The Essential Rebecca West

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Inspired by Bernard Schweizer's recommended reading progression for newbies to Rebecca West over at Pages Turned, I ran right out (metaphorically, since I found I had to order this online) and bought the first suggested volume, The Essential Rebecca West. Schweizer recommends starting here "to get a taste of just how multi-talented and brilliant [West] is," and The Essential Rebecca West is indeed fairly staggering in its diversity. Consisting of formerly-uncollected prose from the inter-war years through the 1970s, its scant 167 pages contain everything from book reviews and other criticism, to a chronicle of the first encounters between Montezuma and Cort├ęs, to an account of trying to navigate London on an ordinary day during the WWII bombings, to a delightful and deeply-felt meditation on the practice of owning cats. Practically the only skill this volume does not demonstrate West possessing, is the ability to go into great depth on a single topic over a long period, which was never its intention; I suspect that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon would demonstrate that skill admirably.

It's always difficult to write about a collection of short works; even more so in this case, when the goal of the exercise is diverse representation. A few qualities did cohere across all these pieces, though. Primary was West's wittiness, which is in a style I associate with Harold Ross, Dorothy Parker and the early years of The New Yorker. (Indeed, West did have pieces published in that magazine among very many others.) In a review of a collection of essays attempting to "popularize" the great philosophers, for example, West quips:

Such are the overtones of our language that the sub-title, "Twenty of the World's Outstanding Thinkers Reveal the Deepest Meaning they have Found in Life," conveys to the experienced that this is just what the twenty authors involved do not do.

In one of my favorite pieces, "Aspects of Love: Mutual Dislike," West offers a similarly scathing reading of Milton's Paradise Lost which, while I don't entirely agree with it, I do find both funny and thought-provoking.

As Milton put it in his prose gloss on the poem, Adam was "exhorted to search rather things more worthy of knowledge," and he accepted the advice by consulting the angel on his sexual life, at enormous length, for it was much on his mind; so much that Eve may well have been not only the first woman but the first woman to express the opinion that Men Want Only One Thing.
       She may also have been the first woman to use the phrase "I've Never Been So Insulted in my Life."

Although I tend to read Milton's Adam and Eve as more genuinely loving toward one another than West does ("When Adam and Eve speak to one another they always begin by a statement of devotion which can only mean that this emotion has left them forever"), I do find her feminist reading compelling—especially in the section when suggests that "the serpent" in this poem is not so much a knowledge of good and evil, as a female desire for solitude and breathing space which both Adam and Milton himself find extremely threatening.

The serpent in all Paradises is not a condition of the mind but a matter of hard fact: the power possessed by any human being to leave another human being who does not want to be left. When Adam became aware of Eve's desire for separateness, when weak females flagged and failed under the intolerable burden of being one with Milton, Adam and Milton suffered as if they felt the serpent's fang.

"Mutual Dislike" is a good example of something that impressed me throughout this book: West's ability to combine a light, often humorous tone with intellectual rigor. She is being witty, making it easy for her readers to enjoy her pieces, but that doesn't mean that she's not taking seriously her subject matter and her own thoughts on that subject matter. She may not mean every word she says, as in the provocative beginning to "Aren't Men Beasts" ("There is, of course, no reason for the existence of the male sex except that one sometimes needs help in moving the piano"), but she believes firmly in her over-arching arguments, however pithily they may be delivered.

This is particularly true when she is writing about issues relating to feminism, (anti)Communism, or literary practice. In my opinion, the urge toward censorship is one of the most effective targets for attack via satire—it's at once pernicious and rife with human absurdity. I was therefore delighted at the inclusion of "The Age of Consent," which skewers the censor with the dirtiness of his or her own mind:

I myself have been accused of the graver offence [indecency] when I hardly expected it. In an essay on Henry James, I happened, when discussing his indifference to abstract thought, to use the phrase, "He never felt an idea with the sensitive finger-tips of affection." I was startled to receive a press-cutting from an American newspaper, in which a reviewer protested against the use of "this sensual metaphor in connection with a writer of the known purity of Mr. James." None of us can provide that our innocent inventions may not be seized on by such persons as this and used as bases for the horrid dreams of their own engendering.

"The horrid dreams of their own engendering"! Priceless. In reading up on the history of censorship one encounters this difficulty again and again: the mind of the censor glimpses reprehensible filth in every nook and cranny, including places nobody else would ever think to find it. In the censor's attempts to rid the world of indecency, he runs the double danger of exposing himself to this dangerous obscenity in the first place, and of adding to the sum total of dirty thoughts by imagining offenses where in fact none existed. I find this unnamed American's criticism particularly ironic given that James's characters conduct conversations as if they're physically picking up and caressing each comment made by their interlocutors, in a kind of tedious verbal intercourse:

      "Well then," said Kate, "it's what has wound me up. Here I am."
      He showed with a gesture how thoroughly he had taken it in; after which, within a few seconds, he had, quite congruously, turned the situation about. "Do you really suppose me in a position to justify your throwing yourself upon me?" [Wings of the Dove]

West's original metaphor strikes me, if anything, as overly mild. (Also, it's dialogue like this that makes me want to stab myself with rusty forks whenever I try to read James.)

There is much more to love in this little volume, from the funny and touching "Why My Mother Was Frightened of Cats" to West's trenchant observations on the importance of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and the obliviousness of Richard Nixon. A quick, rewarding read, and one that has me curious to progress to The Return of the Soldier, the next stop on Schweizer's Rebecca West train.

19 Comments

  • Anthony and I both were drawn to Susan's post about a recommended progression of West reading so I have to admit to being a little envious that you have already made a start of it. Dorothy Parker, witty, easy breezy but intellectually rigorous and she may not mean everything she says are all big draws to me. You said you had to buy online. Hard to find?

    • Well, I had a weird experience trying to get it through my local shop & having them say it was on its way & then having them say "no, wait, we don't have it after all & we're canceling your order." Then I ordered it from the Book Depository, happened to stop in to my local joint a few days later, and there is was on the shelves. So...not sure what happened there. I don't *think* this should be too difficult to come across, and it's a lovely little read.

  • I am definitely intrigued, especially with that reading of Milton. I tend to alternate between finding Milton's Eve to be an intolerable sap and a fabulous spitfire (Adam is always a sap.) Love the combo of rigor and wit.

  • I loved the essay on Milton. If I ever get around to reading Paradise Lost, I will most definitely have West's esssay close at hand.

    And the essay on cats unexpectedly left me in tears.

    Have you seen any of the cat drawings she and H.G. Wells exchanged?

    So very glad you've started reading West, Emily! I'm still about a third of the way through this collection and I know I ought to spend some time with it so I can move on to A Train of Powder.

    • I KNOW, the essay on cats literally made me both laugh and cry within the space of about ten pages. Not too shabby! Haven't seen those Wells/West drawings; I should search them out. Thanks so much for re-posting that West progression, Susan - it was super-helpful given how prolific and varied West''s output was.

  • Brilliant! I love your thoughts on this book, which has remained on my desk, rather than going onto the shelves, signalling my intention to get to it, soon.

    Your comments on Adam and Eve, and mention of the New Yorker reminds me of a cartoon from the latter. A man and a woman are having a strained lunch, he is looking at her and saying, "I never said 'I love you,' I said 'I love ya!' There's a difference, you know."

    • LOL to the cartoon!

      And I think it was through your blog that I saw Susan's original post, so thanks for the new reading direction, Anthony. This little trip through West land should be a nice dose of lightness & wit if you choose to take it on as a foil to de Beauvoir's extreme seriousness.

  • I believe Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat is hosting a readalong of The Return of the Soldier at the end of this month. As for me, I've read enough of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon to be smitten with West's writing (often wonderful stuff) while being dismayed with her jingoistic cultural patriotism. Hope to return to the rest of that book sometime this year, esp. since all the Rebecca West love in the blogosphere this year is reawakening my interest in her and guilt at not finishing that book yet.

    • Yikes: strike "patriotism" and insert "chauvinism," please! Need to self-edit my comments better, Emily!

      • Heh, no worries on the editing, Richard. And yikes, this collection didn't provide much of an arena for West's cultural chauvinism to come to the fore, although now that you say that I can kind of imagine it into some of her essays on Communism. I'll be fore-warned going into some of her more political stuff, but still excited about the writing quality. Her extreme diversity of output is intriguing all on its own.

  • I saved the list from Pages Turned too. I can hardly wait to get started. This sounds like a wonderful and promising first stop!

  • This made me laugh out loud. As soon as I get my credit card back (following fraudsters cloning my data) I'm going to order a copy. Thanks.

  • I want to read this. I've only ever read West's fiction, never her journalism and travel writing.

  • I just added this to my Goodreads list! I love this kind of writing -- short varied pieces that let you see a range of things the author can do. And I really loved her book The Fountain Overflows, so I think I'd like this one as well.

    • You do seem like the ideal audience for this volume! I'm encouraged to hear that you loved The Fountain Overflows, since I have yet to sample her fiction and I'm looking forward to it.

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