Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Sieve: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon II

I've written about Rebecca West's wonderful Black Lamb and Grey Falcon before, and as I get farther in it seems only to improve. While I'm barely a tenth into the 1200 page work, the last chapter of the section on Croatia ("Zagreb VII") will certainly rank highly among my favorites when all is said and done. There's much to chew on in its scant eight pages, but I'll begin with this passage, which touches beautifully on melodrama, farce, the self-seriousness demanded by the juxtaposition of peasant and bourgeoisie, and dog shit. Here Rebecca, her husband (English both), and their Serb guide Constantine are visiting the family of the Croat journalist Grigorievitch:
"'Ah! Ah! Ah! cried Constantine, pointing his forefinger. We all wheeled about and saw that the poodle was relieving itself on the carpet. ... Grigorievitch and his wife started forward with tragic faces...
The dog was put out into the passage: but the incident could not be considered as ended. There remained in the middle of the carpet the results of its protest. We endeavoured to take the matter lightly, but we found that the Grigorievitches were evidently hurt by our frivolity; it was as if we had chanced to be with them when a son of theirs has returned home drunk or wearing the badge of the Croat Separatist Party, and we had tried to tamper with the horror of the moment by laughter. The atmosphere was tense beyond bearing; so Constantine, who had assumed an air of gravity, walked to the piano in the manner of an official taking charge in an emergency, and played a majestic motet by Bach, which recognizes the fact of tragedy and examines it in the light of an intuitive certainty that the universe will ultimately be found to be reasonable. The Grigorievitches, who had sunk into two armchairs facing each other, sat with their arms and legs immensely extended before them, nodding their heads to the music and showing signs of deriving sober comfort from its message. There entered presently with a brush and dust-pan an elderly servant, in peasant costume, who was grinning from ear to ear at the joke the dog's nature had played on the gentry.
As she proceeded with her task Constantine passed into the calmer and less transcendental music of a Mozart sonata, suitable to the re-establishment of an earthly decorum; and when she had left the room he played a brief triumphal passage from Handel and then rose from the piano. Madame Grigorievitch bowed to him, as if to thank him for having handled a social catastrophe with the tact of a true gentleman, and he acknowledged the bow very much as Heine would have done. ... Meanwhile her husband took mine aside, ostensibly to show him a fine print representing the death of an early Croatian king, but really to murmur in a voice hoarse with resentment that he had owned both the poodle's father and grandmother, and that neither of them would ever have dreamed of behaving in such a way. 'Nothing, man or beast, is as it was. Our ideals, think what has happened to our ideals... what has happened to our patriots...'"
Yes, mesdames et messieurs, among the Slavs, even the fecal is the political.

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