Veronica's Reviews > Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
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's review
Nov 01, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: kindle, non-fiction, travel
Read from November 01, 2011 to January 13, 2014

I'm not sure I'll ever finish this, so I'm doing half a review here, since I've read a bit more than half of it. It's always been proclaimed as a great travel literature classic ... but now I can't help wondering how many of the proclaimers have actually made it to the end. I'm reading it on the Kindle and I did notice that the popular highlights petered out after about page 200 :)

Not that it's a bad book. Rebecca West is awe-inspiringly erudite and she's a good writer. The part where she visits Sarajevo and talks to people who were there when Franz Ferdinand was shot is fascinating. It's what history books should be like, cleverly illuminating the interaction of personalities with geopolitical issues. She concludes:
Nobody worked to ensure the murder on either side so hard as the people who were murdered. And they, though murdered, are not as pitiable as victims should be. They manifested a mixture of obstinate invocation of disaster and anguished complaint against it which is often associated with unsuccessful crime, with the petty thief in the dock.

But sometimes she's a bit too erudite for me, and it gets exhausting. She knows everything about the history of the Balkans since the year dot, and often expounds on it at great length. It's very easy to get confused with all the kings, queens, and assassins milling about. She's also a bit too interested in architecture. As a glimpse of her erudition, this is allegedly the conversation she has with her husband, before they have even had breakfast:
“But wait a minute, wait a minute,” said my husband. “I have just thought of something very curious. It has just occurred to me, does not Seton-Watson say in his book Sarajevo that Chabrinovitch was the son of a Bosnian Serb who was a spy in the service of the Austro-Hungarian Government?” “Why, so he did!” I exclaimed. “And now I come to think of it, Stephen Graham says so, too, in St. Vims’ Day.“ “This is most extraordinary,” said my husband, “for Seton-Watson is never wrong, he is in himself a standard for Greenwich time.” “And Stephen Graham may slip now and then, but in all essential matters he is in his own vague way precise,” I said.

Many of her attitudes will seem odd to modern ears too; nations and their citizens are ascribed distinct characters which persist through centuries. And then there are things like this that cause a sharp intake of breath:
There is nothing unpleasant in the gesture known as “cherry-picking,” provided it is a Negro or Negress who performs it; the dancer stands with feet apart and knees bent, and stretches the arms upwards while the fingers pull an invisible abundance out of the high air. But it is gross and revolting, a reversion to animalism, when it is performed by a white person.

Modern readers may also be a little surprised by her ardent admiration of Serbia, saviour of Europe from the threat of Islamic Turkey. She also has some prejudice against Germans, but in 1937 that is hardly surprising.

Anyway, I forgive her for her faults because she can write lines like: "the stumbling weighty hostility of bears, the incorporated rapacity of wolves". Or:
The puce-faced old soldier who held the line in front of us shook and heaved, producing laughter from some place one would never keep it unless one was in the habit of packing things away as safely as possible.

I may finish it one day!
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Reading Progress

02/17/2012 "I am still reading this! But Rebecca West is so frighteningly intelligent I can only cope with about 100 pages at a time."
01/13/2014 marked as: read

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