Eighty years since its publication, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia remains the most authoritative (and longest) book of travel writing on that former country. The book, which documents West’s travels through Yugoslavia in the second half of the 1930s, has been described as “astonishing,” “brilliant,” “remarkable,” “a supreme literary monument,” and “one of the most important books written about Europe in the last century.” It’s also been derided as biased, fictional, and factually flawed.

What’s the big deal about this big book? Who was Rebecca West? And what makes the book relevant a lifetime later?

With Helen Atkinson (Rebecca West’s great-niece), Angela Carlton, and James Thomas Snyder. Featuring music by Gogofski, Paniks, and Undescore Orkestra.



[podcast_subscribe id=”1797″]

Support the Podcast

Become a monthly patron on Patreon:

Become a Patron!

Make a one-time contribution via PayPal/credit card:

Episode Transcript (and More)

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Jovanko” by Underscore Orkestra]

Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia remains, 80 years since its publication, the most authoritative (and longest) book of travel writing on that former country. The book, which documents West’s travels through Yugoslavia in the second half of the 1930s, has been described as “astonishing,” “brilliant,” “remarkable,” “a supreme literary monument,” and “one of the most important books written about Europe in the last century.” It’s also been derided as biased, fictional, and factually flawed.

Like Balkan Ghosts, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is one of those books that you read so much about you’d be hard pressed to actually read, especially when faced with its nearly half-a-million words on nearly 1,200-pages.

I did read it so you don’t have to (actually I recommend you do, as you’ll hear in this episode). It is everything they say it is—and then some and then a whole lot more. I’ve talked to other people who read it, and here I am joining their esteemed ranks in the cottage industry of the Black Lamb and Grey Falcon discourse. And as befits the monster book, this is a monster episode.

So let’s do this. What’s the big deal about this big book?

ANGELA CARLTON: She uses a variety of genres, it’s journalistic, it’s fictional, it’s mythic, it’s allegorical. I say it’s an epic because she sets out on a quest to go and understand the Balkans

PETER KORCHNAK: Who was Rebecca West?

HELEN ATKINSON: She was completely terrifying, I mean she was certainly very intimidating.

PETER KORCHNAK: And what makes the book relevant a lifetime later?

JAMES SNYDER: As I traveled and I went to these, you know, individual specific places, I would open up the book to where she writes about that part. And it was illuminating.

PETER KORCHNAK: In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon at the tender age of 80.

But before we take a trip through Yugoslavia with Rebecca West and those who travel in her footsteps, remember that it’s you who makes this journey possible. Thank you and welcome new Patreon sustainers Chris, Ernesto, and Thomas. And thank you, Tim, for your contribution.

If you like the show, hop on the Remembering Yugoslavia train and join Chris, Ernesto, Thomas, Tim, and many other travelers in supporting the show. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate to chip in to the trip fund today.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Otrov” by Black Bear Combo]

Rebecca West, the Author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Cocek” by Underscore Orkestra]


PETER KORCHNAK: Born in 1892, Cicily Isabel Fairfield was a child of a mixed marriage: her mother was Scottish and her father Anglo-Irish. She had two older sisters, Letitia and Winifred.

Fairfield took the name Rebecca West in acting school from a character in a Henrik Ibsen play. She became a suffragette, opinion writer, and reporter, and had a decade-long relationship with the writer HG Wells with whom she had a son, Anthony, who was born just as the First World War broke out. Over the course of her long life, she established herself as a well-traveled journalist, literary critic, and novelist.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia came out in 1941. It is generally deemed to be West’s “magnum opus” and her best—and best-known—work.

During World War II West housed Yugoslav refugees in her South England manor. After the war, she covered the Nuremberg Trials for the New Yorker; she reported on the apartheid in South Africa and on indigenous cultures in Mexico. In 1948, President Truman called West “the world’s best reporter.” In 1959, Queen Elizabeth made West a Dame Commander of the British Empire, the female equivalent of a knight. Dame Rebecca West died in 1983; born in the same year as Josip Broz and Ivo Andrić, she outlived them both.

In remembering West, the then-New Yorker editor is quoted to have said, “Rebecca West was one of the giants and will have a lasting place in English literature. No one in this century wrote more dazzling prose, or had more wit, or looked at the intricacies of human character and the ways of the world more intelligently.” The New York Times obituary stated, “Dame Rebecca combined compassion, tough-mindedness and a perceptive eye with a style that could soar to elegiac heights or sting with acerbic accuracy.” And the writer Edward Crankshaw wrote, “Rebecca West was so much a part of this century that now that she has gone it seems almost as though the century itself were over.”

This is all in the public record and it makes for an amusing biographical reading. To find out who Rebecca West was in real life, I sought out someone who actually knew her.


HELEN ATKINSON: My name is Helen Atkinson and I am Rebecca West’s great-niece. Her sister was my grandmother.

She died when I was 17. But I knew her relatively well before that. I visited her many times. I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and she lived in London, but my parents used to bring us down to visit often. Initially, whenever I went to visit her, I had a minder of one kind or another, either my parents or my aunt Alison MacLeod, who’s also a very accomplished writer, because it was considered that Rebecca, that Rebecca could be a little terrifying, and so it wasn’t considered safe to leave a young person alone with her.

So I think I was about 15 and I was old enough to be sort of wandering around London on my own, and I’d arranged to meet my aunt Alison at Rebecca’s flat in Knightsbridge. And I misjudged the travel time on the tube and turned up sort of 20 minutes early and went up to the floor of Rebecca’s flat and sat in the fire escape, basically waiting for my aunt Alison to show up because, you know, the received wisdom was that I, you know, mustn’t mustn’t be left alone with Rebecca. And I suddenly thought, “This is ridiculous. You know, she’s my great auntie, she’s a writer, I want to be a writer, how bad can it be?” So I knocked on the door. And her very severe Scottish housekeeper let me in, and Rebecca was still getting dressed or whatever. But she came out and we had, I think, perhaps five minutes alone together. And we really bonded. She took a liking to me, thank goodness. And after that, I went to see her on my own. And we had a splendid time together.


PETER KORCHNAK: So she was not terrifying.


HELEN ATKINSON: She was completely terrifying. She was certainly very intimidating. As I like to joke, everyone was entitled to her opinion. She made a lot of pronouncements and her questions were always very pointed. And one felt that there might well be a right answer that you were too stupid to have access to. But she was also fantastically funny and just fascinating.

And she had this amazing capability to pronounce words in a way that made you think you’d never heard them before. She could put just the right emphasis on a word where you go, good lord, “soldier,” I’ve never really thought about what a soldier is or you know, something like that. She was extraordinary.

She was so infused with a love of language, which I share with her. And of course, she wielded the language far, far better than I ever could. So she was absolutely magnetic. And not comfortable to be with. You always felt like you had to be quick on your toes around her. But after spending time with her, I always felt like my IQ had increased several points.


PETER KORCHNAK: That’s fantastic.


HELEN ATKINSON: But she wasn’t at all egotistical. I mean, she had a giant personality and she certainly expected to get her way but I don’t think she was vain. I think she was just so infused with just sort of unquenchable thirst for figuring out why human beings behave the way they do there wasn’t really room for her to be conceited or vain.


PETER KORCHNAK: Atkinson herself writes: she is a columnist, a journalist, and a content creator.

So did she impact in any way your desire, your dream, your wish to be a writer? Did she inspire you or discourage you because she was so brilliant?


HELEN ATKINSON: No, she very much inspired and encouraged me. I regard her as my muse to some degree. If I’m stuck with a project, I will often sit down and read a page or two or more of her and get my thinking right.

What she did discourage me from doing was I— The last time I saw her, I had secured a place at Oxford University to read English literature. And she declared that to be a complete waste of time.


PETER KORCHNAK: So did you do it? Was she right?


HELEN ATKINSON: I did, I did, sadly. What I did learn was a habit of critical thinking. And I think that’s as good an educational benefit as anyone can get.


PETER KORCHNAK: Can you add maybe one more anecdote from your own personal encounter or encounters with her? Anything that kind of sticks in your mind?


HELEN ATKINSON: So I went to have tea with her at her very beautiful flat, overlooking the Albert Memorial, with original Da Vinci cartoons on the wall and all that sort of thing. And she said, and she served this beautiful tea full of French cookies and fine china and whatever. And we’re sitting there and she says, “Oh my dear, you know, I should have invited you for lunch.” I said, “This is delicious. It’s fine. You know, it doesn’t matter. I’m not here to eat. I’m here to see you.” She said, “You know. I really should have invited you for lunch.” I said, “Honestly, this is fine.” She said, “No, you don’t understand, Warren Beatty was here for lunch.”

It’s like, nooo. That would have been fun.


PETER KORCHNAK: And so within your family, here’s this quote unquote famous person, literary person with this big personality as you’ve described. So what was that like? Did she overshadow everything or was she revered or was she hated or…tell us a little more about that.


HELEN ATKINSON: All of the above. She used to come and visit us in Edinburgh, when I was much younger, and there was a lot of sort of eye rolling and moving of furniture and making sure the linen was ironed, and all that sort of stuff.

And I think one of the tensions was—I sort of realized this latterly—was that she idolized my father, who was her nephew but I think was kind of a substitute son, given her very troubled relationship with Anthony, who was her child, her illegitimate child by HG Wells, with whom she had a completely horrendous relationship and they ended up being totally estranged for, I think, the last 20 or 30 years of her life. So Norman, or Bobby, as my father’s nickname was, was, you know, the apple of her eye and also, I think, represented no kind of competition to her because he was a scientist, whereas Anthony went on to be a writer, which probably wasn’t a good move in terms of maternal acceptance.

And, I found out later that she really did not have a high opinion of my mother. Probably because she married Bobby, you know, no woman could possibly be good enough or whatever.

When I was younger, we had this story that my father told us that in the passage where she’s talking about Princip trying to take cyanide in order to kill himself after the assassination and the cyanide didn’t work. And she goes into a huge, long explanation about how it was he was deliberately given ineffective cyanide, because they wanted him to be martyred or you know, whatever. And my father was actually living with Rebecca when she was writing that part of the book. And he went on to become a great chemist and chemical engineer, he was head of the chemical engineering department at Embry University. Anyway, he said, you know, so she had a trained chemist in the house and she could so easily have asked that, you know, and I would have told her, as any good chemist knows, that cyanide actually has a very short shelf life, and it naturally just goes off. And that that’s by far the more likely explanation for why Princip’s cyanide didn’t work.

And the whole thing about Rebecca is, she could never be wrong. And most of the time she was right, but you know, she was a very opinionated person who was extremely certain of her opinions and insights. And here was one where the cart had run away with the horse, and she could have easily fact checked it.

Anyway, I was telling this story for the umpteenth time to somebody in front of my husband, and afterwards, he said, “When was that book published?” I said, “What was it, 1941?” So she was writing it, you know, in like 39, 40, whatever. So and when was your dad born? And we worked out that he couldn’t have been more than 13 years old. Well, that says a lot about my father, too. I mean, I’m sure he did know all about cyanide at 13 years old, but I don’t think most people would ask a 13-year-old for advice on chemistry.

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›


[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Devojka” by Paniks]

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: The Book, the Legend


PETER KORCHNAK: Everyone has their reason to travel to the Balkans. The reason for my first major trip to former Yugoslavia was research for my master’s thesis: I wanted to figure out why Yugoslavia (as well as my native Czechoslovakia) disintegrated.

West went to Yugoslavia for her own reasons. Her first short trip, in 1936, was a lecture tour organized by the newly formed British Council. In the spring of the following year, she took the second, six-week trip with her husband, Henry Blackwell Andrews, a banker, who actually goes unnamed in the book. And her third trip, solo again, she took in the summer of 1938. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon combines the three trips over two months in a single narrative.

The timing was precipitous. As the 1930s wore on, another major war loomed. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West explains her motivations for exploring Yugoslavia thusly:

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“I had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood. (…) It was my aim to show the past side by side with the present it created.”

West saw the dangers of what was happening and she sought to understand how it came about.

And yet—


HELEN ATKINSON: One of the best things about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is that it’s incredibly funny. When I’m trying to encourage somebody to attempt this great mountain of a book I say, “Look, just read the first couple of pages and if you don’t laugh out loud, fine. You can throw it away.”

But the whole thing about her recovering from an operation and hearing on the radio that the king of Yugoslavia has been assassinated and calling for a telephone to speak to her husband and the nurse says, “Why what’s happening?” “The king of Yugoslavia has been assassinated.” And the nurse says, “Oh, was he a friend of yours, deary?” It’s just so right and then and then she goes into this whole thing of that it reminds her that the difference between men and women are that men are lunatics and women are idiots.

So I she’s very funny right through the book. She’s a good traveling companion. And she made me laugh, too in life. I mean, she was very funny. I think that’s important. If you if you’re going to deliver these kinds of insights about the human condition, you better keep people laughing, I think.


PETER KORCHNAK: Yes, sometimes it was laughter through tears but fair enough, yes.

HELEN ATKINSON: Yes, indeed.


PETER KORCHNAK: In the course of my research for this episode, I’ve come to appreciate West’s sense of humor. In the book she states, “It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of skunk.” She once allegedly called her husband “a dull giraffe.” And shortly before she died, Dame West wrote in the Vogue magazine, “I do not myself find it agreeable to be 90, and I cannot imagine why it should seem so to other people. It is not that you have any fears about your own death, it is that your upholstery is already dead around you.”

So what is on all the dead trees that went into the 1,200 pages of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, quote “one of the most significant works of travel literature of all time”?

The Many Genres of Black lamb and Grey Falcon


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: The book is structured like a travelogue.


PETER KORCHNAK: James Thomas Snyder works for NATO’s Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia. He is an opinion writer, analyst, and author of two books on politics and diplomacy, and a translator of a third, on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In a 2017 article in the LA Review of Books, Snyder remarked on the absence of commemorations of the 75th anniversary of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and made a case for the book to be remembered and celebrated. On his blog he is currently running a series of articles parsing each chapter of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Incorporating material gathered on the other two trips, West centers the book’s narrative around her second trip, with her husband, in 1937.


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: I would argue that it’s not a travelogue or travel literature per se. I mean, I know that’s how it’s classified and that’s even its subtitle. The travelogue is a device, it’s a structural device that allows her all this freedom to talk about all these things that she’s interested in. And it’s hard for me to imagine her or anybody else, doing the same things that she’s done in this book in any other format. It would be a really weird novel, it would be an incredibly dull history. But as a travelogue, you’re actually literally being propelled through this country and through the discussions of history and biography and geography, and, you know, historiography and, and all the rest. So it has this kind of kinetic aspect to it that I don’t think would exist if she tried to use any other book.


ANGELA CARLTON: Her intention, her endeavor was to kind of journey away from both Western society and patriarchal society. You know that kind of harkens back to a lot of traditions of women being at home, while the men are out, either waging war or finding out about the world.


PETER KORCHNAK: Angela Carlton is an independent researcher with a PhD in modern British literature. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon centered her work on the subject.


ANGELA CARLTON: Of course, she has to bring with her her husband, who largely becomes her spokesperson. A lot of the longer political paragraphs in the book are given to him, to give substance to her views.

Constantine is the one who usually asks a lot of the philosophical questions, her husband answers it, of course, I think they’re largely Rebecca West’s views. But I think it’s interesting that she has to bring him along to add credibility.


PETER KORCHNAK: Constantine was West’s guide and minder for the bulk of the trip; it was a pseudonym for Stanislav Vinaver, a Serbian writer, poet, translator, journalist as well as Yugoslav government official. He also serves West as an archetype of a Yugoslav and a Jew, whereas his German wife Gerda, an anti-Semite, anti-Balkanite, and an all around unpleasant person, is a stand-in for Nazis and, with her “programme for making Europe clean and pure and Germanic by coercion and expulsion,” provides the thrust for the book’s arguments. The driver for some of the journey, Dragutin, is one of those classic Yugoslavs who can recite epic poems out of the blue.

West’s over-reliance on Constantine to introduce her to people, to show her places, to interpret what she saw has been a major criticism of the book.


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: Milan Kundera writes about how the novel exists because it’s the only thing that can do what the novel can do, right? You can’t do novels in any other format. And that’s kind of how I feel about this, is like, I can’t imagine her writing any other book than this in order to do what she wanted to do.

This is an insight into an extraordinary mind. You need to know this human because she’s amazing. The amount of erudition and experience and really sharp, critical insight that she brings to bear is just astounding. And I think that’s part of the reason why a lot of people really— they don’t know what to make of it. They view it is a parlor trick, right? Like, she can’t be this smart. Really? Can a person be this smart? Yes, she can.


PETER KORCHNAK: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is indeed several books in one: a travelogue, a reportage, a history book, a political analysis, a philosophical tract…

Laura Cowan has called it “a masterpiece of hybridity.” It’s a “transformative” work of travel writing because it “subverts and combines several genres in order to critique the political, cultural, and social orders of her contemporary world.”


HELEN ATKINSON: It’s a text that has a greater range than itself in this sense that I keep going back to it and finding different things and different insights in it. And it’s always interesting.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as a Travelogue


PETER KORCHNAK: The account of West’s travels through Yugoslavia, takes us from Zagreb to parts of Slavonia, down to the Dalmatian coast, including some of the Adriatic islands, Dubrovnik, and Kotor; then to Trebinje, Mostar, Sarajevo, Travnik, and Jajce; to Serbia through Belgrade, with a bunch of side trips; down to Macedonia, including Skopje, Ohrid, and Bitola; over to Kosovo, including Priština, Peč, and Kosovo Polje; and finally to Montenegro’s Podgorica, Cetinje, and Budva.

It is indeed in her descriptions of place where West shines. Those parts are some of my favorite prose.

About the coastal town of Trogir she writes:

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“Across a milk-white sea, with two silver hydroplanes soaring and dipping to our right and left, we came to the town of Trogir, which covers a minute island, lying close to the coast, in the lee of a larger island. It is one of those golden-brown cities: the colour of rich crumbling shortbread, of butterscotch, of the best pastry, sometimes of good undarkened gravy. It stands naked and leggy, for it is a walled city deprived of its walls. The Saracens levelled them, and the Venetians and the Hungarians would never let them be rebuilt. Now it looks like a plant grown in a flower-pot when the pot is broken but the earth and roots still hang together. On the quay stand Slavized Venetian palaces with haremish lattice-work fixed to screen the stone balconies, to show that here West meets East, brought thus far by Byzantine influence and perpetuated by the proximity of the Turks. Behind them lies a proof that life is often at once mad and consistent, in the manner of dreams. (…) Trogir’s alleys turn and writhe like entrails.”

This is West’s Sarajevo: “At the cemetery we forgot for a moment why we were there, so beautifully does it lie in the tilted bowl of the town. It is always so in Sarajevo. Because of the intricate contours of its hills, it is for ever presenting a new picture, and the mind runs away from life to its setting.” (…) “As we walked out of the Town Hall the sunshine was at last warm and the plum blossom in the distant gardens shone as if it were not still wet with melted snow. ‘Though the hills rise so sharply…the contours are so soft, to be in this city is like walking inside an opening flower.’”

At the Kajmakšalan mountain in Macedonia, she observes this at the site of a World War I battlefield:

“But now the high mountains took us into their peace. We left the automobile on the bare highlands just below the snow, where there was a village of chalets, sightless with their shuttered windows. The nomads who come here in the summer and make cheese had not yet dared come up, so late was the spring. We trod on turf drab with the long hardship of ill weather, but starred with the hard blue light of glory-of-the-snow and the effete mauve flame of the mountain crocus, and looked up at the long ridge of snow, five miles long, that is furrowed by a pilgrim’s way to the church on the high peak. There could be no question of going there without proper climbing boots, but we followed the track as far as we could go, the crystal air making us all happy. (…) We glacised down a slope and found a boulder surrounded by a sudden affluence of pansies growing sheer from the surrounding snow, and sat on it, staring down at the battlefield that tilted forward to the plains, seamed with deep valleys sunk in firwoods. The joy of the mountains is real, because it is of the blood and the muscles, where life has its ultimate stand, and yet it is false. Everything that I saw or heard as I sat on the boulder pleased me, yet the battlefield below me proved that I had been born into an age too uncertain about fundamental ideas for continued existence to be easy.”

In the least impressive descriptive passages, few and far between as they are, West evokes as parallels areas her readers might be more familiar with, like Switzerland or various parts of England.

What was more challenging were West’s descriptions of people she encountered, particularly as I am a person, to use West’s words, of the “Slav race.” On the one hand, there’s an element of ethnography to the writing, as when West describes dress or customs, and that’s extremely valuable.


HELEN ATKINSON: She had this amazing ability to see into people and how they manifested their own cultures. And those sorts of things don’t change very quickly. And also the way that they interact with each other, different cultures, different ideas, different worldviews. Those are fairly immutable to some degree. I mean, or they take many hundreds of years to change. And I think she had a beat on a lot of those, I really do.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Undescore Orkestra]


PETER KORCHNAK: One the other hand, there are times when she describes people’s appearance that made me cringe a little. On the island of Rab, West sees people who “had that flat, unfeigned, obstinate look about the cheekbones, which is the mark of the Slav, and their bodies were unpliable. But they were not of a harsh race that had usurped the home of gentler beings perished through gentleness.”

Beyond appearance, I found judgments of the Slav character especially grating. Interestingly, West recognizes her shortcomings in making her observations and conclusions, saying early on that, “I could form no opinion, for I knew nothing about South Slavs, nor had I come across anybody who was acquainted with them.”

A few examples of the opinions West did end up forming:

“Military service appears to be the only thing that makes a Slav calm.”

“But not animal was the tranquillity of these people. They had found some way to moderate the flow of life so that it did not run to waste, and there was neither excess nor famine, but a prolongation of delight.”

“The Slav is never subject, not even to himself.”

“She…was not Slav and she had not made that acceptance of tragedy that is the basis of Slav life.”

“There could be no two races more antipathetic than the Slavs, with their infinite capacity for inquiry and speculation, and the Turks, who had no word in their language to express the idea of being interested in anything…”

“Slavs grow old more beautifully than the people of other races, for with the years their flesh clings closer to the bone instead of sagging away from it.”

“These Slavs think all sorts of things natural that we consider odd; nothing seems to worry them so long as it satisfies a real desire.”

And so on and so forth.


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: Yeah, it’s, and that’s part of the reason why the book is challenging as she uses effectively arcane notions about the character of different peoples. And yeah, she’ll talk about the Slav, she’ll talk about the Turk, you know, she’ll talk about the Hun. And that’s, you know, strikes the modern, you know, the modern sensibility as kind of a sour note.

But what she’s trying to do in the course of this book, is make an argument for these small peoples, and in order to defend them, you have to tell— you have to be able to describe why they’re different, and why those differences are important. Like, why should they be preserved. Because the flip side of that argument that she’s making is, Empire destroys these things. These things are beautiful and useful and unique. We need to protect them.

Her critical faculty is so attuned it’s bristling with sort of sensory input that she can’t make these sort of blanket, judgments on anything, everything is nuanced. But what that allows her to do, and what again, I think is very strange for us and can be uncomfortable is, she’s having her cake and eating it too. Right, she can say that she can say things like the Turks and the Austrians are just like the Nazis in their historical legacy in this region. Blanket statement, very, very cutting language, that’s almost a direct quote. But that’s the argument she’s making. But then at the same time, you know, describe and extol and really kind of love the Ottoman architecture and local Muslim dress, local Muslim dress, local Muslim household practice. And it really takes a lot to really understand not only what is her point, but what do you get out of it when she describes these things.

We can admire the progressive stances that she took and we can criticize the ones that she didn’t and try to understand them. But you can take all of it and still respect what she’s done or what the author has done.


PETER KORCHNAK: What’s interesting is that, because Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is most widely read in the West, few analysts and scholars in the region West covers have written about the book.

One exception is Arna Elezović, a University of Washington scholar. In a 2016 conference paper Elezović looked at West’s search for “the true Slav.” The suffering Southern Slavs experienced throughout their history at the hands of empires creates the Slav character, which in turn Westerners should learn from. The Slavs’ suffering contains an embedded understanding of how to enjoy life. The Slavs suffer by choice. Their suffering is part of their resistance to empires. And all that suffering is inevitable as a preferred choice over submission to tyranny.

But, Elezović writes, even as West spends pages upon pages deconstructing the stereotypes about and highlighting the positives of Slavs and the Balkans and their character, she builds or perhaps reinforces a stereotype of her own: that of the Slav as the Other. Which may seem kind of trivial, after all if you are not one thing you are some other thing by definition. It is West’s glorification of a people, the idealizing of Slavs, that is problematic, Elezović says.

It reminded me of the romantics’ noble savage trope, though West’s version is more like a noble peasant. An example:

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“Europe is in her soul Macedonia. If Europeans have not the virtues of the Macedonian peasant, our life is lost, and we are the greenfly on the rose tree that has been torn up and thrown on the rubbish-heap. All that we are and do means nothing, all that our ancestors were and did means nothing, unless we are naturally the equals of the peasant women on the Skopska Tserna Gora and in Bitolj, whose fingers never forget the pattern that an ancient culture had created as symbols for what it had discovered regarding life and death.’”

Writing in the New Yorker, Brian Hall, whom you may remember from Episode 22, “Travel Writing About Ex-Yugoslavia,” likened West’s fascination with the Balkans to that of other Western travelers. Quote, “Like many travellers to the Balkans, West was enthralled by the intensity of the life—the strong drink, the piquant food, the late hours, the vibrant folk costumes— and she saw in it an echo of her own materialist passion:

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Undescore Orkestra]

“Here was the authentic voice of the Slav. These people hold that the way to make life better is to add good things to it, whereas in the West we hold that the way to make life better is to take bad things away from it.”

At any rate, it wasn’t necessarily the accuracy of West’s observations that irked me but the definitive manner in which she presents them. To be fair, she makes sweeping pronouncements about other nations and quote unquote races, for example, “Hungarians are fierce and warlike romantics whereas the Croats are fierce and warlike intellectuals.” Her depictions of Germans are particularly unflattering, but in her typical fashion she uses them to illustrate greater political points. And even if something about the Slavs, or Turks, or whoever being like this or like that rang hollow to me, I couldn’t necessarily disagree with all of West’s views as they were just that, statements of opinion she formed based on her observations.

This is where knowing who West was as a person helps tremendously.


HELEN ATKINSON: She also managed to form appallingly unfair impressions of my older brother and sister. My sister had come to visit her on one of these visits, and Fiona had been offered a gin and tonic before lunch and drank it, probably quickly out of nerves, and was offered another one and accepted it. And then there was a conversation over lunch about whether she’d read any Iris Murdoch and confessed that she hadn’t. I mean, she’s a 16-year-old who was going off to study chemical engineering at the university not really up with the literary stuff. And so anyway, Rebecca’s conclusion with this, this whole exchange was that she was an illiterate alcoholic. And I mean, and that was the sort of pronouncement that Rebecca could make on people. And my sister is neither illiterate nor an alcoholic and is in fact now a published author herself.

I would call it the cost of genius insight. You know, a book of this length and complexity is not exactly drawing cartoon characterizations of anything, I don’t think.

Sometimes she got stuff wrong but she got things so astonishingly right so much of the time, it was worth having. And I think being wrong was maybe the price of admission? And it seems like a pretty reasonable one.


PETER KORCHNAK: Of course, the book is 80 years old and West was writing not only in a specific time period, her views and opinions were formed in a certain milieu.


ANGELA CARLTON: She’s also, you know, from the British elite and she has the [tendency] occasionally to sound a little bit snobby.

But I also appreciate that she seems very aware of these hangups and is not afraid of being critical of herself. And I noticed that several times throughout the book. So I think she is aware. And I think, you know, it has to be of course, put in its time and place. But those generalizations and essentialisms, as you said, are there for sure.


PETER KORCHNAK: All that said, it was obvious West cared. One of her interviewers wrote that “[Rebecca West] said she considered a writer’s main subject to be the wonder and complexity of people.”

There is one other reason why Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is such an outstanding piece of travel writing: West’s journey was both external and internal.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“Nothing in my life had affected me more deeply than this journey through Yugoslavia. This was in part because there is a coincidence between the natural forms and colours of the western and southern parts of Yugoslavia and the innate forms and colours of my imagination. (…) But my journey moved me also because it was like picking up a strand of wool that would lead me out of a labyrinth in which, to my surprise, I had found myself immured. It might be that when I followed the thread to its end I would find myself faced by locked gates, and that this labyrinth was my sole portion on this earth. But at least I now knew its twists and turns, and what corridor led into what vaulted chamber, and nothing in my life before I went to Yugoslavia had even made plain these mysteries.”

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Otrov” by Black Bear Combo]

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›

Political Analysis in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon


PETER KORCHNAK: As a work of political analysis, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an extensive critique of imperialism. Here’s a good summary of that view:

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Undescore Orkestra]

“When we were driving out of the town I said, ‘I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else. They stink so badly that I cannot believe that even in life they were healthy.’ ‘I do not think you can convince mankind,’ said my husband, ‘that there is not a certain magnificence about a great empire in being.’ ‘Of course there is,’ I admitted, ‘but the hideousness outweighs the beauty. You are not, I hope, going to tell me that they impose law on lawless people. Empires live by the violation of law.'”

And, “It is certain that the Balkans lost more from contact with all modern empires than they ever gained.”

As a counterpoint to imperialism, West proposes nationalism, of the romantic, Herderian kind.


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: Places change, you know, history is being written. But there are certain immutable aspects. And I think one of the things that Rebecca West really celebrates is this notion of these sort of these micro cultures, you know, the way people are when they’re left alone, and how vibrant and interesting and and beautiful they and what they produce can be.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – ““Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]


PETER KORCHNAK: West writes: “Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, they were all like young men stretching themselves at the open window in the early morning after long sleep. To eat in a public place in these countries, to walk in their public gardens, was to fill the nostrils with the smell of happiness. Nothing so fair has happened in all history as this liberation of peoples who, during centuries of oppression, had never forgotten their own souls, and by long brooding on their national lives had changed them from transitory experience to lasting and inspiring works of art. It is not even imaginable what they would have achieved, had they been given time to acquire the technique of self-government, for though there are free peoples, and these have contributed largely to civilization, they have been free because they were fortunate, and have not, like the Slavs and the Finns and the Balts, learned that wisdom which ‘is sold in the desolate market where none comes to buy, And in the withered fields where the farmer ploughs for bread in vain.’”

“The new states were full of life, Yugoslavia shook its clenched fists and swore it meant to live. Therefore England and America and France turned away, for what lived disgusted them; they wanted a blanched world, without blood, given over to defeat.”

“[N]ationalism is simply the determination of a people to cultivate its own soul, to follow the customs bequeathed to it by its ancestors, to develop its traditions according to its own instincts. It is the national equivalent of the individual’s determination not to be a slave.”

And by the way, West picked Yugoslavia over Finland as her destination because it offered her “a more picturesque and convenient example of the political thesis I wanted to expound. It’s precisely because there are so many different peoples that Yugoslavia is so interesting. So many of these peoples have remarkable qualities, and it is fascinating to see whether they can be organized into an orderly state.”


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: The epilogue is basically, it’s a just war theory argument based on the entire book, which set out to demonstrate what happens when empires impose themselves on smaller cultures and the need to fight that because those small cultures and peoples are worth something.


PETER KORCHNAK: West later admitted she wrote the Epilogue—remember, when the war was already under way—at the request of the UK Ministry of Information. So perhaps propaganda can be added to the list of the book’s genres.


HELEN ATKINSON: I think it’s a fantastic investigation into the origins of war, of why people want to kill each other. And there’s that amazing passage in Kosovo:

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“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 have built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. [And] wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious. For we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.”

PETER KORCHNAK: Yeasty darkness…

HELEN ATKINSON: Yeasty darkness. Nobody’s ever said yeasty darkness. [LAUGHS]


HELEN ATKINSON: And it’s so perfect. And excellent.


PETER KORCHNAK: It is, it is.

Being a woman and a feminist, it should come as no surprise that—


ANGELA CARLTON: One of the most interesting aspects of the book is her inclusion of the perspectives of women that were, as she says, connected to the great moments in history. And, you know, I remember at one point she interviews the mother of Princip, the young man who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, and that was just so fascinating to hear that perspective, that’s a side of war and history, we are not usually privy to.

And I think it’s also interesting because, you know, as Virginia Woolf said, “As a woman I have no country,” and because women have historically, you know, been viewed as outside of nation building, outside of culture building as a sort of property, or in literature as the manifestation of the home, then I think it’s extra interesting to get to go to those places, and hear those who want to say this, did this hear those perspectives that are kind of enclosed, if you will, in those places and that was a really nice take and part of her quest that I was most interested in.

Rebecca West talks about how women are the symbols of life, in the sense of birth-giving of the sons that will go and fight, and death, if you think of the fate spinning the lives of men. And so they’re very much associated with, you know, the visceral, the earth, the land, the property, whereas men are associated with, you know, all the things that are higher in culture and heaven and culture building, so that is a theme that runs throughout the book and trying to kind of find out more about those women and their stories is part of her ultimate goal.


PETER KORCHNAK: Recall that West started her writing career at a feminist publication. According to Marina Mackay, “West suggests that it is time for women to trespass on the historically male preserves of public affairs. (…) [I]n Black Lamb and Grey Falcon she speculates…about the occluded biographies of women caught up in major historical events. She has always wanted to hear more, she says, about the dimly known women in the backgrounds of history’s great men, “to know what happens after the great moments in history to the women associated by natural ties to the actors.””

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Otrov” by Black Bear Combo]

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as a History Book


PETER KORCHNAK: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is also a history book. In some of these passages West goes so far and so deep I sometimes glazed over them; this is where I wished the book were shorter. But then soon I found myself in another place and got to enjoy how West blends travel with history writing quite masterfully. Consider this passage from the island of Rab:

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“These people of Dalmatia gave the bread out of their mouths to save us of Western Europe from Islam; and it is ironical that so successfully did they protect us that those among us who would be broad-minded, who will in pursuit of that end stretch their minds till they fall apart in idiocy, would blithely tell us that perhaps the Dalmatians need not have gone to that trouble, that an Islamized West could not have been worse than what we are today. Their folly is certified for what it is by the mere sound of the word ‘Balkan’ with its suggestion of a disorder that defies human virtue and intelligence to accomplish its complete correction. (…) The West has done much that is ill, it is vulgar and superficial and economically sadist; but it has not known that death in life which was suffered by the Christian provinces under the Ottoman Empire. From this the people of Rab had saved me: I should say, are saving me. The woman who sat on the stone wall was in want because the gold which should have been handed down to her had bought my safety from the Turks. Impotent and embarrassed, I stood on the high mountain and looked down on the terraced island where my saviours, small and black as ants, ran here and there, attempting to repair their destiny.”


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: This extraordinary description that she writes about following Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. She puts you right over his shoulder as he walks through Sarajevo on his way to assassinate the monarch. It’s compelling, it’s gripping. And the thing is, you know what’s going to happen right? Everybody knows what’s going to happen and the calamity that comes from this one act. But there’s something about effectively watching him do it as if somebody was following with a camcorder that it makes it absolutely compelling on its own, even though there’s very little new information involved.


HELEN ATKINSON: I do want to say this other thing about it, there was a fantastic books on tape version recorded I think, in the early 90s. But unfortunately try as I might Audible doesn’t want to digitize it, doesn’t think it’s worth it. And it’s an absolute tragedy because the actress who read the book out loud—and god what a task that must have been—she is the reincarnation of Rebecca. I mean, she has her completely perfectly. And she pronounces all the Yugoslav names beautifully. It would be a real tragedy if it was lost to time. So if any of your listeners want to write to Audible and press for them to get a version of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I would be very appreciative.


PETER KORCHNAK: How many times have you read the book?


HELEN ATKINSON: Once all the way through. And my father read it out loud to my mother shortly after they got married and it took him a year and a half. I love that. And I dip into it often, actually.


PETER KORCHNAK: And before we started, you mentioned that you dipped into it again, as you were thinking about this, and you found a passage that you wanted to share and read for us. So what is the passage, why that passage, and then feel free to just get into that passage.


HELEN ATKINSON: So this is a passage in the section about Sarajevo. She goes to the place where Franz Ferdinand and his wife were on their official visit between him having a bomb thrown at him in the early part of his official visit to Sarajevo and now he’s sort of regrouping in this kind of town hall. And then he leaves there and is gunned down to death by Princip.

I think it’s actually my favorite passage of hers of all time, because it really demonstrates the incredible ability that she had, the agility of mind. And the way that she used her agile mind to really bring something to life, by bringing something surprising into an account of something that feels almost unrelated, and you’ll see what I mean, as I read it. So she’s saying that Franz Ferdinand is throwing his weight around and being super pompous, and nobody likes him, and he’s in this sort of formal room in a building in Sarajevo.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“It is unjust to say that Franz Ferdinand had no contact with nature. The room behind him was full of people who were watching him with the impersonal awe evoked by anybody who is about to die; but it may be imagined also as crammed, how closely can be judged only by those who have decided how many angels can dance on the point of a needle, by the ghosts of the innumerable birds and beasts who had fallen to his gun. He was a superb shot, and that is certainly a fine thing for a man to be, proof that he is a good animal, quick in eye and hand and hardy under weather. But of his gift Franz Ferdinand made a murderous use. He liked to kill and kill and kill, unlike men who shoot to get food or who have kept in touch with the primitive life in which the original purpose of shooting is remembered. Prodigious figures are given of the game that fell to the double-barrelled Mannlicher rifles which were specially made for him. At a boar hunt given by Kaiser Wilhelm sixty boars were let out, and Franz Ferdinand had the first stand: fifty-nine fell dead, the sixtieth limped by on three legs. At a Czech castle in one day’s sport he bagged two thousand one hundred and fifty pieces of small game. Not long before his death he expressed satisfaction because he had killed his three thousandth stag.


It may be conceived therefore that, even as the game which St Julian Hospitaller had killed as a cruel hunter appeared before him on the night when
he was going to accomplish his destiny and become the murderer of his father and mother, so the half million beasts which had fallen to Franz Ferdinand’s gun according to his own calculations were present that day in the reception hall at Sarajevo. One can conceive the space of this room stuffed all the way up to the crimson and gold vaults and stalactites with the furred and feathered ghosts, set close, because there were so many of them: stags with the air between their antlers stuffed with woodcock, quail, pheasant, partridge, capercailzie, and the like; boars standing bristling flank to flank, the breadth under their broad bellies packed with layer upon layer of hares and rabbits. Their animal eyes, clear and dark as water, would brightly watch the approach of their slayer to an end that exactly resembled their own. For Franz Ferdinand’s greatness as a hunter had depended not only on his pre-eminence as a shot, but on his power of organizing battues. He was specially proud of an improvement he had made in the hunting of hare: his beaters, placed in a pear-shaped formation, drove all the hares towards him so that he was able without effort to exceed the bag of all other guns. Not a beast that fell to him in these battues could have escaped by its own strength or cunning, even if it had been a genius among its kind. The earth and sky were narrowed for it by the beaters to just one spot, the spot where it must die; and so it was with this man. If by some miracle he had been able to turn round and address the people in the room behind him not with his usual aggressiveness and angularity but in terms which would have made him acceptable to them as a suffering fellow-creature, still they could not have saved him. If by some miracle his slow-working and clumsy mind could have become swift and subtle, it could not have shown him a safe road out of Sarajevo. Long ago he himself, and the blood which was in his veins, had placed at their posts the beaters who should drive him down through a narrowing world to the spot where Princip’s bullet would find him.”

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Otrov” by Black Bear Combo]

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as an Epic Novel


PETER KORCHNAK: Angela Carlton added another angle to the book for me. She called it an epic novel.


ANGELA CARLTON: It’s monumental in just the sense it’s an enormous undertaking, as you say, but historically the epic and the epic hero are ostensibly male. And beyond that even novelistic conventions, the literary canon, you know, were created, maintained and provided for men. Rebecca West is very aware of that. She does use a lot of the traditions and she operates within the traditions of and the conventions of those forms, just as much as she expands upon them and kind of manipulates them. I won’t say she so much [as] subverts them, but she definitely has different goals in mind. So she uses a variety of genres, like you mentioned, it’s journalistic, it’s fictional, it’s mythic, it’s allegorical.

I say it’s an epic because, on the one hand, she sets out on a quest to go and understand the Balkans and the circumstances there that led to World War One, and to, specifically in her words to help prevent a future war. Which is interesting, because it’s almost exactly the opposite of why so many epic journeys begin, and they usually are to go fight in a war.

She uses a lot of the tropes and conventions, such as she delights in the mundane, she talks about the pleasantness of the moment, the beauty of nature, moments of being, she uses a lot of allegorical symbols and all of that, I think was why I would consider it as an epic, specifically a female epic in that she ultimately doesn’t identify with the warmonger or the colonizer but instead with the displaced people in war, the lost people and and and I think that helps place it more in a as a female epic.

One of the most interesting questions in the book is, she ask[ed], you know, her husband, if she thinks that national identity and the way we glorify our past moments and memories of our national collective memories is still important today. And he says, you know, maybe it’s not so important. And I think, especially as a woman, you know, maybe the home that Ulysses would return to today is a very different type of home than in the past, and globalism and modernism is changing that.

So women are traveling, she does it in a more interesting, introspective way, she looks inward, she takes a psychological journey, and I think that is quite interesting in order to kind of undo those national constructs and to try to think outside of those constructs.

She blurs the lines between reality and even in her book, she says it’s like a dream, she has trouble understanding what’s objective reality and what’s the dream state. You know, you have to also consider that Rebecca West was a modernist writer. I mean, she loved stream consciousness, she loved experimental writing, so that’s here as well. It’s not just a pure hard and dry journalistic account. It’s fluid, and how much of it is objectively true and how much of it is like her blurring lines is questionable.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Otrov” by Black Bear Combo]

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as a Philosophical Treatise


PETER KORCHNAK: And finally—bet you didn’t think I’d ever say that—Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an extended philosophical treatise. Yes, on the nature of empire and small nations, on the role of women in politics, but also on violence and death and violent death.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

Start with the title. “Violence was all I knew of the Balkans, all I knew of the South Slavs,” West writes. But she recognizes the limitations of her understanding. “I had come to Yugoslavia because I knew that the past had made the present and I wanted to see how the process works.”

The black lamb is the animal whose bloody sacrifice on a rock as part of a fertility rite West witnessed in Macedonia. Where an inferior writer would make conclusions about the barbarity of the ritual, West takes it as an opportunity to contemplate and indeed demolish the notions of redemptive suffering, sacrifice, and atonement, calling them a “theological ruse.” “I knew this rock well. I had lived under the shadow of it all my life. All our Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretence that pain is the proper price of any good thing.”

The grey falcon is the bird who, as God’s emissary, offers Tsar Lazar before the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 the choice between an earthly kingdom, if he wins over the Ottoman Turks, and a heavenly one, if he loses. Lazar chooses the latter, which of course results in Serbs falling under the Turks’ yoke but also births the foundational myth of heavenly Serbia. This again is for West a chance to offer scathing criticism: of self-destruction, of “infatuation with sacrifice,” of virtue that can only be attained by death.

“I do not believe that any man can procure his own salvation by refusing to save millions of people from miserable slavery.”

And not just that. West extends the argument to her contemporary world on the precipice of another war, drawing parallels between Lazar’s choice and Great Britain’s appeasement of Hitler.

“The difference between Kosovo in 1389 and England in 1939 lay in time and place and not in the events experienced,” she wrote.

And she extends the metaphor to humanity as a whole. “The whole world is a vast Kossovo. (…) Destiny is another name for humanity’s half-hearted yet persistent search for death. Again and again peoples have had the chance to live and show what would happen if human life were irrigated by continual happiness; and they have preferred to blow up the canals and perish of drought. They listen to the evil counsel of the grey falcon. They let their throats be cut as if they were black lambs. The mystery of Kossovo was behind this hill. It is behind all our lives.”

West was an anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, anti-Nazi, as well as an anti-communist (she declared communism to be “a dud” and Marxism to be “a rainbow”). I estimate that the latter is why she not only never returned to Yugoslavia but also perhaps why her book was completely ignored there until the very end.

“Every human being,” West writes, “is of sublime value, because his experience, which must be in some measure unique, gives him a unique view of reality, and 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. Therefore every human being must be encouraged to cultivate his consciousness to the fullest degree. It follows that every nation, being an association of human beings who have been drawn together by common experience, has also its own unique view of reality, which must contribute to our deliverance, and should therefore be allowed a like encouragement to its consciousness.”

However you see or read the book, it should be obvious by now that the writing is outstanding.


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: For me, as a writer, myself, it’s language, language, language. What she does with English is really astonishing. The people who have read this book, they come away transformed, you know, like it is when you first read Shakespeare or the King James Bible, these foundational works of the English language. I feel like she’s doing something really remarkable in this book with just the language alone is worth reading it.


PETER KORCHNAK: Using West’s own words, this is the effect the book has on the reader:

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“A torch is put to those fires of the imagination which need for fuel dreams of pain, annihilation, and pleasure.”

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›


[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Mostarski dučani” by Gogofski]

The Three Lives of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Cocek” by Underscore Orkestra]


PETER KORCHNAK: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has lived three lives.

The book’s reviews in 1941-42 were mostly positive.

Writing in the New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman concluded, “The book is as astonishing as it is brilliant. There is a little too much of everything in this book. But on the whole the book is not overwritten; it is merely too long, which is not quite the same thing. That it is Miss West’s magnum opus goes without saying, but I am almost as sure that, of its sort, it is also one of the great books of our time.”

The New York Times’ Katherine Woods was similarly complimentary. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was “a most brilliantly objective travel book,” indeed “an apotheosis of travel book form,” “carried out with tireless percipience, nourished from almost bewildering erudition, chronicled with a thoughtfulness itself fervent and poetic.” “In the alchemy of Rebecca West’s literary art,” Woods continued, “words are transmuted, to become elements of vital substance, enlightenment, and the stimulus of provocative and echoing thought.”

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon found friendly quills in academic literature as well. Writing in The Journal of Modern History, Bernadotte Schmitt called it “a most remarkable and valuable book” containing “good historical writing.” And she accurately predicted that the “volume has become a “document” which future historians will value highly, for it provides a clear picture of Yugoslavia a couple of years before its fate was thrown into the balance by the outbreak of war.”

In a balanced analysis published in The Slavonic and East European Review, John C. Adams wrote that “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is actually the revelation of a brilliant woman’s search for a political and social philosophy. The vitality of the writing is a challenge to the standardized mediocrity of much historiography. The breadth and scope of the author’s conclusions and judgments should be a challenge even to the specialist in Balkan history to reexamine his material, reconsider his verdicts, and perhaps revise viewpoints long maintained as immutable. (…)

“The defects of the book…are primarily the consequence of the author’s attempt to grasp, synthesize, and interpret a staggering mass of historical data in a short time. They also result from an overly subjective and creative approach to history. Miss West’s habit of treating Balkan history as symbolic and allegoric often loads events with more significance than they can properly carry. In many instances her analyses of character seem to be derived more from her imagination than from source material. Misstatements of various kinds are frequent, including factual errors.”

Stoyan Pribichevitch penned perhaps the most negative review in the Nation, concluding it was way too long and dense. “Had Miss West thrown out of her manuscript much of the history and all of the politics, her book would have come out half as long. It would have been not only one of the most colorful pictures of Yugoslavia, but one of the most beautiful books written in recent years.”

After Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and after World War II, it seemed as though the Balkans and Yugoslavia lost the allure that drew West and others to the region. For some 45 years, no travel writing of any significance emerged about Yugoslavia and the Balkans. West herself directed her attention elsewhere and to other genres. Nothing like peace to inspire loss of interest in a place, I suppose.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon resurfaced in the mid-1980s when Yugoslavia became enmeshed in a political and economic crisis that turned nationalist quickly.

Writing in the American Scholar in 1984, Renee Winegarten said, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has lost none of its power or its importance.”

Then, with the advent of the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon made a full comeback.

Larry Wolff has written about how the West had constructed the idea of the backward East to glorify itself. In his New York Times review, just as Yugoslavia was about to officially dissolve in 1991, he called the book “the supreme literary monument of one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon astonishes us by the weight and depth of what Rebecca West knew about Yugoslavia, but above all it overwhelms us with the passionate urgency of her need to know, our need to know.” We need to know, Wolff says, because “the single issue of Communism has completely colored all our conceptions of Eastern Europe, especially in defining its distinction from Western Europe. Our challenge will be to discover Eastern Europe anew, and recognize it without the ideological marks that have served for simple identification; our challenge will be to accept it as part of Europe, and not the lesser part.”


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: It pops back up with Robert Kaplan.


PETER KORCHNAK: As you heard in the previous episode in my interview with Robert Kaplan, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was a great source of inspiration and counsel that ended up supporting one of the most insidious views on the Balkans in existence.


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: Late ambassador, Robert Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Accords basically lays the entire conflict at the feet of Rebecca West, he calls it the bad history or the Rebecca West Effect. And he claims, without a whole lot of argument, that her book fed the narrative of, of ancient ethnic hatreds of these sort of enduring irremediable conflicts among peoples in the Balkans. I mean, it’s shocking, because when you read that it takes up maybe less than a page. And I think, you know, Robert Kaplan is unfairly drawn in there as well. I mean, my argument is, is writers don’t start wars, right, it’s the guys with guns who start wars.


PETER KORCHNAK: Kaplan wrote a review of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in The National Interest in 1992, a year before his Balkan Ghosts came out. He highlighted the “baroque style of her book, whereby every church and mountain vista and every person met along the way, becomes an excuse for an exposition into some aspect of history or local myth.” West’s lesson, Kaplan opines, is to “study the language, culture, and history of a place, and always keep your strategy attuned to those realities. This book is a plea for knowledge over mere opinion.”


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: What she is doing is so complex I find it very hard to pin really any kind of serious bias or prejudice or agenda in her book. Because it’s clear to me when you read certain aspects of it that she’s taking the Nazis to task through certain individual characters in the book and her experiences. And really, I mean, if she whips anyone, she whips them for their, you know, small mindedness and xenophobia and racism and antisemitism.


PETER KORCHNAK: Finally, writing in a 2000 issue of First Things, Alan Jacobs called it “one of the largest, most ambitious, and greatest books of the twentieth century.”


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: And then as we closed it on 2000 and thereabouts, like basically between 1995 and 2005, this book and Rebecca West started showing up on, you know, best of lists, you know, best travelogue, best history, the best, you know, female writer, you know, as people were sort of re-evaluating the 20th century. All that was completely deserved. But then we approached the 75th anniversary, and nobody noticed, aside from Dragana.


PETER KORCHNAK: The Croatia, Yugoslavia-born photographer living in Dublin, Dragana Jurišić, in 2011 used Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as a guidebook for her own journey through the disappeared country. Jurišić, whom you heard in Episode 21, “Pictures of YU,” published her photographs in the 2015, now sold-out book YU: The Lost Country.


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: This book was saved by COVID. Just as we really began to understand that this thing was going to last a long time, which I’m going to say is around March or April, when I think the planet is like, “Well, alright, we’re hunkered down for the duration.” She started appearing on all these, “now you have the time to read these great books.” Right? They’re saying, Yeah, you’ve got the time to read a really big challenging book but also you can’t travel, here’s the way you can travel, read this book, it’ll take you there. I really loved seeing that.

And more than halfway through 2021 a lot of people have read the book and now they’re writing about it, you know, they’re including it in their essays and things like that. So it’s such a strange history for such a unique book.


PETER KORCHNAK: Reviews for the 80th anniversary have started appearing. Writing in The New European, Charlie Connelly said Black Lamb and Grey Falcon “is still as insightful as when it was published eight decades ago.” Both the travelogue and the history book enthralled Connelly. “It sprawls, it enrages, it thrills, it absorbs, it transports. West…manages to make her passages of history reflective and gripping, while her encounters on the road are always vividly realised and perfectly pitched, rarely feeling either self-indulgent or exploitative. As West saw a version of herself reflected back to her, the mountain of a book she left behind is now the very high and grand place where even today, 80 years on, we come a little closer to understanding the Balkans, Europe and beyond.”

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Otrov” by Black Bear Combo]

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›


PETER KORCHNAK: Based on all the rave reviews of the book over the years, you would think Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a widely read tome, or should be. Not quite. The book is nearly 1,200 pages long, a fact that escapes no one, least of all its very author who thought of the book as one “which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length.”


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: You know, it’s an Everest, right, it’s this peak to climb, it’s a challenge.


HELEN ATKINSON: It is without question, her best work and an extremely significant piece of work, and it’s still very highly regarded in certain quarters. But it’s a bit of a hard sell when I tell people about my famous great auntie and they go, “Oh, she sounds really interesting. What did she write? What’s her most famous book? And I go, “It’s a 1,500 page book about Yugoslavia in the 1930s.” It’s just like, no, I don’t think that’s really gonna work.

But I know that, for example, allegedly, Bill Clinton kept a copy of it on his nightstand when he was dealing with the whole nightmare going on in ‘94, you know, ‘92 to ‘94. And she is generally quoted every day. I mean, I have a Google Alert, and I call her the newspaper editor’s secret weapon.

Obviously, it is worthy of enormous reverence. And her focus on that particular part of the world turned out to be particularly prescient in the mid-90s.

In a way that book really is a testament to the size of her mind. And I think ideally, she would have liked all of her projects to be like that, but I’m putting words in her mouth perhaps.


PETER KORCHNAK: I’d venture to say Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is much more appreciated in the English-speaking West, than in the region the book covers. It’s one thing to read “what they say about us” and another to read “what they say about us in an 80-year-old 1,200-page book.” Local Balkanologists have read it, or at least parts of it; people with humanities education are at least aware of it; but among the general population the book is hardly household reading.

There are two translations of the book into ex-YU languages, both Serbian. The first was an abridged version by Nikola Koljević, which was serialized in the paper Književne novine in 1988-89 and then came out in at least four editions at the BIGZ publishing house between 1989 and 2000 (by the way, before it was first published as a two-volume book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was serialized in The Atlantic magazine). Koljević picked those passages from the book aimed at the British audience that would best speak to the Yugoslav audience: he omitted some commonly known historical passages and unrelated digressions and focused on the best literary parts.

In 2004, Ana Selić delivered a second, unabridged translation, which came out in at least three different editions from three different publishing houses. It was this translation that spurred the first responses to the book from local scholars and critics. Their main focus tended to be West’s portrayal of Yugoslavia as a compromise solution to a specific contemporary geopolitical challenge.

I read about half of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon a few years ago on my bus commute in Portland, Oregon. Public transit being quite popular there, the bus was often quite crowded and I had to stand. Now imagine reading a book of outstanding literature in a paperback that’s a kilo or over two pounds and 2.5 inches or six centimeters thick in one hand while gripping a stanchion or an overhead grab bar with the other on a 20-minute ride. Suboptimal to say the least. So I read the book again, all the way through this time, earlier this year with my morning coffee and at bedtime.

I can only aspire to the breadth and depth of West’s political and historical writing. As I said earlier, her descriptions of place are nothing but inspiring; they crackle, they touch, they shine.

I also enjoyed the parts that were prescient, often in almost terrifying ways. The best example: West’s observation about Emperor Franz Joseph that would fifty years later just as easily apply to Marshal Tito:

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“He was certain of universal acclamation not only during his life but after his death, for it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!’”

The absolute pinnacle were passages that encapsulate how I feel about the place, why I’m so fascinated with it, indeed why it’s a spiritual home to me, as Yugoslavia was to West who felt “as if it were my mother country”. Reading these put me on the verge of tears, the good kind, providing words for things—thoughts and feelings—I am still learning (and yearning) to express:

“In Yugoslavia there was an intensity of feeling that was not only of immense and exhilarating force, but had an honourable origin, proceeding from realist passion, from whole belief.”

“Yugoslavia…writes obscure things plain [and] furnishes symbols for what the intellect has not yet formulated.”


“Yugoslavia is always telling me about one death or another…Yet this country is full of life. I feel that we Westerners should come here to learn to live. But perhaps we are ignorant about life in the West because we avoid thinking about death. One could not study geography if one concentrated on the land and turned one’s attention away from the sea.”

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›


[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Devil on My Shoulder” by Underscore Orkestra]

The Continued Impact of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon


PETER KORCHNAK: The way one might judge an outstanding piece of writing, of literature, is how it remains relevant over time. As a travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, well, it still works.


JAMES THOMAS SNYDER: As I traveled and I went to these, you know, individual specific places, I would open up the book to where she writes about that part. And it was illuminating, she just made everything around me so much more clear, so much more vivid. It was like having a traveling companion, somebody who could just sort of perfectly describe what you’re seeing.

That was a turning point for me, because I have struggled with the book reading it cover to cover. I didn’t have the background, the knowledge, the language, the history, the literature. I mean, West was a true kind of Renaissance woman, She was a polymath. I didn’t have any of that. However, by taking the book there and reading her descriptions of the places I was seeing, it gave me a context that I could understand the book with.

And unlike anything else I’d ever read, she was describing things I was seeing in real time. So give you a couple of examples. I visited Struga which you know, nobody goes to Struga now but apparently back in the day it was he was a resort town. She describes the the water of the Drin river pouring out of the lake as “much brighter than water as crystal is than glass.” It’s a beautiful description, but it was a perfect snapshot of what I was actually seeing as I stood on the bridge over the Drin.

And so I can’t tell you how many times things like this happened to me while I was there, and maybe it’s something willful, or, you know, maybe I have, you know, some romantic bias in my, you know, in my soul, but it doesn’t matter because it happened, and I can’t explain it in any other way. And I think something like that is, something like that meaning the book, the books ability to speak 80 years later, should be celebrated. That’s what we identify as great literature.


PETER KORCHNAK: In an introduction to the book’s 2006 edition, Geoff Dyer wrote, “As a book about Yugoslavia…it is of “extraordinary usefulness” – a kind of metaphysical Lonely Planet that never requires updating.”

As the 80th year since the publication of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon dawned, Snyder launched a new series of articles on his blog, at jamesthomassnyder.com. Chapter by chapter he travels with West and writes his own analysis as extended annotations or a sort of a guide.


JAMES SNYDER: It’s a guidebook to a guidebook. It’s a difficult, challenging book but as I move through it, I find all these wonderful layers that I’m able to explore. I can provide some context, even correct her, where she is very occasionally, you know, wrong or sort of misguided. But I’m helping sort of illuminate the book that was so illuminating for me.

And if you have trouble working your way through it, like I did, you know, 25 years ago, when I first started reading it, and I hope I can help other people explore this book.

She tells you a lot about what she sees and the history and the rest but there’s still quite a bit more to know, especially for, you know, youngish American, you know, late 20th century American who doesn’t read Europe at ease. I’m trying to illuminate some of the things that she’s talking about that are still there, that are real or have, you know, had historical consequences, what have you that she’s sort of mentioned in passing, because she assumed probably everybody in the 30s had read Latin and that they had a grounding in the classics and classical history. We don’t. So sort of bringing that all back up and explaining its relevance to a modern reader is another reason to read it.


PETER KORCHNAK: The book became a sort of a guide for Angela Carlton as well.


ANGELA CARLTON: I’ve been thinking a lot about this aspect of my PhD which was largely focused on women traveling. And I wanted to go for myself, much like Rebecca West to these places that I had written a lot about, and kind of see, you know, my own perspective. And it’s weird to write about a place, even academically, without having been there. So I went there, I spent a couple months traveling around North Macedonia and Serbia, and it was really interesting, especially to see the difference in the opinions of the people there about Yugoslavia in particular.

So I found for instance, much like Constantine, when I went to Serbia, there’s a lot of Yugoslavian nostalgia. Like even around Belgrade, there are murals of Yugoslavian important cultural figures, sports figures, and there are painted images of Tito on restaurants. And actually, people were quite candid with me about how they missed Yugoslavia and Serbia had been better when they had Yugoslavia and I’m sure not everyone feels that way.

But I’ll tell you that it was quite a different experience in North Macedonia. And and there’s still a lot of maybe hostility towards the Serbs for the war and things like this.

And so there’s still not a lot of unified opinions. And I found that really interesting. Of course, that’s again, like Rebecca West, maybe I’m just American woman who’s traveling there. What do I know about their history?


PETER KORCHNAK: Carlton touches upon an important aspect of travel writing, most of which is written by English, French, or German-speaking authors: the Western gaze. This is the representation or image of a place through the lens of the Western traveler, often for political (read colonial) purposes. Eastern Europe, and the Balkans in particular, have been constructed as Europe’s Other.

“Travel writing functions as hegemonic texts that perpetuate the relationship of subordination and consolidate or even produce stereotypical images of the subject they write about,” writes another scholar from the region, Ivona Grgurinović of the University of Zagreb in the footsteps of Maria Todorova. “To travel and to write about it means to step into space burdened with history and meaning, and the author of such a text also comes from a space of their own, equally carrying a symbolical burden. If this author also comes from an imperial tradition whose superiority is symbolically and literally established through centuries of history, the text they produce inevitably establishes power over the Other that is created by their discourse.”

On the one hand, Larry Wolff correctly saw that Rebecca West sought “to invert a tradition of condescension and to redefine the mapping of civilization in Europe. She might relish intimations of the Orient, but she refused to cast Yugoslavia as a missing link between civilization and barbarism. Indeed, the lesson Rebecca West learned from Yugoslavia, and preached to Britain and America…was that Eastern Europe, in defiance of the formulas, emphatically belonged to Europe, that Europe was incomplete without it, that Western Europe alone was poor and sick without the complement of Eastern Europe’s health and wealth.”

At the same time, West recognized where she came from.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hora Din Clejani Cigansko” by Underscore Orkestra]

“I was born a citizen of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.”


ANGELA CARLTON: She was very aware of the privilege and the perspective that she had as a British woman going to write about the history and the mythology of the Balkans, you know, and she was writing it for British, largely British audience. So I think that she recognizes her privilege as a woman from a global power. And that by writing her impressions from that perspective, she risked things like romanticizing or further romanticizing the Other, or those places in the in the way that they had been done already in England and in the West.

She wouldn’t be she most likely wouldn’t be in this position if she had been someone from the Balkans. Her power is derivative of the western state that she’s traveling from. So even if she’s quite critical, in some ways of it, she’s still subsidiary of that power and she’s carrying that with her from the west. Just as much as she mentioned the women in the Balkans and other places being symbols of the state, she is also a symbol of the state that she is writing for.

In the questions that she raises, that there’s increasingly relevant today, because of globalism, “Oh, are we really that distant from these people, from other people?” Or, you know, what, and more importantly, even more difficult questions, I think, like, “What kind of rights to privacy and security do we have?” And, you know, “Why do we get to bury our heads in the sand at home when we’re aware of sufferings going on in other parts of the world?”, you know. And “How complicit are we in those sufferings, especially if we do nothing and because a lot of our privilege might be from the spoils of those places.” And I think she is starting to touch on those problems even then.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Otrov” by Black Bear Combo]

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›

The Future of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon


PETER KORCHNAK: What does the future hold for Black Lamb and Grey Falcon?


HELEN ATKINSON: I inherited Rebecca West’s literary estate in 2017. And before that I’d been helping my father manage it for the last 10 or 15 years.


PETER KORCHNAK: Atkinson also sits on the board of the International Rebecca West Society, an effort driven by academics that organizes an annual conference and a writing contest.


HELEN ATKINSON: It’s been an interesting challenge because Rebecca had sort of fallen somewhat out of the public view. So my job has been to try and bring her back in popularity and general public consciousness. And so I have pursued many different lines of effort, including getting a lot of her books published as ebooks.

One of the great problems with promoting Rebecca as a writer now is that she’s really hard to pin down. Because is she a journalist, is she a novelist, and is she a this and is she a that, and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon absolutely exemplifies the fact that basically, you’re putting yourself in the hands of this enormous intellect and you’re on for the ride and it’s going to take you to all sorts of different places, some of which are fanciful and imaginative and some of which read like a history book. But I don’t think it’s possible to pick these elements apart.

The funny thing is there’s been a huge amount of activity in the estate, particularly with foreign translations, in the last 10 years. But what seems to be right on the rise much more right now is the trilogy of novels that she wrote in the 50s and 60s and also a Train of Powder with the coverage of the Nuremberg trials. I think that’s also been very popular, and there’s been a huge resurgence of interest in her work in both Italy and Spain in particular.

And we’re also working with a Hollywood producer to try and figure out something, anything about Rebecca or based on her works. That’s a long and painful story but one day.


PETER KORCHNAK: Atkinson hinted at a biopic and [DRUMROLL EFFECT] an adaptation of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon


HELEN ATKINSON: —which is a daunting task, to say the least, so we’ll see how that goes.

I mean, I read somewhere that the guy who wrote the Game of Thrones books, George RR Martin, once said that when he was writing those books, he was delighted in his freedom as a writer, that he was crafting something that could never be filmed. And of course, he was wrong.

So not that Rebecca wrote Black Lamb and Grey Falcon with the same thought in mind. But I think if you get the right talent and effort and money, you can film anything good or bad. I certainly think that there are large parts of it that are very cinematic, in particular, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But I mean, the way that she had this incredible agility of mind and would constantly be cutting across histories and narratives and bringing all sorts of elements, you know, she’d be talking about the Romans one minute and embroidery the next and it will make sense.

I think it would be very interesting to see that made into a visual thing as well.


PETER KORCHNAK: Have you traveled to the countries of former Yugoslavia?


HELEN ATKINSON: Noooo, I did not. I have not, I mean, I have never been and, you know, I’m, it’s so annoying, because I know I you know, in the right kind of bar, it’d be good for a few free drinks. I should imagine.

I am the great niece of Rebecca West says I either get punched in the face of a drink. But I do intend to go. And I better get on with it, frankly.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Otrov” by Black Bear Combo]


PETER KORCHNAK: As long as this episode turned out to be, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. There are a whole lot of other themes and storylines in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Disagreements among Yugoslavia’s constituent nations about the nature of their new country. The relations between men and women. Art as a cure to civilizational ills. Ottoman Empire and Islam. Serbian nationalism. Universal truths. Aging. Embroidery.

I just finished the book a few weeks ago and I can’t wait to read it again in a few years, knowing more, having traveled more. Until then—

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]


PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:

KEVIN McALEESE: It’s a rather unusual building, in that it was designed and built for the Yugoslavian Expo 67 pavilion in Montreal, Canada back in 1967.

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia’s Expo 67 pavilion found a new lease on life as a museum in Newfoundland. So did Czechoslovakia’s. On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: how two disappeared countries live on in a remote corner of the world.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]


PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find the transcript of this episode, sources, and more at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

And if you enjoyed the trip, hop on the supporter train and make a contribution today at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Petar Alargić, Black Bear Combo, Gogofski, Paniks, and Underscore Orkestra licensed under Creative Commons.

I am Peter Korchňak.



3 thoughts on “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon at 80 (Podcast Episode 43)”

  1. This is basically the point, where I dont see any reason anymore why you shouldn´t be allowed to quote Podcasts as a scientific source in any kind of academic paper. Just great work and so much effort.
    Thank you Peter so much!

    I would love to hear more of this literature review type of thing! Out of sheer current unimaginativeness.. would also be great to hear a take from your perspective on the almighty of Ivo Andric.

    All the best and please keep it up!

  2. I echo the previous comments. The entire podcast is a tremendous resource and this is possibly the best episode. So much information and kickoff points for further research, especially for any wandering scribes with intentions on infiltrating that part of the world.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart