Monday, January 17, 2011

Rebecca West project, internal adjustments

Long-time readers may remember that I started my Rebecca West project back in June 2006. I read West's fiction and interviews with and books and articles about her pretty steadily for a couple of years, then, through no fault of her own (the first book I read in 2008, her The Birds Fall Down, was in fact my favorite book for the year), I stopped reading her. This was due more to my having become such a distracted-by-life/lazy blogger that I knew I wouldn't do her justice if and when I wrote about her.

And while I still feel too scattered to do her justice (not that I could, anyway), I do feel more inclined to make an effort: I'm getting older every day and I shouldn't count on any right time to do anything anymore. Carpe diem and all of that.

So far I've followed publication dates and read The Return of the Soldier, The Judge, Harriet Hume, The Harsh Voice, The Thinking Reed, The Fountain Overflows and The Birds Fall Down, all the novels published during her lifetime. I've skipped War Nurse, which she ghostwrote for Cosmopolitan and wanted to disown, although I intend to ILL it at some point. This month I read two posthumous novels, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, part of the family saga that began with The Fountain Overflows and was intended to continue through a fourth, unwritten novel. I'll be posting my thoughts on the saga within a few days.

There are two additional posthumous West novels that came out in 1986 and 2002, respectively--Sunflower, which fictionalizes her love affair with Lord Beaverbrook and and the end of the H.G. Wells years, and The Sentinel, which is probably West's first full-length novel and draws on her days in the suffragette movement. And there's a 1992 Virago hardback edition of a collection of West's short stories, The Only Poet and Other Stories, with still more uncollected stories remaining to be gathered together. I want to get to these titles eventually, but right now I'm feeling the need to shift direction and delve into her non-fiction.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is of course her masterpiece, but I'm going to first dip into journalism and essays that don't run on for 1,100 plus pages. A Train in Powder (the first book I bought this year), subtitled Six Reports on the Problem of Guilt and Punishment in Our Time, a volume of uncollected prose entitled The Essential Rebecca West that was published last year, and West's biography of Saint Augustine are the ones most likely to be read this year.

And if you've never considered reading Rebecca West and don't understand the need of such a project, allow me to take the lazy blogger's way of introducing her to you via the Anne Bobby introduction to her previously uncollected prose: she's the "greatest writer you've never heard of."

Carpe diem.


  1. "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" is such a monster. I bought that and "Clarissa" around the same time. Two of the longest single-volume books ever written. Both have bookmarks permanently lodged a fifth of the way through. The Christopher Hitchens intro to Black Lamb is very, very good -- he knows the territory. My problem with it is that I'm not as smart or as well-travelled; while I appreciate the writing, I don't have enough historical knowledge of the Balkans to know when West is on the mark and when she's full of shit. She often does come across to me as a highly literate, peerlessly observant and yet, still, a somewhat naive tourist. I'll be interested in your thoughts whenever you get to this book.

  2. One of things I 'hate' about blogging is that it reveal my ignorance more and more each day. Of course, I've heard about West, but I've never read anything. Where should I start?

  3. Has your West project really been going on since 2006? I don't think you got lazy, you're just taking your time. And I promise one of these days I will definitely read West.

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  5. Rodney, I originally bought BL&GF for my daughter, who spent a few weeks in Croatia a few years back and has studied Serbian. So far she's been pretty steadfast in ignoring all the reasons she ought to read it--and help me out with it.

    Annie, from what I've been told, West's nonfiction is much better than her fiction--particularly BL&GF, A Train of Powder and The Meaning of Treason.

    But I've stuck with her fiction so far. The only novel I've actually disliked is Harriet Hume. The Return of the Soldier is a perfect jewel of a novella and a wonderful place to start. Many think The Fountain Overflows is her best, but I prefer The Birds Fall Down. I'm also rather partial to The Judge, but it's probably not the best to start with.

    Stefanie, yes, in 2006! I've been letting this project drag on forever. I doubt I ever get it all read. And I have no doubt you'll get to her eventually. You just have a lot on your plate right now.

  6. I have a copy of The Fountain Overflows that I bought for a dollar at the library's book sale. Still haven't cracked it but maybe it's time!

  7. I like that you're reading all of West's work and why should you do it all at once? I told myself I'm going to read all of Molly Keane's books starting with the first and reading in order. I'm only on book #3 and didn't read a single novel last year (#3 has been on my sidebar so long I deleted it and reposted it so I wouldn't have the date staring at me from the inside view. I loved The Return of the Soldier and will reread it this year, and The Birds Fall Down is on my pile, though I won't get to it right away. Some authors are so formidable I'm a little afraid to write about them, but then again sometimes I just want some sort of record of what I've been reading so while I know I won't do an author justice I just press on. Your insight is always impressive so I say go for it!

  8. I'm glad to see that people out there are finding and enjoying Rebecca West--her legacy should only grow, given her towering stature as one of the twentieth century's greatest public intellectuals and most gifted creative writers.

    Here's the progression for newbies to West that I would suggest: start with The Essential Rebecca West to get a taste of just how multi-talented and brilliant she is. Is there a more delightful mini-memoir than "Why My Mother Was Frightened of Cats"!? Continue with The Return of the Soldier, an enigmatic and highly evocative tale about the time of World War I. Then read what I find her best long fiction work: the Aubrey Trilogy (i.e. The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamund)--a real treat. Then approach Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. All other works are, of course, full of wisdom and beauty, too, especially A Train of Powder and The Birds Fall Down.

    Don't expect to be always agreeing with West. She can be a thorny political thinker and hardly ever politically correct. But she was a pioneering feminist, an influential anti-communist, and an occasional blasphemer. Reading her is a bracing, invigorating experience.

    Find out more about Rebecca West by visiting the homepage of the Society

    -Bernard Schweizer (President of the International Rebecca West Society)

  9. I love This Real Night even more than The Fountain Overflows if that is possible. Cousin Rosamund was obviously written against West's failing health and is possibly the weakest of the trilogy. I believe a fourth volume was planned which would have contained quite a shocking event.

    Virago have a new edition of TFO out in the spring with a beautiful cover which I intend to purchase. I look forward to your forthcoming West posts.

  10. I keep hearing such wonderful things about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that I would like to try it at some point, but it intimidates me quite a bit. I also would love to hear more about about This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, as both are on my TBR piles.


As a reader I cherish the fantasy of one day stopping acquiring books, of subsisting only on what is already stashed away in the crammed lar...