Book Review

Western Civilizations


Thirty years ago, in the Macedonian province of Yugoslavia, I knew one of the last pashas who were stranded there after the Turkish Empire had been driven out of the Balkans.”

Now that’s the way to start a book. Say what you will about Rebecca West, would-be actress and lifelong drama queen–she knew a great opening line when she saw one. Not only does she invoke in a single sentence the final days of the Ottoman Empire and her own globetrotting days, she tells us in no uncertain terms that she was personally acquainted with a pasha:

The one place in his home where his poverty did not show, where there were no cracked tiles on the floor and no plaster dust fallen from the wedding-cake vaults above, was a second-story balcony, which the old lilac trees in the garden had long overtopped. Sitting there, one could stretch out an arm into the branches and stir up the purple flowers and set the scent rising in clouds. There we used to pass the summer evening, up among the lilacs, drinking a mixture of coffee and chocolate, not thick Turkish coffee, but the thin Western brew, laced with sweet chocolate beaten to a foam. “This,” the pasha told me every time we drank it, “is how they serve coffee in Mexico.” That was the only thing about Mexico I was sure I knew when I went there.

In fact, the long, loopy beginning of Survivors in Mexico is so good–meandering as it does across continents and decades–that somehow you just know that things can only go downhill from here. And that’s pretty much what happens with this assemblage of previously unpublished material based on several trips that West made to Mexico in the 1960s. Despite its excesses–superficial writing and occasional lapses into absolute nonsense–it’s impossible to dismiss. This a book worth reading simply because Dame Rebecca West, the critic, novelist, and journalist best-known for a 1,200-page epic travelogue and meditation on life, art, and politics in the Balkans (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Travels Through Yugoslavia, 1941), produced some of the most gorgeous prose written in English in the 20th century.

She was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in 1892 to the kind of genteel poverty that produced 19th-century governesses a la Jane Eyre and 20th century miniseries funded by giant oil companies. “I was the youngest daughter of a penniless widow,” she writes in Survivors. If not totally accurate, the statement still has a ring of truth to it. Her Anglo-Irish father, an itinerant journalist, abandoned his family when Cicely was about eight. She was raised in Edinburgh, and while still in her teens, briefly studied acting. As a young reviewer for suffragette and radical publications, she began using the pseudonym “Rebecca West,” after a character in an Ibsen play. Whatever her reasons, it worked out exceedingly well. As her biographers and critics have noted, “Cicely Isabel Fairfield” is the kind of name that belongs in a romance novel. “Rebecca West” is far more appropriate for a woman engaged with Western civilization, someone whom Queen Elizabeth would dub Dame Com-mander of the British Empire.

From the beginning, West specialized in punchy and provocative writing, seeking to emulate Mark Twain. “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is,” wrote the young Rebecca. “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” It was that sort of thing that caught the attention of the much older H.G. Wells when she was not yet 20. In a review, she provoked the philandering father of science fiction, calling him “the Old Maid among novelists” with “the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships.” Their decade-long affair began soon after. It produced a son, the writer Anthony West, and a lifetime of extreme discord and bitterness between mother and son.

While working on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West became a romantic champion of the Serbs, and hoped that Britain and the United States would intervene to save the region from fascism and prevent World War II. The product of five years’ of research and travel, the book was a unique combination of history and personal observation that she described as taking “inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view.” It cinched her reputation as a journalist and West began working for The International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, writing about everything from Nuremberg to McCarthyism, from apartheid in South Africa to apartheid in South Carolina. Over the years she became an increasingly strident anti-Communist, arguing in a series of articles about McCarthyism that the word “witch hunting” was being used as “careless repetition of an impudent piece of Communist propaganda.” Then insisting that she had been misinterpreted, and attempting to defend herself from critics on the Left, she responded with a fury of letter-writing. “I am the last liberal left,” West complained.

Not hardly, as we say around here. Instead, Dame Rebecca was a contradictory, imperious, and exceptionally wry voice to the very end. “I do not myself find it agreeable to be 90,” she wrote in an article published in Vogue shortly before her death in 1983. “[A]nd I cannot imagine why it should seem so to other people. It is not that you have any fears about your own death, it is that your upholstery is already dead around you.”

As it turned out, the pasha had steered her wrong: “It is in line with life as I know it that when I got to Mexico nobody had ever heard of mixing coffee and chocolate.” That’s not quite true, of course, but probably true enough of the coffee served by the overly officious secretaries to the endless round of licenciados whom West presumed to interrogate as she went about her work in Mexico City. She arrived there in 1966 on assignment for The New Yorker to write about the ultimate “Survivor in Mexico,” Trotsky’s grandson, who had been living in the house in Coyoacan where his exiled grandfather was murdered. But she never completed her the article. Instead she became fascinated by the Big Picture of Mexico, unleashing her obsessions with the nature of the human condition, which she saw as an ongoing battle between the forces of life and the forces death–”the noxious ethic of sacrifice and victimisation,” in the words of Bernard Schweizer, the Long Island University professor of English who has so painstakingly assembled and edited the unfinished drafts of her Mexico book. Schweizer suggests that West intended Survivors to be the companion to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. If so, that would require taking an inventory of Mexico “down to its last vest-button”–an exhaustive and self-defeating proposition for anyone. I imagine her trying to peal back the layers, beginning with Trotksy’s Mexican exile and immersing herself in the world of Mexican artists–Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo (about whom she was remarkably prescient), and the enigmatic muralist known as Dr. Atl. Then she decides to attack centuries and empires, delving into 16th century European economic history and the history of 19th century anarchism, the Hapbsburg Empire and the hapless Maximiliano, ordered by his brother, the Emperor Franz Josef, to rule over Mexico, a country Maximiliano had never seen. “This is one of the saddest, drowned-kitten, Princes-in-the-Tower- stories in history,” West observes.

At times the writing is pitch perfect. But often she is content with sweeping generalizations about national character:

Here in Mexico I often feel as if I were among Slavs. There is an intelligent population, which uses words as if it were highly literate, even when it is illiterate, and is readier than the Westerner to switch from the concrete to the abstract, and is sincere, while not averse from attitudinising. Even the attitudes adopted are the same. Both love to pretend they boil in despair.

(As someone who comes from a long line of distinguished Eastern European campesinos and who also lived in Mexico for many years, I confess I have absolutely no idea what that nonsense is all about.)

She spent an inordinate amount of time in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, and much of the book is devoted to a retelling of the Conquest, relying heavily on two old war horses, the Spanish chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo and French anthropologist Jacques Soustelle. She is clearly smitten by Cortés. “Always when Cortés committed such deeds as these,” she writes after cataloguing some of his more cruel excesses, “it was for the sake of self-preservation, never to derive disgusting pleasure from inflicting pain.”

It’s that type of bold, all-knowing, totally unfounded, and unquestioned assertion–the kind that appears not only in Survivors in Mexico, but throughout her work–that made Cicely Isabel Fairfield into Rebecca West. Twenty years after her death, it’s what makes West so problematic. Gorgeous writing sometimes comes with a price.