Posts Tagged ‘Rebecca West’

To the North

April 1, 2011

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

Recently I wrote about Gillian Tindall’s classic The Fields Beneath.  Then last week I heard by chance a programme on Radio 3, A walk round Camden, the interval talk during a concert from the Roundhouse.  It’s always a slightly weird experience to hear a radio presenter describing a place one knows very well, for the benefit of those who are presumed not to.  It reminded me of the one of the pro-Revolution Russians in Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down, who describes

‘a wide railway-cutting, a positive chasm, with many tracks running along the bottom.  The aspect was not unpicturesque, for on the opposite cliff of the chasm stood a line of tall houses, neo-classical in design, which were reflecting an orange sunset from their stucco façades.  London is very exotic.  All these places like Camden Town and Pimlico and Notting Hill have a wild majesty.’

Rebecca West wasn’t mentioned as one of Camden’s writers, and nor was Virginia Woolf  (who mentions it often, if only en route to Hampstead Heath).  This lack was compensated by the inclusion of Gillian Tindall, the local genius of the place, who spoke about Camden Town’s past inhabitants so vividly and knowledgeably that I wished the entire programme – or series – could be hers.  Dickensian characters such as the Cratchits, who ‘tried to live nicely’, were as present in her sketch of the past as Sickert, painting the turns at the Bedford Music Hall, where Crippen’s unfortunate wife Belle Elmore performed (sometimes as a very unconvincing male impersonator).

The Roundhouse, which was the excuse for this perambulation, is a great local institution.  As a child in the 1970’s I lived with a view of its leaky curved roof; it was in a bad state then, not quite semi-derelict but a ‘fringe venue’ in the original sense of the word.  The audience, isolated on groups of benches scattered about the draughty, dripping auditorium, might have been prisoners within a deep black well in some sinister Piranesi architectural fantasy.  Nowadays, after much restoration, it can host the RSC’s winter London season, among many other events.  The old turntable-shaped engine-shed makes a brilliant theatre-in-the-round; there’s only a hint of local nostalgia for its previous incarnation.

Gillian Tindall mentioned that she was born close by this relic of ‘railway mania’, opposite Camden Lock.  I was interested to see that her book about Kentish Town, this ‘one London village’, has been reissued by Eland in a new edition, with an extra chapter.  She will be talking about The Fields Beneath at the Owl Bookshop on Kentish Town Road, on the 5th April at 7pm; an event which I’m sure will be a great local celebration of place and northernness within the inner city.

I’m particularly pleased, not only because I look forward to the event, but also because I’m going to be the next author on the Owl’s programme.  I’ll be reading from my just-published novel, The Principle of Camouflage, which has its celebrations and elegies for London, too, at the Owl Bookshop on the 14th April at 7pm.

Sublime encouragement

September 17, 2010

Thames mosaic – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Every human being is of sublime value because [her or] his experience, which must be in some measure unique,  gives [her/] him a unique view of reality… Therefore every human being must be encouraged to cultivate [her/] his consciousness to the fullest degree.’  

This is Rebecca West again.  Her recipe for such human development  – the encouragement of the individual view – is, of course, art, education, good environments.  In the context, it’s a throw-away remark, a statement she considers absolutely self-evident, within a discussion of nationalism (‘the desire of a people to be itself’) as opposed to imperialism (‘the desire…to prevent other peoples from being themselves’).

Just as imperialism, in West’s analysis, is an attempt to prevent ‘peoples’ or nations from being themselves, so – on an individual level – if human beings are prevented from the cultivation of consciousness, their supreme value as individuals is denied, their unique view of reality is ignored, or even suppressed.

To Rebecca West, writing in the early 1940’s, this loss wasn’t merely of individual potential; she believed that ‘the sum of such views should go far to giving us the complete picture of reality, which the human race must attain if it is ever to comprehend its destiny’.  So to deny humankind the opportunity to cultivate our consciousness ‘to the fullest degree’ is a retrograde step, away from the possible evolution of humanity.

Such idealism, during such times, seems almost wilful – yet what time could be better?  Only the closed consciousness can be indifferent to social injustice, the loss of civil liberties, the destruction of the environment, and the growth of imperialist attitudes, all of which created the background for fascism and war.  West took it as axiomatic that greater understanding of the human condition, through encouraging each sublimely valuable individual consciousness, must inevitably lead towards enlightenment.

But nobody wants to be fully conscious if they have to live in a vile environment, without natural beauty or architectural beauty or preferably both, let alone if they’re in poverty, with all the sufferings and fears of that condition.  In many situations, it’s merely a survival mechanism to close down the aperture of the consciousness to its smallest opening, and let as little light in as possible.  Then who knows what goes on outside?

Without access to the arts, or real education (both powerful awakeners of the consciousness), in a fragile natural environment under constant threat, no human being can hope to cultivate anything but a survival mentality.  This situation, in current political terms, is still brought about by the ‘desire to prevent other peoples from being themselves’, or in other words an ideological preference for a semi-conscious electorate, who won’t notice as their inheritance is dismantled.  It’s sabotage of the most destructive kind, not just of individual lives, but of the future.  

All those enlightened ones, Rebecca West et al, with their visions of the fullest degree of developed consciousness for all humanity, must be spinning in their graves.  But at least their writings remain, a source of sublime encouragement – and resistance.

Truth & Beauty

August 27, 2010

Setts and willow leaves – photograph by Liz Mathews

To tell the truth, or create beauty…’  This is, according to Virginia Woolf’s seminal discussion of language, the business of words.  She imagines a world in which words could be used in such a way that every book or newspaper she picked up would tell the truth or create beauty.

These truths are not only the literal truths of plain fact, but also the more obscure truths – subtle, fictional, nuanced truths which are truer than anything else, indeed nothing less than Rebecca West’s ‘subtler news [that] has to be whispered… the knowledge of reality’.  Picasso’s dictum that ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise truth’ is another attempt to express this mystery.

I think it’s interesting that Virginia Woolf specifically mentions newspapers as possible conduits of the use of words in this unusual way; presumably a mildly satirical comment on the lack of truth and beauty in the contemporary papers. But it’s also a good point as far as factual writing in good faith goes; for the urge to tell the truth, in terms of witnessing how things are and speaking of them, needn’t be in opposition to the creation of beauty – within the writing, at least.

As for creating beauty – so much more difficult than making hideousness – it must follow the telling of truth, it must be an act of creation.  Beyond that, there is no guidance except that beauty is not absolute but diverse; as multi-faceted and wild as the words themselves. 

It’s both challenge and encouragement to present-day writers that, in this little old-fashioned-sounding talk from so long ago, there was the stimulating suggestion that words might one day be put together in this modern way.

Beethoven, Mozart, Cake

April 22, 2010


Basket of Primroses – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘When one goes into a shop to buy a cake, one gets nothing but a cake, which may be very good but is only a cake; whereas if one goes into the kitchen and makes a cake because some people one respects and probably likes are coming to eat at one’s table, one is striking a low note on a scale that is struck higher up by Beethoven and Mozart.’

Although in this passage from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon Rebecca West is making a point about capitalism (she continues ‘we prefer to create than to buy’), the matter of creativity inevitably comes in. The days when ‘shop cake’ seemed grand – because everyone baked – are long gone; it’s probably truer now than it was in 1942 that a homemade cake seems complimentary. What interests me is her assertion that this cake-making is an art, as valid as any great composer’s music, if on a lower note. I think this is, in the context, a feminist stance; also a statement of the importance of intention in making.

In the same book she describes Macedonian peasant women’s embroidery as ‘uncorrupted merchandise’, in contrast to the sort of commercial copy sold elsewhere. There is an integrity of purpose which makes the act of creation genuine, for her, rather than primarily commercial, just as the cakes are only cakes (however good) if they’ve been made for a shop. (Of course, this applies to the sale of her own work; even the hack journalism of her youth is motivated by a passionate belief which is proof enough that she wrote primarily for other reasons.)

The motivation behind the work of art was what couldn’t be bought; the friendly intent of the cake-making would never be replicated by money-making intent. So West was moved by the Macedonian women’s work because artistic expression was a natural part of their life – they might sell the work they made, but that wasn’t why it had come into being. Within her own culture there was already a divide which made the professional artist responsible for this expression, on behalf of society as a whole, but she still considered that those who did it merely for commercial reward were corrupt.

The value that she placed on intention didn’t confuse West into thinking that the results were all the same, or that ‘everyone is an artist’ any more than that she was a professional pastry-cook. Rather, she was valuing a person’s own effort of creation over their powers of buying. Just as she asserted that the cake made for friends is an expression of true creativity for the maker (on a small scale), so she trusted that there were people who would understand the compliment of being offered a created thing.

Our bright natures

March 13, 2010

Rebecca West’s best-loved book is probably The Fountain Overflows, with its extraordinarily vivid authorial voice and remarkable characterisations, quite unlike anything else. Yet West’s supreme achievement is usually designated as Black Lamb, Grey Falcon (1942), the Yugoslav travelogue/ artist’s statement/ philosophy doorstop, invariably hailed as a masterpiece. This is a long (1,150 pp) book, discursive and complex, so highly-wrought that its correspondences take several readings to appreciate fully. It’s superbly written, with West’s muscular and versatile prose soaring over every curtain-wall she sets herself on triumphant if idiosyncratic wings. Most of all, it is a work of consolation. In a time of war and horror, it was a heroic celebration of the possibility of hope.

The central paradox is that the book is full of darkness; West records that the bloody history she had to write sometimes seemed so ‘unendurably horrible’ that she could hardly go on. Yet she did, in order to condemn wherever she found it cruelty, inhumanity and the death-wish, while celebrating the ‘poetical achievement of the soul’. In the course of her digressive journey through Yugoslavia (both the literal landscape and the country of the mind), she finds this poetry in surprising places.

The work resembles the writer; many interests run concurrently, inform one another, unite surprisingly, reach unexpected conclusions, set off again. Deep convictions develop gradually, preconceptions are re-examined and perhaps modified or jettisoned, suddenly-reached opinions are confirmed by experience, but become more complex. There are certain problems for the contemporary reader. I find her personally-affronted attitude towards homosexual men distasteful; some people think her dislike of a pro-Nazi German woman too merciless. (These are small toe-stubs in a cataract of pleasures.) West’s political statements are sweeping, opinionated, and no doubt inexpert, in that they treat the political world as one in which the values of other human activities are still relevant, so that her leaders should be ‘of that company loving honour, freedom and harmony…’

The immensity of the book, its vast scope in terms of themes, defies any over-view. It would be worth considering just her treatment of the ‘female tragedy’ – the strength men derive from the subjugation of women – or her extraordinary meditations on this culture’s urge towards self-destruction and death, which she calls the myth of the rock:

‘Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness…’

The solution West offers, which makes her book so important to me, is her belief in the role of art. While she holds that profound works of literature such as King Lear express the central paradoxes of existence, beyond that she believes that art has a supreme function ‘for of course art gives us hope’. Typically, this hope isn’t a vague though encouraging emotional prop; it is quite practical. West perceives that art has a use. When she meets an old woman who has endured terrible sufferings and demands ‘Let me know what my life means’, this is presented as ‘making the true demand of art’. West derives this from the cave-dwellers’ urge to draw the aurochs they hunted in order ‘to better understand the aurochs and have fuller fortune in hunting’, as ‘the ancestor of all artists’. (She adds, characteristically, that art is complex enough to ‘regard the more stupendous aurochs that range within the mind’, that eventually ‘we shall read the riddle of our universe’.) Her conclusion about art is that ‘it is a force which could destroy the myth of the rock itself, and will, no doubt, a thousand years hence’.

This is some credo, embedded with great subtlety in a huge volume; art has the power to conquer war, evil, guilt, hatred, self-destruction – darkness itself. There are, she admits, many problems. Art is an ‘uncertain instrument’, which ‘cannot talk plain sense, it must sometimes talk what sounds like nonsense, but is actually supersense’. The nonsense must be discerned, as must ‘counterfeit’ artistic activity, then West implacably reminds her reader of the renegade saints;‘the few guides’ sent to help us out of the darkness have come ‘surrounded by traitors, dressed in their guise, indistinguishable’. Yet, despite all this, within the text there is a concrete example of the ultimate usefulness of art.

On p.509, West hears the music of a Mozart concerto by chance on a café radio; she is enormously comforted, but then considers – since the music needs a certain education and cultural background to be understood, since it requires so much of the listener – that ‘art covers not even a corner of life’. (In the context, this conclusion seems not only depressing, but a denial of her own perceptions which the reader wants to refute.) But by p.1127, West has returned to Mozart as one of the ultimate expressions of what is ‘correct, important, permanent’. As she listens to The Marriage of Figaro during an air raid on London, the music seems more real to her than the danger of death; it transforms everything.

It takes enormous courage to write like this, from the heart, with passionate sincerity and an utter conviction that the reader will understand. The absolute commitment it demonstrates is exhausting to contemplate, as is the writer’s emotional energy and engagement. But the reader who can respond with the necessary perseverance and enthusiasm will find that this rough journey undertaken in Rebecca West’s company leads to a vision of harsh salvation, ultimately consoling.