She was the Katharine Hepburn of letters, an outrageously dogmatic and stylish egoist who earned her arrogance by sheer intelligence, a flaming feminist who could be very hard on the male character and yet loved men and was loved by them. Her beauty was in her language -- and very mannered it could sometimes be. Infuriating and intoxicating, partial and partisan, Rebecca West is looking like one of those writers who will live. She wrote a lot, and only a little will live, but that little is choice, or, as Spencer Tracy pronounces it when speaking of Hepburn in Pat and Mike, "cherce."
She was born Cicily Fairfield in London in 1892 to Charles, a handsome but reckless journalist, and Isabella, a bright and educated woman. In 1901 Charles ran off to Africa (why was never clear); Isabella, ailing and poor, moved her three daughters to Edinburgh, where Cicily won prizes in school but preferred acting to studying. Isabella brought the family back to London so that Cicily could go to the Academy of Dramatic Art, but Cicily was pretty much a failure there. Doubtless, she was already too strong a personality to be good at impersonating others. Instead, she got a job at a new suffragist journal, The Freewoman, and was soon writing aggressively polemical articles for its pages. On November 30, 1911, still 18, she published her first review -- of a book about women in India; it began, "There are two kinds of imperialists: imperialists and bloody imperialists."
A bit scared of what her mother would think of such language and such a tone, Cicily decided to adopt a pen name and chose Rebecca West, the name of the heroine of Ibsen's Rosmersholm -- an emancipated vixen who, conscience-stricken by the wiles she has worked on her much older lover, commits suicide. It was a brave but ominous choice, this abandoning of her given name with its oddly Wildean echoes (the two young women in The Importance of Being Earnest are called Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew) for that of a deeply torn "new woman."
One of the books West reviewed for The Freewoman in 1912 was Marriage, a novel by the prolific and popular H. G. Wells, then 46. She was amusing about Wells's iraplausible female characters, finding them "the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships and colloids." This sauciness brought an invitation to lunch at Wells's country place. The married philanderer took his time with West, but by the end of 1913 she had seduced Wells. It was the great love of her life, great but crazy.
In August 1914, on the very day England declared war on Germany, West gave birth to a boy called Anthony Panther West ("Panther" was Wells's love-name for her; she called him "Jaguar"). West and the boy lived in a separate establishment, visited from time to time by Wells, playing Santa. Neither parent-the absentee Wells and the part-time West -- admitted parenthood; calling his mother Auntie, the boy grew up embittered and self-conscious about his bastardy. He was to nourish a lifelong resentment principally if unfairly against his mother and would express it in wounding novels and other writings. The business was selfishly and messily done by the parents; everybody involved was forever damaged; there's no credit to be had.
By 1923, West had put Wells out of her life and sailed off to conquer New York as a coming writer. After hot flings with Max Beaverbrook, John Gunther, and others, West met Henry Andrews, a courtly and cultivated banker of 35 who was a great fan of her prose. In 1930, they wed. It was, though sexual for a time, basically a marriage of friendship, of comfort, of companionship: the classic "settling-for" after youthful passages of violent and desolating passion. They traveled, most memorably to Yugoslavia. In 1939, they bought a rural seat in Buckinghamshire: Ibstone House, a Regency pile with a farm, a great walled garden, and a view of the Chiltern Hills. They stayed married, despite a fair amount of straying by both parties, until his death in 1968, whereupon West sold Ibstone and moved back to London, where she died in 1983.
She was 90 and had been complaining, "I wish I wasn't half dead and half alive, it's not good for one's style." She was, above all things, a writer, and she lived a writer's life of observation, solitude, conferences, negotiations with publishers, feuds, reading. Writers' lives are in their books more than their days. That said, West's life was rather more interesting than those of most writers -- more readable than, say, the life of Virginia Woolf or Willa Cather. If nothing else, she was never silent and she was never dull.
Carl Rollyson, a professor of English at New York City's Baruch College, is a professional biographer who has done lives of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, and Norman Mailer; he is working on Susan Sontag. Despite the trendy promiscuity of that list, he has in Rebecca West: A Life (Scribner, 511 pages, $ 35) done a solid job of rooting in all the relevant archives and talking to all the surviving witnesses.
The book is a vast improvement on Victoria Glendenning's cozy, chatty, defensively worshipful 1987 biography. But, like so many professional biographers of writers, Rollyson is weak on what's most important: the work. He is generally content with a quick summary and a survey of contemporary reaction. Plus a little strained standardissue Freud, as when he sees the " image of Charles Fairfield" in West's writing about powerful male figures like Prospero. (Is there something inherently Freudian about the very enterprise of biography? Even an excellent work like Frederick Brown's Zola is awash in Freudian-familial speculation.)
What work of West's will survive? A lot of what she wrote was reviews -- some of it collected and rethought in books of literary criticism. Her first book, a 1916 take on Henry James, is, though fitfully insightful, largely vitiated by her irritation at James's refusal to create spunky suffragette heroines like herself. Her best criticism is perhaps contained in 1957's The Court and the Castle. A meditation on society and human imperfection, the book seeks a mean between irresponsible individualism (symbolized by Hamlet and Byron) and the utopias of her early socialist mentors, Shaw and Wells. With great warmth and perception, though very much this side of idolatry, she makes Trollope and Proust avatars of artists respectively at home in and transcending elaborate social structures.
She wrote novels, but her imagination was too powerful, too colonizing, too imperial ever really to let characters breathe. What she wrongly criticized Tolstoy for -- a stifling judgmentalism -- disabled her own fiction. Where she really excelled was as a sort of philosophical reporter -- a real-life role and a literary genre she more or less invented to pour her genius into.
Though theoretically a lifelong socialist -- which meant little more than that she went on voting Labour -- she had as early as 1924 braved the displeasure of the high English Left, incarnated in the likes of Bertrand Russell, Harold Laski, and Wells. She had then sided with Emma Goldman's radical rejection of Bolshevist Russia as essentially and not just opportunistically tyrannical. Told she was giving aid and comfort to the Tories, she retorted that to "reject a conclusion simply because it is held by the Conservative party is to be as snobbish as the suburban mistress who gives up wearing a hat or dress because her servant has one like it."
After World War II she became obsessed with the idea of treason. She wrote, first in the New Yorker and then in the book The Meaning of Treason, a study of the dingy radio traitor William Joyce, aka Lord Haw Haw, who had broadcast from Berlin during the war. After exhaustive efforts to understand the man, West wound up endorsing the capital verdict against him. She also went to Nuremberg to report on the trials there and wound up refining her concept of treason as an option for death over the sane values of family and nation. (The ensuing book was A Train of Powder.) This view of nationalism as life-giving got her into more trouble with the Left.
Her most explosive run-in with the cultural commissars came in 1953 when, in a series of articles for the Times of London that were reprinted in U.S. News & World Report, she pooh-poohed the widespread dogma that Senator McCarthy had instituted some sort of reign of terror and decried as absurd the notion that the House Un-American Activities Committee was the moral equivalent of the Kremlin. She saw Soviet communism as a real menace in America and the world, one that warranted severe vigilance. She treated Whittaker Chambers as a hero, endorsed his view of Alger Hiss, and called his autobiography Witness a "masterpiece."
Even the centrist Left -- embodled in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. -- came down on her for one or another of these heresies; but, characteristically, she bristled, refused to recant, and flung back as good as she got. She insisted to the end of her life upon bearing witness to the evil of communism, refusing, for instance, to attend a luncheon honoring her old friend Paul Robeson lest she be seen as condoning his Stalinist politics.
When, in 1974, a book about West and Wells that she had cooperated with appeared, the doyenne of the hard-but-glamorous American Left was ready to pounce. Lillian Hellman reviewed the book in the New York Times. Hellman, who was herself later to make easy bucks lying about her liaisons and much else, accused West of seeking an "easy buck" by a "betrayal of what two people were together." Hellman also -- in a paragraph not cited by Rollyson -- attacked West's credentials as a socialist, indeed as a decent human being, saying with reigned concern, "I hope I am wrong but my mild research turns up no pleas Miss West ever made for the miserable miners of Wales, for those in the Cockney slums, for the hungry Irish, or for the servants Wells paid for." ("Miserable" is good, but "hungry" may have been a wee bit outdated.) Fashions in Stalinist abuse change, and Hellman's rhetoric of venom may seem a bit quaint now, when a similar attack might cite a lack of demonstrated solidarity with welfare mothers or lesbians. But such nonsense was not stingless then, and it is to West's honor to have been its target.
But Rebecca West's greatest purchase on writerly immortality is her epic account of three voyages to the Yugoslavia of the late 1930s, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Published in 1941 when the Yugoslavia she had come to love so absorbingly was under the Nazis and her friends there "now all dead or enslaved," the 1,200-page book is a cathedral of rapture and wonder and torment. It poses as a travel book, and it more than works on that level. Hers is in fact a seventeenth-century sort of book, sweeping up perceptions of and reflections on everything under the sun in its babbling course to the sea, like, for example, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.
Black Lamb begins with West's queerly prophetic feeling when, ignorant of Yugoslavia, she reads in 1934 in a newspaper of the assassination of its king, Alexander, in Marseilles by an agent of Mussolini. It ends with an event that she makes us see as intimately related to the assassination: the London blitz. The book has an overarching moral plot: the spiritual and lyrical greatness of the Serbian people and culture as opposed to the half- Germanized and legalistic Slav Croats on the one hand and the effeminate torpor of the Turkified Slav Muslims on the other. The book's villainess is Gerda, the life-poisoning German wife of their lovable Jewish-Serbian government-supplied guide.
The book's political passions make for unsettling reading today when -- in a new round of Balkan horrors as if to bookend the century -- her beloved Serbs are widely portrayed as genocidal villains. It was my good fortune to have read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon before the current wars; my sympathies became hers as her glorious, enthused, vividly colored, joyously populated prose washed over me. It's one of those out-of-body reading experiences like War and Peace or Proust. Her language is a uniquely hypnotizing cocktail of ecstasy and pomp. For example, here she is at the very end of her volcanic experiences, looking back to see if they make sense: "I now find it most natural that the Dalmatians, in peril like our own, built churches and palaces, deliberations in stone on the nature of piety and pleasure, under the seaward slopes of hills that were heavy on their crests with Turkish fortresses, and desolate to landward with the ruins of annihilated Bosnia. I find it most natural that the Macedonian peasants should embroider their dresses, that they should dance and sing. For, of course, art gives us hope that history may change its spots and man become honorable. What is art? It is not decoration. It is the re-living of experience."
Like D. H. Lawrence, Rebecca West had, for all her crotchets, a near- infallible radar for what made for life and health in a society; her witness on our culture of perversion would have been invaluable. Here she is on the blitz:
Often, when I have thought of invasion, or when a bomb has dropped nearby, I have prayed, "Let me behave like a Serb," but I have known afterwards that I had no right to utter such a prayer, for the Serbs are brothers, and there is no absolution for the sins we have committed against the Serbs through our ineptitude. Thus we were without even the support of innocence when we went to our windows and saw London burn: and those who see the city where they were born in flames find to their own astonishment that the sight touches deep sources of pain that will not listen to reason . . . . We may recognize that the streets that are burned are mean and may be replaced by better, but it is of no avail to point out to a son weeping for his mother that she was old and plain.
Rebecca West is the English Edmund Wilson, and it is perhaps not entirely accidental that their most passionate and exasperating books should have appeared at the close of the low, dishonest 1930s. Wilson published his deluded history of socialism, To the Finland Station, in 1940; West's Serbian dithyramb-cum-elegy came out in 1941.
Lately I've been carrying around a paperback of Black Lamb with a photo of the beautiful (and destroyed) bridge at Mostar on the cover. More than once a stranger has come up to me, looked at the picture, frowned, and said, in accented English, "It was five hundred years old, you know." I did know, thanks to Rebecca West.
By Donald Lyons; Donald Lyons is theater critic of the Wall Street Journal