Saturday, January 11, 2014


Rebecca West: A Life, Victoria Glendinning, Ballantine Books, 1987, 263 pp

It was about twenty years ago that I decided to move on from reading mostly trashy novels and became an autodidact in the field of literature. It was a good decision and set me on a fabulous adventure. Every now and then however, I would get in over my head and fall into the abyss of abysmal ignorance. Such has been my experience with Rebecca West.

Possibly due to a new reissue in 2007 by Penguin Classics of her magnum opus, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, possibly due to my frustrated efforts to understand the Bosnian War, I obtained a copy of the book; the 1982 Penguin edition. I began to read and was defeated before I even made it through the 23 page Prologue. What I retained was a mysterious curiosity about the author. It was clear to me that here was a genius at work.

About a year later I came across a copy of her novel, The Fountain Overflows. I was browsing through a used bookstore (oh how I miss those days) and picked up the book for 49 cents. Here was a book of only 313 pages instead of 1150 and a novel at that!

I read it and was transported. It still stands out in my memory as one of the best books I have ever read. The writing is astonishing and the story of the family somehow heartbreaking and soothing at the same time. After finishing the novel, I made another stab at Black Lamb and Grey Falcon but again was overwhelmed, though at least I recognized my trouble: I lacked the mental geography for a place once known as Yugoslavia, a big black hole also containing the history of Europe before World War I. That was about five years ago.

I kept on reading my odd mix of those old books from the 1940s and 1950s for My Big Fat Reading Project, contemporary fiction, Will Durant's Story of Civilization series, not to mention all the books I might otherwise have never read except for the many reading groups I attend. The reading pattern of an autodidact indeed.

I've also been reading the Blog of a Bookslut for several years. Jessa Crispin is a sort of modern Rebecca West who never fails to alert me to books not mentioned on most other bookish sites. Last fall she mentioned a biography of Dame Rebecca by the acclaimed literary biographer Victoria Glendinning. I procured a used paperback and read it as part of my end of year reading spree.

At last my eyes were opened. Yes, Rebecca West was a genius. She wrote prodigiously for her entire life: book reviews, journalism, novels, and non-fiction books on many topics. She made her living as a writer and a good living it was. She was the lover of H G Wells by whom she had a son and suffered mightily in her attempts to raise the child while maintaining her career. She was the personification of the trap in which most creative and intelligent women of the 20th century lived.

Glendinning portrays Rebecca West as "both an agent for change and a victim of change. In a very early article, 'Things Men Never Know,' she described how girls were reproached for having weaker bodies, weaker brains, weaker wills, and weaker emotions than boys, but if a girl decided to put this right and to become strong and clever and brave, then she was told she had lost her 'real value' and that no one would love her." (Introduction, p xv.) Anatomy of a trap!

I began writing this review on January 9th, the birthday of Simone de Beauvoir. Rebecca West was born in December, 1892. For me it shakes out like this: Rebecca West could have been my grandmother; Simone de Beauvoir could have been my mother. Neither of them were quite mother material and neither have I been, but I am talking about a philosophical maternal lineage. It gives me great comfort to claim these women as ancestors of my mind. I am enriched, encouraged, and spurred on to make the most of what gifts they have bestowed upon me in the years remaining to me.

I will read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in 2014.

(Rebecca West: A Life is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore, as well as from used booksellers.)

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