Thursday, October 15, 2020

'Preserved in Tragedy Like Flies in Amber'

Here is how Whittaker Chambers concludes his review in Time magazine of Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason in 1947:

“[I]n a prosy age, her style strives continually toward a condition of poetry, and comes to rest in a rhetoric that, at its best, is one of the most personal and eloquent idioms of our time.”

West published a dozen novels and other fiction, but it’s as a journalist that she proved her literary worth. I refuse to use the pretentious label “creative nonfiction” and prefer to say that she was a great writer. Her essential books, along with The Meaning of Treason, are A Train of Powder (1955) and her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). The latter I’ve read twice and annotated heavily. It’s simply one of my favorite books.

About midway through the hefty volume, in the chapter titled “Serbia,” West writes about Milan Obrenović, Milan I, ruler of Serbia from 1868 to 1889, and his family. She visits his grave in the Krušedol monastery in the province of Vojvodina. West calls him “the king who was so little of a success that he was forced to abdicate,” and tartly describes his portrait (“the wide cat-grin of a tormented buffoon”) and those of his family. But here is the half-sentence I underlined: “. . . and more portraits of these unhappy people, preserved in tragedy like flies in amber.” West’s contempt mingles with sadness. Milan was less a monster than a clown.

I remembered West’s image when reading some of Robert Herrick’s poems, including this one:

“I saw a fly within a bead
Of amber cleanly buried ;
The urn was little, but the room
More rich than Cleopatra’s tomb.”

Amber – fossilized tree resin, often encasing prehistoric organisms -- may be the loveliest substance in the world, more beautiful than diamonds. Herrick’s precise birth and death dates are unknown. We know he was baptized on August 24, 1591 and buried on this date, October 15, in 1674.

[Chambers’ review, “Circles of Perdition,” is collected in Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers 1931-1959 (ed. Terry Teachout, Regnery Gateway, 1989).]


Richard Zuelch said...

I consistently hear, about "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," that one should read it for the writing, not for the history, which West frequently gets wrong.

Faze said...

Once you start reading "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" you no longer care about the accuracy of the history. You've been seduced by the strength of her observations, the excellence of her writing, and the strangeness of the deadly comic opera world she's traveling through. Hope you'll give it a try.