November Reading

It doesn’t really make much sense to do my normal post about my monthly reading for November, as I only read one book, but I’ll do it anyway for completeness sake. I’m looking forward to tallying up my yearly reading at the end of December. I won’t have met all my goals, I don’t think, but I didn’t do too badly.

Ongoing projects:

  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
    Done, already in October. This year’s read along with one of my best friends brought to a triumphant conclusion. It was a great read, and I hope to get around to writing a report on in. Next year we are going to read The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese classic
  • Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
    This one I’ve given up on (for now), but it was only a tentative goal.

Poetry:

Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry
I did read my daily poem (or more) each morning in bed in November. Actually, I started this collection in October and forgot to mention it. It’s very good. I’m already almost halfway through and am really loving it.

Short stories:

Complete fail. No short stories were read in November.

Non-fiction:

For non-fiction November I read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West and it completely derailed the rest of my reading. But no regrets. It was a stimulating read!

Graphic novel:

Total fail. I’m still not feeling like reading graphic novels. I bet I’ll have missed this goal.

Novels:

None. I started reading Oliver Twist, but didn’t continue once I started BL&GF. I started it again in December and have now finished it, but it was a fail for November. No Toni Morrison either.

I didn’t meet my goals in November, but as the one book I read had 1232 pages, I’m quite happy.

Rebecca West’s Tome on Yugoslavia

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West, with an Introduction by Christopher Hitchens, Penguin Classics.

I finished this non-fiction November read just at the end of November. It was probably my most challenging read this year, not because the prose was difficult to understand, but because I know so little of the subject and I didn’t have much background to put the book into context, so I never knew when I read West’s outspoken opinions and judgements whether they had a basis in reality, or were prejudiced or exaggerated or just plain wrong. For this book is not a simple travel account. It is also about history and politics and philosophy and religion and, not least, feminism. Very interesting, stimulating but also challenging to read.

In 1937 West and her husband travelled through Yugoslavia, a new country created after WWI with WWII already on the horizon. After their journey, West spent four years researching and published the book in 1941, as she explains in the Epilogue (no page number, as my Kindle edition didn’t have any for the Epilogue):

This return meant, for me, going into retreat. Nothing in my life had affected me more deeply than this journey through Yugoslavia.

[…]

I was obliged to write a long and complicated history, and to swell that with an account of myself and the people who went with me on my travels, since it was my aim to show the past side by side with the present it created

West travels through the Yugoslavian countries (or provinces?) of Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Old Serbia and Montenegro. She gives beautiful descriptions of places and people, industry and art, but also includes a lot of historical details to show how the situation at the time was the result of historical events. When she visits Sarajevo, for example, she writes a lot about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie which was one of the causes that sparked off WWI. Of course, I’d known about that, but I’d only known the bare bones. I didn’t know anything about Franz Ferdinand and was very surprised to read her biography of him – he comes across as a lunatic, whose one redeeming characteristic was his love for his wife. I thought that this account was totally exaggerated, but when I looked him up on Wikipedia, I found out that West’s depiction was certainly based on fact, although somewhat exaggerated. To get a rounded picture I would have to read up on Franz Ferdinand, maybe read a biography, but I have to admit I’m not interested enough. Anyway, this reassured me that her account while exaggerated was nevertheless founded on valid history. I learned from West what happened to the assassins. Certainly no humane or enlightened treatment, to put it mildly.

West goes on to talk about the role of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in Balkan history, the legacy of Byzantium, the negative role played by all the various invaders, especially the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the West and the Ottoman Empire from the East. She talks about the rivalries between the peoples that made up Yugoslavia and the historical reasons for it. She visits a lot of cities, islands, churches, even a mine, and paints vivid pictures. There are passages in the book where I think that West is a genius and passages where I’m more or less horrified at her weird opinions.

West and her husband are accompanied by a Yugoslavian friend, called Constantine in the book, as West cannot name him for fear of nasty consequences under Hitler’s regime (Germany had invaded Yugoslavia by the time the book was published). The friend gives a running commentary on all sorts of topics. He was a Serb poet, of Jewish ancestry married to an anti-Semitic, anti-Serbian, ethnic German woman called Gerda in the book. Gerda is so unpleasant that at first I believed, again, in prejudice on the part of West, but a bit of research confirmed that she was in fact based on the real wife of her friend, with pro-German (probably Nazi) leanings. Sadly, Gerda’s horridness leads to an estrangement with Constantine (whose real name was Stanislav Vinaver) during the later part of the book.

The book takes its title from a ritual she witnesses, where a black lamb is sacrificed to bring fertility to women and keep misfortune away. West extrapolates from this scene a theory, which I, as a skeptic, find congenial, namely that the sacrifice of Christ for our sins should actually be seen the other way around. The murder of Christ, who was innocent and one of the best of men, shows up our sinful nature. No sacrifice of innocents ever leads to anything good. The grey falcon is a reverence to a poem which describes and lauds the actions of Tsar Lazar, a Serbian king, who fought and lost against the Ottoman Empire in Kosovo in 1389, leading to the subjugation of his people. The poem describes his actions as fighting for a lasting kingdom in Heaven (instead of an earthly kingdom). This West criticizes strongly. She argues that one should try ones very best to fight for happiness and peace on earth and not for heaven, which she equates with seeking death:

Destiny is another name for humanity’s half-hearted, yet persistent search for death. Again and again peoples have had the chance to live and show what would happen if human life were irrigated by continual happiness; and they have preferred to blow up the canals and perish of drought. They listen to the evil counsel of the grey falcon. They let their throats be cut as if they were black lambs.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Penguin, p. 948

She comments in the Epilogue:

But voluntarily to play a part in an act of cruelty, to subscribe to a theory of the universe which supposes a God capable of showering down blessings in return for meaningless bloodshed, that is to initiate a process of degradation which is infinite, because it is imaginary and not confined within the limits of reality.

Later on in the Epilogue, West contrasts the situation in the Kosovo in 1839 with the situation in England in 1939:

The difference between Kossovo [sic] in 1389 and England in 1939 lay in time and place and not in the events experienced, which resembled each other even in details of which we of the later catastrophe think as peculiar to our nightmare.

But there is hope:

For the news that Hitler had been defied by Yugoslavia travelled like sunshine over the countries which he had devoured and humiliated, promising spring.

This book is so long and goes off on so many fascinating tangents that one could easily write a PhD thesis or three about it. My little review doesn’t do it justice. I can only say that it is deeply fascinating, sometimes deeply strange. As Hitchens says in the Introduction (again, no page numbers), the book shows “the workings of a powerful and energetic mind”. The book as much about Rebecca West as it is about Yugoslavia and its history.

I found it so fascinating that it has inspired me to read up on the Balkans, to get a more rounded view. Also, I’d like to read some more by Rebecca West and especially a biography. I did a bit of research and found these additional books that have made it onto my TBR for next year (tentatively, maybe I will find others):

  • Carl Rollyson: Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl
  • Misha Glenny: The Balkans, 1804-2012: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers
  • Brian Hall: The Impossible Country

I can recommend the book wholeheartedly for readers who like reading about the topics that I’ve mentioned. It’s not useful for readers looking for a straight-forward travelogue.

Another Foggy Day

Today is the fifth day in a row without any sun. Just a lot of whitish fog that only lifted slightly during the day. Walking with Curious Dog in the woods was still pleasant. One could listen to the dripping of the water that condensed on the remaining leaves, pine needles, and branches of the trees. It wasn’t bad, I like the atmosphere, but it was a bit clammy and cold although it got slightly warmer today, at 6°C. Yesterday it was only 4°C. It looks like we might get some sun by Friday.

Today was again fairly uneventful. Curious Dog and I had lovely walks in the morning and late in the afternoon (it was already getting dark). I had a nice gossipy call with a work colleague who’s also a friend and a few less pleasant meetings. Boring as usual these days – I need to pull myself together and generate some enthusiasm. In between calls I did some quality checks and answered some emails. Not very exciting, but at least there’s only one workday left in my week, tomorrow. So basically (and thankfully), it’s almost the weekend for me. Oh the joy of not having to work on Fridays!

I manage at last to get through to my Mum’s physician to cancel that appointment. I tried on Monday and Tuesday and didn’t get through, but today, after 13 minutes spent listening to their awfully loud music while I was stuck waiting for a free slot, I managed to cancel the appointment in 60 seconds.

In the afternoon, a shepherd with a large herd of sheep and goats came along the valley. That was the most exciting thing that happened all day. These sheep come by once or twice a year. They and the goats are supposed to keep the slopes of the hills from becoming overgrown with bushes and trees. We have juniper grasslands on some of the slopes of the valley, with just grass and a few junipers. These grasslands are full of rare plants and insects, but they need to kept clear by the grazing sheep and goats.

I’m looking forward to doing some reading tonight. Still reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West and being bemused by some of her weird opinions. She likes Yugoslavia because it is a “world where men are still men and women still women” (Penguin, p. 207). But she also writes about the country’s history and landscape; about culture and art and the people’s way of life. It’s good.

And, when I’ve had enough of West, I go on with Oliver Twist, which is coming along nicely. It’s one of Dickens earlier novels and so far doesn’t seem to have such a convoluted plot as some of his later works.

I’m watching the antics of Trump in the U.S. with disgusted disbelief. When is he going to admit that he lost the election? He’s acting more like an authoritarian dictator than ever. The world (at least the democratic world) will be glad to see the back of him. I’m also still appalled that so many people voted for him, despite his racism, his nepotism, his corruption, and his complete failure to deal with Corona. Corona is still raging in Germany but not nearly as badly as in the U.S. as our politician are doing their best to mitigate the economic repercussions and to keep our health system from being overwhelmed. We do also have crackpot Corona-deniers but at least they don’t have much to say. The situation in the U.S. is really worrying; I hope Trump won’t use his last days in office to create even more havoc. Seems like a vain hope.

Keep safe, world.

Reading BL & GF

This morning I lazed in bed reading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It’s not a quick or easy read, because the writing is dense with historical background, descriptions of places, politics, personal opinions. Lots of topics that I have to think about, as I’m finding it fascinating but also strange. One of the chapters I read today “Salonae” illustrates this perfectly. It’s short chapter, at just 6 pages, but has much food for thought.

Salonæ (or Salona) is a ruined Roman city in the region of Dalmatia in modern-day Croatia. She gives a short but vivid description of the ruins:

It’s pillars and steps and sarcophagi lie among rich grass and many flowers under the high olive terraces overlooking the sea and its many islands […]

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West, Penguin, p. 163.

But then she writes about a group of young girls and nuns they meet at a museum, schoolgirls apparently. Of them she says:

They [the girls] were apparently waiting quite calmly to grow up. They expected it, and so did the people looking after them. There was no panic on anybody’s part. […] There were no little girls with poked chins and straight hair, aggressively proud of being plain, nor were there pretty girls making a desperate precocious proclamation of their femininity. But, of course, in a country where there is very little homosexuality it is easy for girls to grow up into womanhood. (p. 163)

What a strange pronouncement! How is homosexuality supposed to make it difficult for girls to grow into womanhood? It sounds like West has some kind of hang-up about homosexuality. I read one or two other off-hand weird comments of that sort in other parts of the book. It creates a weird vibe. Not exactly homophobic, but definitively strange.

There’s some judgements about the nuns and the education they were presumably providing:

I suspected that they [the girls] were receiving an education with a masculine bias. Indeed, I knew it, for they were being educated by nuns, who are women who have accepted the masculine view of themselves and the universe, who show it by being the only members of their sex who go into fancy dress and wear uniforms as men love to do. (p. 163)

Now this is arrant rubbish. I’m sure there’s innumerable criticism that can be addressed to schools led by nuns (we all know about the dreadful things that went on in many religious schools and orphanages up until our times), but becoming a nun and living as a nun is much more nuanced than this ridiculously prejudiced statement insinuates. Lots of nuns made lasting cultural and religious contributions. Sure, as a nun, one is under male domination, because the Catholic Church is infamous for its disregard and unequal treatment of women but being a nun could also be a fulfillment and escape from other restrictions placed by society on women (specially in earlier times). And the stuff about uniforms is also idiotic. What about nurses and all sorts of professions that wear uniforms? Even our modern business attire is a uniform of sorts.

She’s right about the male bias of the education the girls received, because that what happens in almost every school, even today. One hopes that more efforts are made to make education less biased against any point-of-view that isn’t male but in lots of instances women’s experience is not taught in schools. History, for instance, is still often heavily focused on the lives of men and the history of other countries and cultures apart from one’s own is also not included in many curricula, I’d imagine. In the context of the book this is hardly something that can be blamed on the nuns.

But then West goes on to make a valid critique of the way that the Roman Empire was seen (and taught to be) a “vast civilizing force which spread material and moral well-being all over the ancient world by its rule” (p.164):

We have no real evidence that the peoples on which the Roman Empire imposed its civilization had not pretty good civilizations of their own, better adapted to local conditions.

[…]

Yet neither I nor anybody else knows whether or not the conquest of Illyria by the Romans was not a major disaster, the very contrary to an extension of civilization. Illyria had its past. It was linked with Greek history, and had a double tie with Macedonia of alternate enmity and alliance. […] They had an extremely able and heroic queen, Teüta, who was not the sort of monarch that can be raised from a tribe in skins; and while she and her subjects are accused of piracy, examination proves this a reference to efforts, which history would regard as credible if they had been undertaken by the Romans, to conquer the Adriatic archipelago. (p. 164/5)

This critique of Roman expansion has something for it. History is written by the victors and who remembers the views and realities of the vanquished? Though I’m pretty sure that modern historiography has a more nuanced view of Roman expansion than that of the 1930s. It takes a long time for new historical insights to filter down to schools and I can’t say how up-to-date and differentiated the opinions are that are taught about the Roman Empire to schoolchildren today. I can’t remember the details of the Roman History I was taught in my high school years in the 1980s. And, modern historiography probably has it’s own biases.

The chapter goes on like this. Description of the scenic ruins amid beautiful nature interspersed with criticisms of the Catholic Church (some definitively valid), other historical background, personal opinions and judgement, and this and that. On the whole, this makes for a stimulating read. You must be on your toes, be an engaged and critical reader to stay with the text and not end up overwhelmed by the wealth of ideas and information. It’s fun if you like this kind of thing. If you expect a more conventional travel narrative, you might not enjoy it.

For myself, I’m going to continue with the book (I’m up to page 200 of the 1000 odd pages), but I’ll space it out over November. It’s too rich to read in one sitting. I’m going to start with Oliver Twist for some variety.

Keep safe, world.

What a Day!

It was supposed to be brilliantly sunny today, but we got nothing but fog. We also got Biden in the U.S. No more Trump! What a relief – that more than makes up for a foggy, dark fall day. And anyway, it was still nice walking with Curious Dog in the woods. It was noticeably warmer in the woods than down in the valley. I quite like foggy days, it’s so nice and cuddly inside. A great day, all things considered!

It being the weekend, I got up late and CD and I only got into the woods at 9:15 a.m. We found that a young man (well, younger than me) had already cut the tree that had fallen on our favourite path into sections and was just loading them into a trailer. Up early and hard-working. I thanked him and CD barked at him, the little twit. We had a pleasant walk and afterwards I went out to the little village shop for some bread. It’s getting quite empty inside, as they are selling everything off before closing at the end of the month. A successor has not yet been found, but some people are organizing a society to run the shop. It’s not yet sure if it is going to come about. I’m not too optimistic as folks in our village haven’t yet shown much inclination for such social activities. If I lived here all the time, I would be interested in joining. We will see what happens. The little village shop lasted four years (I asked the proprietor, as I’d forgotten when it started). It was lovely while it lasted.

I meant to start tidying my bedroom today, and so I did, but I only made it worse. I started in the afternoon, sorting a shelf of books that I will donate or recycle (a lot of them are old and musty and probably of no interest to anyone). Now I’m half-finished and the sorted books are all stacked on the floor. Tomorrow I’ll go on, but with my amazing enthusiasm, I’ll not get far. I need to start earlier in the day. Today I started a mere half an hour before I had to take CD for his afternoon walk and only because otherwise I wouldn’t have done anything. I basically guilted myself into starting. Because of Corona restrictions, I won’t be able to donate anything now anyway, so that is rather dampening my enthusiasm (as well as my general disinclination towards doing anything except read in my spare time).

I’m currently reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West for non-fiction November. It was presented by one of the BookTubers I follow, and I thought it sounded good. It’s about a journey through Yugoslavia in 1937. West presents some of history of the areas she travels to and also their then current situation. I’m finding it interesting, with lovely writing, but I’m not sure about some of the historical judgements she makes. I don’t know much about the history of the Balkans and so can’t say if her pronouncements are valid or not. There’s a lot of negative commentary about German and Austrian-Hungarian influence in the area, and for all I know, it may be correct. However, on the eve of WWII, an Englishwoman’s opinion of Germany could conceivably have been influenced by current events and was probably not impartial – Hitler invaded Yugoslavia just as the book was printed in 1941. Keeping that in mind, I’m enjoying it. I’ve only read the first 140 pages, there’s another 900 to go. Maybe it will inspire me to read up on some Balkan history.

Here’s a quote, about the historical deforestation of Dalmatia:

The human animal is not competent. That is the meaning of the naked Dalmatian hills. For once they were clothed with woods. These the earliest inhabitants of Dalmatia, the Illyrians and Romans, axed with an innocent carelessness; and the first Slav settlers were reckless too, for they came from the inexhaustible primeval forest of the Balkan Peninsula. The for three hundred years, from about the time of the Norman Conquest to 1420, the Hungarians struggled with the Venetians for the mastery of this coast, and the nations got no further with their husbandry. Finally the Venetian Republic established its claim, and thereafter showed the carelessness that egotistic people show in dealing with other people’s property. […]

After this wholesale denudation it was not easy to grow the trees again. The north wind, which blows great guns here in winter, is hard on young plantations; and the peasant as he got poorer relied more and more on his goat, a vivacious animal insensible to the importance of afforestation.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West, Penguin, p. 116.

Other than reading, walking with Curious Dog and a bit of desultory tidying, I got nothing much done, but who cares. It’s the weekend and there’s always another day for tidying and decluttering. I can always make it a project during my long Christmas vacation.

Wishing all the very best for the U.S. today. I hope Trump and his followers will accept the election results and stop preposterously proclaiming that the vote was stolen. Isn’t it amazing how this bare faced lie is accepted by so many people? We are living in strange times. Here’s to hoping that Biden and Harris will manage to at least start to steer America into a more hopeful future.

Keep safe, world.