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 Cortés, 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.