Finishing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

… I finished Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon early this morning. I began it in May.

I tried to stretch out that damn epilogue – because even though the book is pretty much one long expose of pain and human misery – it is so well-written, so juicy, so challenging, so insightful … that I hated to see it end.

The book was published in 1941. Horror had already descended again over the Balkans … but the outcome at that point was still unclear. Hitler was at large. Russia had taken a kind of hands-off attitude. The Communists hadn’t yet rolled through the peninsula, blotting out the light of civilization yet again.

Rebecca West could not see the future, and although she knew that Hitler would, eventually, over-reach, it hadn’t happened yet. It was only 1941. But she could see which way the wind was blowing.

Her “epilogue” is a masterpiece.

I cried a couple of times as I read it, because her grief over what was happening, her grief for the convulsion of violence and insanity the world was going through yet again, palpitates on those last pages.

So much has happened in the peninsula since then. Yugoslavia is history.

But still – the book is not out-of-date. It just stops where the story ended at that point. And it still tells you pretty much all you need to know. Every convulsion the Balkan peninsula has experienced since 1941 is predicted on her pages. Everything makes a kind of horrible sense. The hatreds, the losses, the antipathies, the wars … You get to understand the underlying issues, complex and overlapping as they are.

It’s one of the saddest books I have ever read.

Her 3 or 4 pages where she lets loose on what the symbols of the black lamb and the grey falcon mean, not just for Yugoslavia, but for the entire world, is some of the most brilliant analysis of human events and the psychology of the human race that I have ever read.

It has enormous implications for the world in which we NOW live, for the issues we face TODAY.

I’m gonna have to post some excerpts when I have time.

I will MISS reading that book. It will be one I go back to, again and again and again.

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10 Responses to Finishing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

  1. Dan says:

    You may have convinced me to pick up a copy.

    I’m currently reading A.N. Wilson’s ‘The Victorians’ and experiencing much the same feeling: I simply do not want it to end.

  2. red says:

    I mean, it’s strange, because the book is almost 1200 pages long … so a part of me couldn’t wait to check it off the list … but reading it became a huge part of my life, my daily schedule.

  3. Patricia says:

    If you’re interested in a more contemporary look at Yugoslavia with a religious twist to it, take a look at Medugorje is a region in Bosnia i Herzegovina and south of a town called Mostar.

    You’ve got a good blog or maybe I’m just prejudice because I’m a redhead too.

  4. red says:

    Rebecca West has an entire section on Mostar. But then again, she has entire sections on almost every town in the region. Balkan Ghosts is another fantastic book – Kaplan wandered around the disintegrating Yugoslav Federation, with Rebecca West’s book in hand, using it as his guide. Even though his book was written in 1988, I think, and hers was written in the early 1940s – he still found her book to be the most reliable guide there was.


    Her book is a towering achievement – unmatched, really. Blows the mind.

    Dan – what’s The Victorians? Obviously, you recommend it! That, and “Rio Bravo”. :)

  5. red says:

    Oh, and Patricia – thank you for the link and the compliment. :)

  6. Dan says:

    ‘The Victorians’ is a general history of the Victorian era; the narrative is (duh) framed around Victoria’s reign. General histry is a little misleading as Wilson covers not only war and politics, but culture in all it’s aspects – painting, music, literature; also science and technology; media. My description really doesn’t do justice to the way the author pulls all these together to provide a full picture of those times.

  7. red says:

    Interesting. West has a similar approach, it sounds.

    If you leave out the culture, and only focus on outward historical events, you miss that deep underbelly of universal truth that these books touch. Rebecca West looks at the embroidery done by women in Macedonia, and sees the entire history of the Ottoman occupation in the stitches, she looks at architecture, interprets town lay-out, which ones have trees and gardens, which towns do not … She’s interpreting the entire culture, not just what makes it into the newspapers.

    It’s a beautiful and rich way to look at the world, I think … something to aspire to.

  8. mike says:

    I haven’t read the book for years and cannot find my copy but was there a line about all of her friends being dead or imprisoned at the very end

  9. red says:

    Good memory, Mike. Yes.

  10. red says:

    It’s in her Acknowledgements section, following the Epilogue:

    “I had hoped to acknowledge the help of all these friends. This is, however, not possible at present. All the people I mention in this book are now either dead or living in a state of misery as yet impossible for us in the West to imagine.”

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