NYC Day 6: Thinking Reed
I’ve fallen in love. With Manhattan? Hardly, though it certainly has its charms. You have to remember that I grew up in a town of not even 3000 people. I think there were about that many yesterday in Union Square, as I walked through it on my way to dinner.
You can run away from a place like my hometown, but you carry it with you anyway. Look at the pictures in the slideshow below. You’ll see the building that originally housed a general merchandise store co-owned by my paternal and maternal great-grandfathers. The courthouse where my grandfather and father held court. The stables that my mother’s great-uncle built and operated. The bridge we used to call the “Old Steel Bridge” (why “old” I don’t know) over the wonderfully named Rocky Comfort Creek, scene of many a boyhood trek into the “wilderness.” The cemetery plot where members of my father’s family are buried. The front of my grandparents’ (now my aunt’s) home, the facade of which was designed by Louisville-native-turned-notable-Atlanta-architect Willis Denny. The building housing my late father’s law firm, a pretty little house on Seventh Street. And the requisite photo of a cotton field.
(Several of these pictures courtesy my cousins who own a lovely shop called Twisted Sisters in Louisville, Ga.)
So, no, it’s not Manhattan itself that this small-town boy has fallen for — not likely, that — though I did have my fateful encounter here, and only yesterday. I was wandering around the Strand Book Store. I happened on the Eastern Europe shelves of the history section. On a whim, I climbed a ladder that happened to be there. I looked on the topmost shelf. And that’s where we came face to face: yours truly and the remarkable Rebecca West, née Cicily Isable Fairfield, author not only of eight novels but also of my newest most-est prized-est possession: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, an account of her travels through what used to be called Yugoslavia in the years just before the outbreak of World War II and published immediately after it. (The inscription reads: “To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved,” followed by a quotation in Greek — from the Orthodox liturgy for a funeral service, I think — which in English reads, “Grant to them the Fatherland of their desire, and make them again citizens of Paradise.)
I must tell you that I hope you have this experience on occasion. I was in a rotten mood. I met Ms. West. We agreed to have a draft beer and some crostini at a nondescript cafe on Seventh Avenue. The beer was cold and the house crostini, with mushrooms and goat cheese, did not have to be good, since I was famished, but in fact it was. No matter that the mushrooms had been living in a can or bottle for some time.
Anyway, once I had dealt with my urgent thirst and hunger, Rebecca and I introduced ourselves to one another. It was love at first read. Within a few pages, history and geography that had always been incomprehensible to me was clear as glass. Not only that, but I felt that I had delivered myself into the hands of a person with exquisite perception, wonderful judgment, a prose style that any writer would kill for, and something else, something ineffable. I think it’s genius. The ability to make me join her in love and admiration for Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and a commensurate loathing for her mother-in-law the Archduchess Sophie (“She was always thrusting the blunt muzzle of her stupidity into conclaves of state, treading down intelligent debate as a beast treads down the grass at a gate into mud, undermining the foundations of the Empire by insisting that everybody possible should be opposed and hurt. She was personally responsible for some very ugly persecutions: one of her victims was the peasant philosopher Konrad Deubler. She was also a great slut”). History made to come alive before my eyes. An authorial voice bracingly acerbic at times, tender at others. Sigh.
The Prologue begins this way:
I raised myself on my elbow and called through the open door into the other wagon-lit: — ‘My dear, I know I have inconvenienced you terribly by making you take your holiday now, and I know you did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all. But when you get there you will see why it was so important that we should make this journey, and that we should make it now, at Easter. It will all be quite clear, once we are in Yugoslavia.’
There was, however, no reply. My husband had gone to sleep. It was perhaps as well. I could not have gone on to justify my certainty that this train was taking us to a land where everything was comprehensible, where the mode of life was so honest that it put an end to perplexity. I lay back in the darkness and marveled that I should be feeling about Yugoslavia as if it were my mother country, for this was 1937, and I had never seen the place till 1936. Indeed, I could remember the first time I ever spoke the name ‘Yugoslavia,’ and that was only two and a half years before, on October 9, 1934.
And later in the Prologue, this:
I had to admit that I quite simply and flatly knew nothing at all about the southeastern corner of Europe; and since there proceeds steadily from that place a stream of events which are a source of danger to me, which indeed for four years threatened my safety and during that time deprived me forever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.
That is a calamity. Pascal wrote: ‘Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.’
In these words he writes the sole prescription for a distinguished humanity. We must learn to know the nature of the advantage which the universe has over us, which in my case seems to lie in the Balkan Peninsula. It was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey which might explain to me how I shall die, and why.
And at the end of the Prologue, she writes that after she had traveled for the first time to Yugoslavia to deliver some lectures, she was taken ill with dengue fever. The dresses she had bought there were ruined by those who were charged with disinfecting them. West was distraught. In her distress, she could not explain to her husband why she was so much overcome with emotion:
The thing I wanted to tell him could not be told, however, because it was manifold and nothing like what one is accustomed to communicate by words. I stumbled on, “Really, we are not as rich in the West as we thing we are. Or, rather, there is much we have not got which the people in the Balkans have got quantity. To look at them you would think they had nothing at all.. But if these imbeciles here had not spoiled this embroidery you would see that whoever did it had more than we have.” … In a panic I said, “I must go back to Yugoslavia, this time next year, in the spring, for Easter.”
Someone who can see all that in the embroidery of a dress. Who would feel the urge to learn more. Who would act on that impulse. Who would know enough beforehand, and learn enough in three trips to Yugoslavia, and work hard enough still later, to write this book. A person and a book with which Christopher Hitchens, who was asked to write an introduction to the Penguin edition, associates the word “greatness.”
Bad mood banished. Pascal is right: I am a reed amid — God help me — 8.337 million other reeds at the moment. But I know the advantage the universe has over me, and that’s something. It’s more than the brute universe has. So if you spot Rebecca West and me walking arm-in-arm up 9th Avenue, with smiles on our faces that seem to indicate we share a secret, don’t look askance: you’re in on it now.