him. But he is not abstracted; he is paying due respect to the meeting between France and Yugoslavia. Indeed he is bringing to the official occasion a naive earnestness. When Monsieur Barthou, the French Foreign Minister, comes and greets him, it is as if a jolly priest, fully at ease in his orders, stood before the altar beside a tortured mystical layman. Sometimes, too, he shows by a turn of the head, by a dilation of the pinched nostrils, that some delightful aspect of the scene has pleased him.

About all his reactions there is that jerky quickness which comes of long vigilance. It was natural. He had been a soldier from boyhood, and since the Great War he had perpetually been threatened with death from within, by tuberculosis, and with death from without, by assassination at the hand of Croats or Macedonians who wanted independence instead of union with Serbia. But it is not fear that is his preoccupation. That, certainly, is Yugoslavia.

Now King Alexander is driving down the familiar streets, curiously unguarded, in a curiously antique car. It can be seen from his attempt to make his stiff hand supple, from a careless flash of his careful black eyes, that he is taking the cheers of the crowd with a childish seriousness; it is touching, like a girl’s putting full faith in the compliments that are paid to her at a ball. Then his preoccupation veils his brows. He is thinking of Yugoslavia again. Then the camera leaves him. It recedes. The sound track records a change, a swelling astonishment, in the voice of the crowd. We see a man jumping on the footboard of the car, a gendarme swinging a sword, a revolver in the hand of another, a straw hat lying on the ground, a crowd that jumps up and down, up and down, smashing something flat with its arms, kicking something flat with its feet, till there is seen on the pavement a pulp covered with garments. A lad in a sweater dodges before his captors, his defiant face unmarked by fear, although his body expresses the very last extreme of fear by a creeping, writhing motion. A view of the whole street shows people dashed about as by a tangible wind of death.

The camera returns to the car and we see the King. He is lying almost flat on his back on the seat, and he is as I was after the anaesthetic. He does not know that anything has happened; he is still half-rooted in the pleasure of his own nostalgia. He might be asking, ‘Et en quelle saison Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’ It is certain that he is dying, because he is the centre of a miraculous manifestation which would not happen unless the living had been shocked out of their reserve by the presence of death. Innumerable hands are caressing him. Hands are coming from everywhere, over the back of the car, over the sides, through the windows, to caress the dying King, and they are supremely kind. They are far kinder than faces can be, for faces are Marthas burdened with many cares because of their close connection with the mind, but these hands express the mindless sympathy of living flesh for flesh that is about to die, the pure physical basis for pity. They are men’s hands, but they move tenderly as the hands of women fondling their babies; they stroke his cheek as if they were washing it with kindness. Suddenly his nostalgia goes from him. His pedantry relaxes. He is at peace; he need not guard against death any more.

Here she is on Austria:

Proust has pointed out that if one goes on performing any action, however banal, long enough, it automatically becomes ‘wonderful': a simple walk down a hundred yards of village street is ‘wonderful’ if it is made every Sunday by an old lady of ninety. Franz Josef had for so long risen from his camp bed at four o’clock in the morning and worked twelve or fourteen hours on his official papers that he was recognized as one of the most ‘wonderful’ of sovereigns, almost as ‘wonderful’ as Queen Victoria, though he had shown no signs of losing in age the obstinacy and lack of imagination that made him see it as his duty to preserve his court as a morgue of etiquette and his Empire as a top-heavy anachronism. 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 wonderful! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he 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.

And finally, one of her best quotes:

I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.

If you have not checked out this woman’s work before, all I can say is: Do it.

She makes the 20th century comprehensible and very few people have been able to do that. Orwell did. Arthur Koestler did. And those in the generations following, giant thinkers and writers like Robert Conquest, Robert Kaplan, Ryzsard Kapuscinski and Christopher Hitchens (who wrote the Introduction to the latest edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon) – all acknowledge the debt they owe to her.

She is their guide. She is mine as well.

To paraphrase W.B. Yeats who wrote of Jonathan Swift: “Imitate her if you dare.”

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14 Responses to Happy Birthday, Rebecca West

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Oh, my. Haven’t thought about her in years. Didn’t even realize how much I missed reading her stuff. Am amazed at how undated her stuff seems to be! And the “bits” you picked were brilliant, right to the point. I guess I’m always a little surprised at how well read you are. My bad. Merry Christmas.

  2. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, I “mis” spoke. I’m not surprised by how well read you are. I’m surprised by how often I FORGET how well read you are. There, now that feels better. Merry Christmas.

  3. sheila says:

    Melissa – Merry Christmas to you too!

    Yes: her stuff doesn’t date at all, unlike some of the other contemporary commentators in her day – who may have been fine writers but didn’t have her fine mind.

    God, I wish she was still alive. I’d love to track her down and get her in a room for an interview.

  4. Cara Ellison says:

    That picture of her alone is “formidable”; I find it fascinating that she doesn’t think she is formidable. It might be one area her context is limited. I think I need to read some of her stuff – she is exactly the kind of woman I need to read about right now.

  5. sheila says:

    Cara – she is a daunting intellect and her books are unbelievable. She wrote novels, too – which I haven’t read – but have heard are wonderful. She could do ANYTHING.

    And yes, it’s interesting that she would not perceive herself as formidable. She had a pretty tempestuous personal life and a dreadful relationship with her son once he was an adult – and felt completely helpless to do anything about it. Her collected letters are really interesting.

  6. Kate says:

    Fascinating Sheila! As someone whose liberal leftie husband recoiled and walked away quickly when I asked for a Republican primary ballot (Ron Paul makes SENSE to me) I find I need just this inspiration as another vote nears.

    • sheila says:


      Ha! Yes: stay strong in your convictions! If you come by them honestly, then there’s no reason to allow yourself to be bullied.

      Fuck ‘em!!

      and yes: I find inspiration in Rebecca West for so many reasons!

  7. michael Thomas says:

    Sheila – One small nit to pick: gender is a grammatical term. One’s maleness or femaleness is referred to as his or her sex. Sorry. Enjoyed the piece.

  8. Kate says:

    Have you read The Fountain Overflows—actually the whole trilogy is amazing (This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamond are books two and three)? I liked the first the best, for several reasons. It is funny and charming, but also contains a tragic streak that nearly tears the reader apart. Beautiful writing!


  9. sheila says:

    Kate – I really must, I haven’t read them – thank you for the recommendation!

  10. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    Definitely adding her to my reading list…Always had her on the “some day” list, but that description of Fat Herman in the dock alone makes me want to read everything else she wrote….

  11. sheila says:

    NJ – she’s a powerhouse! I would recommend Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, although you might hate me forever because it is 1000 pages long.

    But A Train of Powder is magnificent – (about the Nuremberg Trial) as well as her book on the treason trials in England throughout the 20th century: The Meaning of Treason.

    You’re in for a treat!!

    • Nondisposable Johnny says:

      Hah…I’m a HUGE Tolstoy fan. 1,000 pages don’t intimidate me none!

      Anyway if the samples in your post are any way typical, I’ll probably only wish it was longer…As I used to tell people, War and Peace is a LOT shorter than many 200 hundred page novels I’ve read!

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