Our book today is a huge and marvellous 1977 Penguin concoction called Rebecca West: A Celebration, the cover of which shows a drawing of the author herself, hair in a Doris Lessing-style bun, sensible fake pearls in a string at her neck. “Selected from her writings by her publishers,” we’re told, “with her help.” I’ve always found that oddly comforting – and an extremely appealing prospect I’m a little surprised more authors don’t do. Of course, it might not matter if they did do it, in our much less literate age, and there’s also the problem of the author in question: how many achieve the stature of a Rebecca West while they’re still alive to help with a volume like this one? Not many, then or now.
This book is for the most part a feast of appetizers, in that it contains many excerpts from much longer works. We get bits from not only West’s excellent, criminally underrated novels like The Thinking Reed and The Birds Fall Down, but also sections from her fantastic nonfiction works like A Train of Powder and The New Meaning of Treason. And of course her greatest work (one of the greatest literary works of the 20th Century), Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is amply represented, with almost 200 pages of selections, including the soaring, troubling final coda:
Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright nature fights in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.
But for me, the real appeal of a book like this is its inclusion of things by West that would be hard to find anywhere else. The whole of her little biographical sketch of St. Augustine is reprinted here, for instance, so brimming with insights that I was just smiling throughout this latest re-reading:
Augustine took as his subject matter, with a far greater simplicity and definiteness and vigour than any earlier Christian writer, a certain complex of ideas which are at the root of every primitive religion: the idea that matter, and especially matter related to sex, is evil; that man has acquired guilt through his enmeshment in matter; that he must atone for this guilt to an angry God; and that this atonement must take the form of suffering, and the renunciation of easy pleasure. Instead of attempting to expose these ideas as unreasonable or to replace them by others, as nearly all ancient philosophers had done, Augustine accepted them and intellectualized them with all the force of his genius.
And maybe best of all, Rebecca West: A Celebration also includes a section on her literary essays and book-criticism, a kind of occasional writing at which she predictably excelled – and at which she’s always surprising. Her ice-cold assessment of Kafka, for instance, has plenty of gear-shift reversals of a type you won’t find in any other writing about this particular author, and it’s bracing:
Kafka seems to have lacked the power to perceive and appreciate character. This is not to say he was unsociable or uninterested in his kind. From an early age he was an object of veneration to a number of his contemporaries and his juniors, and he gave them and the people he met through his work genuine guidance and help. But his benevolence was impersonal; it flowed out to people in whose idiosyncrasies he was not interested. This is exactly the sort of kindness which is to be expected in a born bureaucrat.
Most of the sections in this great book work as teasers, as invitations to find the longer works from which they’re drawn, and I urge you to do that (if you haven’t buckled down and experienced the immensity that is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, you are missing one of the most impressive sustained performances in the whole of English-language literature). Alas, this isn’t the case with those book-essays; a full, annotated collection of West’s literary essays has never been made, and with every year that passes, the likelihood grows dimmer (the closest thing, 1928’s The Strange Necessity, deserves a reprint on its own merits, and it could certainly be expanded). Even so, the few samples we have here – on figures as varied as Kipling and Capote – are very much worth savoring. In a perfect Republic of Letters, a book like this would be unnecessary, because every intelligent reader would already have a small shelf full of West’s works. But as things stand in our imperfect reading world, Rebecca West: A Celebration is still a dismayingly private party.