Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gorgeous writing by Rebecca West

A book to savor, to read slowly and leisurely, to focus on the language, and on the people and places the author is writing about.

I don't even know how long I've owned this book, or why I bought it in the first place. I know I've moved it a couple of times. And I don't know why I finally decided to start it.

But I am so glad I finally did. There is so much beauty in this book. And, a surprising amount can be found online. While searching around for references to a gorgeous section I read last week - and want to quote in full here but can't, it's just too long! - I found some excerpts from the archives of Atlantic Magazine. This passage is in part II, section X; you should really go read the whole thing. I could not help but emphasize my favorite parts.

We drove through a landscape I have often seen in Chinese pictures; wooded hills under snow looked like hedgehogs drenched in icing sugar. On a hill stood a little church, full to the doors, bright inside as a garden, glowing with scarlet and gold and blue and the unique rough warm white of homespun, shaking with song. On the women's heads were red handkerchiefs printed with yellow leaves and peacocks' feathers, and their jackets were solidly embroidered with flowers, and under their white skirts were thick red or white woolen stockings. Their men were just as splendid in sheepskin leather jackets with applique designs in dyed leathers, linen shirts with fronts embroidered in cross-stitch and fastened with buttons of Maria Theresa dollars or lumps of turquoise matrix, and homespun trousers gathered into elaborate boots.

The splendor of these dresses was more impressive because it was not summer. The brocade of a Rajah's costume or the silks of an Ascot crowd are within the confines of prudence, because the Rajah is going to have a golden umbrella held over him and the Ascot crowd are not far from shelter, but these costumes were made for the winter in a land of unmetaled roads, where snow lay till it melted and mud might be knee-deep, and they showed a gorgeous lavishness, for hours and days and even years had been spent on the stuffs and skins and embroideries which were thus put at the mercy of the bad weather. There was lavishness also in the singing that poured out of these magnificently clad bodies, which indeed transformed the very service. Western church music is almost commonly infantile, a petitioning for remedy against sickness or misfortune, combined with a masochist enjoyment in the malady; but this singing spoke of health and fullness.


From this divided congregation came a flood of song which asked for absolutely nothing, which did not ape childhood, which did not pretend that sour is sweet and pain wholesome, but which simply adored. If there be a God who is fount of all goodness, this is the tribute that should logically be paid to Him; if there be only Goodness, it is still a logical tribute. And again the worship, like their costume, was made astonishing by their circumstance. These people, who had neither wealth nor security, nor ever had had them, stood before the Creator and thought not what they might ask for but what they might give. To be among them was like seeing an orchard laden with apples or a field of ripe wheat endowed with a human will and using it in accordance with its own richness.

This was not simply due to these people's faith. There are people who hold precisely the same faith whose worship produces an effect of poverty. When Heine said that Amiens Cathedral could only have been built in the past, because the men of that day had convictions, whereas we moderns have only opinions and something more than opinions are needed for building a cathedral, he put into circulation a half-truth which has done a great deal of harm. It matters supremely what kind of men hold these convictions. This service was impressive because the congregation was composed of people with a unique sort of healthy intensity.

This book will be on my reading list for a long time. It's very long and it's not to be rushed. The chapters are fairly short yet complete episodes in West's travels with her husband, so it's not hard to read in small bits of time. A better knowledge of the history of Yugoslavia would be helpful to me, but I'm learning as I go along.

Here is some more from this book, posted last month (see how slow I am reading this). I'm going to be talking about it here a lot, I think.

Linked to Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon.


ComfyDenim said...

Thank you for you comment!! I'm glad you liked my blurb about school supplies. :-) I hope you have a most excellent school year.

We love box days!!!

G said...

I love the book excerpt! I wonder if my library has it...

Sandy said...

Just requested it from my library. Can't ignore the tug of this writing. Are you going to link this to Semicolon this week? You should.

Marbel said...

Thanks Sandy, yes, I did.