Friday, February 10, 2012

Five top unusual histories

Geoff Dyer is a British writer whose many books include Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, and Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.

One of the five unusual histories he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
by Rebecca West

Let’s begin on your book selection with Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which I know to you is one of your great core canon. Will you introduce the book for our readers, and tell us why it’s so important to you?

I guess it’s good that we’re starting with this, because it’s a seriously off-putting book. It’s close to 1,200 pages – a travelogue-history of Yugoslavia.

But it’s quite readable.

It’s incredibly readable. But it seems like such an enormous commitment, doesn’t it, to read a book in excess of a thousand pages. The opportunity-cost of committing to this book seems so huge when you could have got through six other books. So you have to be absolutely assured of its quality. And then there’s the thing of – we were talking about content before – why should you read this book if you’re not interested in Yugoslavia?

I know I had no particular interest in Yugoslavia until I was going to Serbia, Belgrade, for a British Council seminar and they mentioned this book that we might read, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, as preparation for that. As always happens when I’m going to a place, I didn’t read it. I didn’t do the homework. And again as happens when I’ve been to a place, I then became incredibly interested in it. This was, interestingly, during the Milosovic era and one of the wars – although I can’t remember which now. Anyway, I came back and wanted to learn much more about this place I’d been to. I started to read this book, because I’d been to the place it was about, and then I started to realise: My God, this is a major, huge literary masterpiece. It’s without question Rebecca West’s magnum opus.

It’s the account of her trips to Yugoslavia in 1936-8, so in the context of Nazism. What are some of the things that she witnesses and considers?

The first thing to say is that she very cleverly stitches together three trips she made, so the book reads as if it’s one continuous journey – with this character who’s only ever identified as “my husband”. The husband is doing and saying all sorts of things but he’s just “the husband”, and I think it’s great to sustain that for 1,100 pages. She meets a whole load of people – some of whom, in Rebecca West’s great way, she takes this virulent dislike to.

I should say that nothing particularly dramatic happens to her – she’s never caught up in major events in the same way that Kapuściński is – but what is really remarkable, first of all, is that her experiences become an excuse for these huge metaphysical digressions about anything and everything. And also the extraordinary thing is that she’s describing events that she’s seeing at this particular moment in history, yet the book has this incredibly prophetic quality to it. So all the stuff we’re reading that is going on in Bosnia or Serbia, fast forward 60 years and you’re seeing the same scenes being enacted. So she’s reporting about a particular moment, but also she’s tapping deep into some essential and timeless quality of the place.
Read about the other books Dyer tagged at The Browser.

Anna Beer makes a case for Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as the greatest travel book ever written.

--Marshal Zeringue