Sunday, January 13, 2019

'The Dangerous Company of Humans'

On Saturday I read a remarkable piece of journalism by Rebecca West, “A Day in Town,” published in The New Yorker on Jan. 25, 1941. The issue that also included a humor piece by S.J. Perelman, a poem by Louis MacNeice and a review of High Sierra starring Humphrey Bogart. I call it “journalism” but that’s misleading. West was doing “New Journalism” – that is, a species of literature, not hack work -- more than two decades before the slogan gained currency. She is unafraid to deploy her “I” but never lingers on it. Her focus is not inward. The five-page article is collected in The New Yorker Book of War Pieces (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), alongside fifteen dispatches by A.J. Liebling, who filed from England, North Africa and France. In her sole contribution, West covered the home front.

The Blitz raged over Britain from September 1940 to May 1941, killing some 43,000 British civilians. West’s story foregoes the big military picture. She never mentions Churchill or Hitler, and the U.S. is still on the sidelines and goes unmentioned. She has just returned from her country home to retrieve belongings from her flat in London and to deliver fresh vegetables to her sister. She begins with Pounce, her cat:

“The war has revealed cats as the pitiful things they are—intellectuals who cannot understand the written or spoken word. They suffer in air raids and the consequent migrations exactly as clever and sensitive people would suffer if they knew no history, had no previous warning of the nature of modern warfare, and could not be sure that those in whose house they lived, on whose generosity they were dependent, were not responsible for their miseries. Had Pounce found himself alone in the house and free, he would probably have run out into the woods and not returned to the dangerous company of humans.”

West had intended to shop at John Lewis’s but learns from a janitor in her building that the department store had been leveled the previous evening by a German bomb. The janitor says: “It’s gutted, gutted to the ground floor, and I nearly died of it.” The ministry where her husband works has been damaged in the same raid. “I suddenly learned,” he says, "what everybody supposed I knew: that Black, one of my colleagues whom I got on with best, an older man whom I liked and respected, with whom I had had a lot of pleasant talk, had been killed in the blast.”

West communicates not anger or grief but a sort of stoical sadness, an old-fashioned English toughness that may now be extinct. She discovers that the long, narrow Empire table in her dining room, undamaged by a direct hit, has come apart at every joint, the result of a bomb's shock waves. “Nothing had hit it, but it stood there like something dead and unspeakably mangled.” She concludes the article like this:

"Beyond the table, through the obscuring varnish on the window panes, I could see London, veiled by the smoke that was still rising from the ruins of John Lewis’s store.”  

At least three other great writers, Elizabeth Bowen, V.S. Pritchett and Henry Green, made literary use of the Blitz. Along with the New Yorker piece, West also published her masterwork, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in 1941.

1 comment:

-Z. said...

Add one great writer to that list: Anthony Powell in "The Soldier's Art":

Pilgrim took my right hand in his left.
'My dear...'
'How are you?'
'I've been having a most unenjoyable evening,' he said.
He did not at once release my hand. For some reason I felt a sudden lack of ease, an odd embarrassment, even apprehension, although absolutely accustomed to the rather unduly fervent social manner he was employing. I tried to withdraw from his grasp, but he held on tenaciously, almost as if he were requiring actual physical support.
'We hoped you were coming on from the Madrid to join us at dinner,' I said. 'Hugh tells me you were doing some of the real old favourites there.'
'I was.'
'Did you leave the Madrid too late?'
Then Max Pilgrim let go my hand. He folded his arms. His eyes were fixed on me. Although no longer linked to him by his own grasp, I continued to feel indefinably uncomfortable.
'You knew the Madrid?' he asked.
'I've been there--not often.'
'But you enjoyed yourself there?'
'You'll never do that again.'
'Why not?'
'The Madrid is no more,' he said.
'The season or just your act?'
'The place--the building--the tables and chairs--the dance-floor--the walls--the ceiling--all those gold pillars. A bomb hit the Madrid full pitch this evening.'