Illustration by Erik Sandberg
I recently read an interview with the photographer Michael Ackerman in which he said, with characteristic single-mindedness, “As I see it, places do not exist. A place is just my idea of it.” I had assumed that the slur and blur of his pictures of Benares in his book End Time City was site-specific, but it turns out that many of Ackerman’s photographs of Paris or Poland reveal the same intensity of psychological torsion. Wherever he is, Ackerman is in Ackerman-land. Given the camera’s inherent and historical tendency to record, to document, this is, to say the least, a radical and exciting take on the world.
At the other end of the spectrum we have writers of guide books. Ideally, these writers have next to no artistic personality. They are entirely at the mercy of the place and become, as far as possible, anonymous conduits of reliable information about bus times, places to stay and museum opening hours.
Most travel writing, it goes without saying, exists somewhere between the poles represented by Ackerman and the travel guide. The best travel writers may be of only limited reliability when it comes to bus times, but they express timeless truths about the buses of that country — or at least about their relationship with those buses. Take D.H. Lawrence, for example, whose responsiveness to place was instantaneous and profound. Editors and publishers were keenly aware of this gift, and Lawrence was eager to turn it to financial advantage.
When Rebecca West visited Norman Douglas in Florence in 1921, he took her to see Lawrence. Douglas joked that although Lawrence had been in town only a few hours, he was probably already banging out an article “vehemently and exhaustively describing the temperament of the people. This seemed obviously a silly thing to do,” West recalled, but Douglas was right: Lawrence was doing just that. At the time, West thought that Lawrence did not know enough about Florence “to make his views of real value.” It was only after his death that she appreciated that Lawrence “was writing about the state of his own soul at that moment” and could only do so in symbolic terms. For this purpose, “The city of Florence was as good a symbol as any other.”
West wrote this in 1931. She had not yet made the first of the trips to Yugoslavia that would form the basis of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), but the importance of this realization on her own magnum opus can hardly be exaggerated. In the course of researching and writing it, West came to know a huge amount about Yugoslavia, its history, art, politics and religion, but as the book progressed, it became, along with everything else, an immense and immensely complicated picture not simply of her own soul but the soul of Europe on the brink of the Second World War. The result, which she feared few people would read “by reason of its length,” is one of the great masterpieces of 20th-century literature.
Naturally, a reader’s receptiveness to a writer’s relationship to a place is affected not only by the reader’s relationship with that writer but by the reader’s relationship with the place that is being written about. I came to Black Lamb after I had become fascinated by the Balkans after falling in love with a Serbian woman after attending a conference in Belgrade organized by the British Council. Although I had been drawn to West because of the place she was writing about, thereafter I loved her writing — in the same way that I love Ackerman’s photographs — irrespective of her subject. She became one of those writers I would follow anywhere, even to a place I had no prior interest in. Mexico, for example.
West’s own interest in the place was kindled in 1966 by a commission to write an article about Trotsky’s grandson, then living in Mexico City. From this chance beginning, West, then aged 74, perceived the potential for a book that was never completed. Various partial drafts have been compiled into readable form by Bernard Schweizer. The result is of considerable interest to devotees, but to claim that the book is a companion and sequel to Black Lamb raises hopes that are inevitably thwarted. One of West’s biographers, Carl Rollyson, suggests that the “Mayan ruins” of Survivors in Mexico are the result of a conscious attempt to measure herself against the earlier masterpiece — a theory that accounts both for the scope of its ambition and the impossibility of its completion.
There are, of course, good things in it. West immersed herself in the history of the country, parts of which are brought vibrantly to life. This is most evident in the chapters detailing Montezuma’s attempts to find out whether the invading Cortés was a mortal (in which case he could be killed) or the God prophesied by the Aztec religion (in which case he should be worshipped). Montezuma devised all manner of cunning tests, but the results were always ambiguous. When Cortés made a very mortal demand for gold, “This sounded slightly idiotic to the Aztecs since it was to them not supremely valuable, but then this fitted in with the magic view of divinity as liking to talk nonsense and listen to it.” West elaborates all this with the relish of a great historical fabulist, but, frustratingly, the epic battle of wits breaks off as it nears its tragic climax.
There are other enlightening discussions, of Aztec society (a civilization “so excessively sane that it was almost mad”), mining, and the art of Frida Kahlo, for example. There is even a tour of the Anthropological Museum. For the reader drawn to the book less as a fragmentary account of a place than as a guide to the twilight years of West-world, however, the disappointment is acute. All the more so given that one can pick up the unmistakable tone of infinite impatience, lofty compassion and magisterial intimacy — but only as a faint and erratic signal on an old wireless whose batteries are running low. Schweizer’s claim that the book “sums up West’s mature views on politics, philosophy, religion, psychology and culture” is both alluring and slightly misleading. Yes, the book ranges over these big themes, but I don’t read West (or any other writer for that matter) for her views. What keeps readers in a state of rapt expectation throughout the long haul of Black Lamb is the way that the glimpse of fleeting details triggers flights of sustained intellectual investigation. Any conclusions she draws are inseparable from the process (a key word for West, as Schweizer points out) by which they are teased out.
In 1941, West declined an invitation to do a book about the British Empire on the grounds that a certain Lady Rhondda had already devoted a thorough volume to the subject. All this book lacked, West said, were “the fancy bits on religion and metaphysics that I would throw in in my demented way.” All it lacked, in other words, were the things that make West a writer of genius. Her insistence on throwing in these “fancy bits” is as crucial to her achievement as Ackerman’s demented claim that places do not exist is to his. At this early stage of its composition — or, to make the same point the opposite way, at this late stage in West’s life — Survivors in Mexico is insufficiently demented. The fact that one is grateful to Schweizer for bringing it to light should not oblige one to exaggerate the value of the gift he has so diligently prepared.
SURVIVORS IN MEXICO | By REBECCA WEST | Yale University Press 264 pages | $27 hardcover