Rebecca  West’s

the Poet”

by Michael D. Nicklanovich

March/April 1999, vol. XV, no. 4

A Serbian girl wearing a folk costume from a region near Belgrade, 1930's.  Courtesy of the Dorothy Lakich Collection.


     The fascists’ bombs were falling on her own country when one of the Serbs’ greatest admirers wrote: “Often, when I have thought of invasion, or a bomb has dropped nearby, I have prayed, ‘Let me behave like a Serb.’ ”
For three generations, American Serbs, Serbs around the world, and others who have loved the Serbian ideal have read, reread and now are again reading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia, the great English novelist-journalist’s 1941 masterpiece. This work is much more than the travelogue it appears and, much like the Serbian ideal of freedom, has refused to go away.
     Not only has her greatest work continued to be reprinted, but a number of biographies of Rebecca West also have been published recently, both because of her increasing recognition as one of the 20th century’s greatest English women writers and because of the current Yugoslav crisis which, in many ways and to many people, seems eerily familiar, a replay of the disintegration of Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II and its invasion in 1941.
     West’s authorized biographer, Victoria Glendinning, wrote that “it was the poetry and courage of the Serbian character which chiefly caught Rebecca West’s infatuated imagination.” Indeed, West’s guide, the man who took her on an intimate journey through Yugoslavia, is “Constantine the poet” who seems to be an incarnation of those ideals—her teacher and spiritual companion, her muse, and a delightful creature of her imagination leading her in a kolowhere the dance and the dancer and the poet and the poetry are inseparable.
     Many thought that the story of Constantine, a Serbian-born Jew who was baptized in the Serbian Orthodox church, and his German wife, “Gerda,” who hates the Slav and the Jew in her own husband, was a purely fictitious tale woven into West’s travelogue for propaganda purposes, but it turns out there was a “real Constantine,” who was a living Serbian hero and a poet. His parents were Jews from Poland.
     It was the journalist, Stoyan Pribichevich, who—in his critical review of West’s book in The Nationon June 8, 1941—revealed that “Constantine” was Stanislav Vinaver, the press bureau chief for the Yugoslav government under Prime Minister Milan Stojadinovic in 1936-1938. That was the exact time that Rebecca West made several visits to the country, and those visits became the basis of Black Lamb and Grey Falconwhich is written as one journey.
     Pribichevich was a critic of the Yugoslav government of the 1930’s, and he believed: “The basic mistake Miss West made was to accept as her sole cicerone (talkative guide) through Yugoslavia, Stanislav Vinaver, alias ‘Constantine,’ a man who earned his living as a censor in Stoyadinovich’s Press Bureau...” It is true that Vinaver’s life was caught up in the tumultuous 20th-century history of both Serbia and the first Yugoslavia. It is also true that he has been immortalized in Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. His story, as told in West’s book, continues to be a subject of literary studies.
     Forty-five years later, in a 1986 article in the South Atlantic Review, Clare Colquitt described him provocatively: “Of the Slavs whom West knows and loves, it is her friend Constantine, ‘a true poet’ who ‘knows all about things he knows nothing about,’ who most clearly embodies the Slavic Lebensfreude(joy of life) West celebrates, as well as the ‘compulsion to suicide’ she decries. A chief character in West’s travels, Constantine is both hero and victim, Churchill and Chamberlain.”
     In The New Yorkerof October 25, 1941, Clifton Fadiman reviewed West’s book and recognized the importance of Constantine’s story in the work: “A certain narrative thread is provided by the astonishing and presumably non-fictional figure of Constantine, a Serb poet who accompanies Miss West and her husband...on most of their travels. Constantine, a great talker, a Niagara of a man, starts out as a cocky Serb patriot, a self-confident genius, a polyhistor.
     “As the book progresses, he gradually wilts and softens under the hammer blows of his fiendish wife, Gerda, a pure Nazi type, though she is not aware of it herself. The disintegration of Constantine may be said to be the ‘plot’ of the book...”
     West gave Stanislav Vinaver the alias of “Constantine” likely for the early Eastern Roman Emperor who tolerated Christianity and built the great city of Constantinople. In her work, the name was symbolic of the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian world. There is no doubt that West’s portrait of Constantine (Stanislav) is the most colorful ever written, but one still questions how much the real Stanislav resembled or differed from Rebecca West’s “Constantine, the poet,” the character who occupies, in small or large part, nearly a thousand pages of her 1,150-page book.

The Real Constantine

     Stanislav Vinaver was born in Sabac, Serbia, on January 3, 1891. He was the son of Josif and Ruza (nee Ruzic) Vinaver. After emigrating to Sabac in the early 1880’s from the Russian part of Poland, his father had become a prominent Serbian physician. Rebecca West described his father as “a Jewish doctor of revolutionary sympathies, who fled from Russian Poland ...and became one of the leaders of the medical profession...”
     West wrote that Constantine had told her that “his mother was also Polish-Jewish” and a “famous musician,” a concert pianist from the homeland of Chopin. Apparently, she had passed on her love of music to her son who told West that he had studied music in Paris at the Sorbonne with the noted Polish pianist Wanda Landowska (1877-1959) before the First World War.
     After Stanislav finished high school in Belgrade, Yugoslav sources concur that he studied mathematics in Paris at the Sorbonne. While Dr. Drasko Redjep of Novi Sad wrote that the young Vinaver studied music in addition to mathematics in Paris, the character “Constantine” told West that he had studied philosophy under Henri Bergson, and there is little question that Stanislav was a disciple of Bergson, the most famous French philosopher of Vinaver’s student days who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927.
     Rebecca West’s journey and her overriding interest in Constantine’s views of life are related to the philosophical debate which developed around Bergson—the creative vs. the practical. Bergson attempted to prove, in powerful and highly figurative language, that ultimate reality is an elan vital, a vital force or impulse which can only be grasped by intuition. His view went against the dominant school of French philosophy which held that reality had a logical or geometric structure which could be seen through the reasoning of the scientist and logician. This philosophical debate pervades Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falconand her portrayal of the Serbian ideal.
     Almost everything about “Constantine” was Bergsonian, and West wrote that “when he was deeply moved” he almost always spoke of “the days when he was a student under Bergson.” Of his old mentor he said: “ was to miss the very essence in him to regard him only as a philosopher. He was a magician who had taken philosophy as his subject matter. He did not analyze phenomena, he uttered incantations that invoked understanding...we were the sorcerer’s apprentices.”
     Constantine claimed to recognize Bergson’s sorcery as the result of his own childhood experiences “ my town, which is Shabats, there were three houses in a row, and in one house lived my father who was the greatest doctor in our country, and in the next there lived a priest who was the greatest saint in my country, and in the next there lived an old woman who was the greatest witch in my country, and when I was a little boy I lived in the first and I went as I would into the other two, for the holy man and the witch liked me very much, and I tell you in each of these houses there was magic...” When he first met West in the mid-1930’s, Vinaver was likely working on a memoir of his hometown which had been ravaged during foreign occupation in World War I (1914-1918).
     Even before World War I, when he was in his early twenties, his first book of poetry, Mjeca, and a collection of stories, Price koje su izgubile ravnotezu(Stories which Have Lost their Balance), were published in Belgrade in 1911 and in 1913 and had established his reputation as a brilliant young writer, or “Wunderkind,” as he described himself  referring to his youth before “the war came along and changed everything.”

World War I

     Biographic sketches of Vinaver say he was a volunteer in the Serbian army and served from 1914 to 1919. West also wrote that Constantine “fought in the Great War very gallantly, for he is a man of great physical courage, and to him Serbian history is his history, his life is part of the life of the Serbian people.” West regarded him as a Serb “ adoption only, yet quite completely, a Serb.”
     One of his personal war stories related in West’s book might have occurred during the Battle of Cer Mountain on the heights above his hometown of Sabac. It was a tragic and horrifying tale of fraternal strife:
     “There was a hill in Serbia that we were fighting for all night with the Austrian troops. Sometimes we had it, and sometimes they had it, and at the end we wholly had it, and when they charged us we cried to them to surrender, and through the night they answered, ‘The soldiers of the Empire do not surrender,’ and it was in our own tongue they spoke. So we knew they were our brothers the Croats, and because they were our brothers we knew that they meant it, and so they came against us, and we had to kill them, and in the morning they all lay dead, and they were all our brothers.”
     While serving as a physician in the Serbian army, Stanislav’s father died in the terrible typhus epidemic of 1915. His mother was thrown out of her home by enemy forces and served as a nurse until the end of the war.
     Vinaver’s native Sabac lies on the right bank of the Sava River on the edge of the plains of Macva not far from where the Drina joins the Sava. It was right in the path of the first Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia in 1914, and the enemy occupied it briefly before it was liberated by Serbian counterattack. It was again occupied in the second Austro-Hungarian offensive of 1915 and again liberated by Serbs following the Battle of Kolubara River. After the Austro-Hungarians were joined by the Germans and the Bulgarians in the triple attack on Serbia in late 1915, the Austrians occupied the city until the end of the war.
     Sabac suffered severely during its Austro-Hungarian occupation, and the enemy executed many of its townspeople. The town’s suffering is immortalized in the nearby village of Prnjavor where there is a memorial chapel with a tomb dedicated to those who died in the wars of 1912-1918. Rista Bocaric’s murals on the chapel walls depict the executions and hangings of local citizens and the burning and pillaging of villages in the vicinity.
     In one of his poignant reminiscences about his hometown, Constantine tells West and her husband: “In Shabats we were all of us quite truly people. There were not many people who spoke alike and looked alike as there are in Paris and London and Berlin. We were all of us ourselves and different. I think it was that we were all equal and so we could not lift ourselves up by trying to look like a class that was of good repute. We could only be remarkable by following our own qualities to the furthest. So it is in all Serbian towns, so it was most of all in Shabats, because we are a proud town, we have always gone our own way.”
     Then he told of an incident in which King Peter I, visiting Sabac, asked a farmer how he was doing. The farmer, trusting the king, confessed that he was doing very well with smuggling and the pig trade. Constantine observed that, though the Serb might break the law, he would die for the king. He continued: “In the war we were a very brave town. The French decorated us as they decorated Verdun.”
     The fate of the Vinaver family during the First World War was not unusual for most Serbs. Stanislav’s sister had died of tuberculosis before the war, and his mother, who was alone after her husband and son went to serve, was notified of her husband’s death in 1915 but did not know the fate of her son until she learned that he had been sent to Russia in 1916.
     After the Albanian retreat, Vinaver was one of the Serbian officers sent from Corfu to Russia in order to organize a volunteer division made up of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes willing to fight against Austria-Hungary and participate in the liberation of the South Slavic lands. Most of the South Slav volunteers were prisoners-of-war, draftees who had been captured by the Russians or had defected.
     Most of the Serbs and many of the Croats and Slovenes of the Volunteer Corps were transported from Odessa to Salonika where they joined the Serbian army in the summer of 1917 and, with their French and English allies, fought in the Monastir offensive the next summer.
     In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Constantine introduced West to two Yugoslav friends who had been with him in Russia. One was Croatian, the other Slavonian. All three had been together at the fortress of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg, and the Slavonian had been imprisoned with Stanislav. Both had been condemned to death, and the Slavonian told West that notre bon petit Constanin(our good little Constantine) had in fact been sentenced to die twice.

After the War

     Perhaps it was during the Monastir offensive that Stanislav became familiar with Macedonia, but a Jewish biographic source, written before his death in 1955, states that he was once a teacher in Skoplje. For certain, between the world wars, from 1919 to 1941, Vinaver worked as a journalist for the Belgrade newspaper Vremena(The Times), for Radio Belgrade and for the press bureau. At various times he served as a book and music reviewer and as an art critic.
     In 1920, another collection of his poetry, Varos zlih volsebnika(The Town of Evil Magicians), was published in Belgrade, and the same year his Pantologija novije srpske pelengirike(The Pantology of New Serbian Peasant Trousers) appeared. He wrote essays in addition to poetry and critical reviews. Redjep described Stanislav’s verse: “Vinaver’s poetry, from his first book of poems entitled Mjeca, maintains a diffusion of light, grotesque turns and broken rhythms.”
     Vinaver was likely best-known for his parodies of Yugoslav authors, and he was considered a very good critic. Although his poetry was little translated and he has not been accorded a high place in the history of Serbian poetry, he was well-known by almost all the Yugoslav writers of his day, and he had a definite influence on the course of Serbian literature in the interwar period.
     He had a good sense of humor and often wrote in the satirical vein. Two more of his books, Gromobran svemira(Universal Lightning Rod) and Nova pantologija pelengirike(The New Pantology of Peasant Trousers) were published in the early 1920’s. By the mid-1920’s Stanislav’s literary reputation was well established.
     In 1925 he married the German Lutheran, Elsa, whom Rebecca West called “Gerda” in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It may be pure fiction, but West explained that one of the few things the couple appeared to have had in common was a love of the German Romantics. The real Stanislav and Elsa Vinaver had two sons, Vuk and Konstantin.
     About Elsa, the biographer Glendinning believes: “ is doubtful whether she was as terrible as Constantine’s wife Gerda in the book, where she became a hate-figure, personifying insensitivity, stupidity, and everything Rebecca feared and disliked about the German mentality of the late 1930’s. Vinaver’s German wife had, in her turn, reason to dislike the dynamic foreigner who took up so much of her husband’s time, for Vinaver fell romantically in love with Rebecca, as he made clear in an elegant letter in French written after her final departure from Belgrade.”
     Early in his marriage, Stanislav completed two more books, Cuvari sveta(The Caretakers of the World), in 1926 and Goc gori, jedna jugoslovenska simfonija(The Drum is Burning: A Yugoslav Symphony) in 1927, but it would be almost a decade before his next book appeared.
    Vinaver visited Germany frequently in conjunction with his work and spoke excellent German. In the late 1920’s he was there representing King Alexander in contract negotiations with a German firm to make the mosaics for the walls of the Karageorgeevich memorial church of St. George at Oplenac. These were copies of medieval frescoes in Old Serbia and Macedonia, and Vinaver may not have been totally pleased with them. In the book, Constantine warned West and her husband “ you will make no error at Oplenats, you will take these mosaics as an indication of what you will see in Macedonia, in South Serbia, not for themselves. All the Macedonian frescoes are painted, and these have been copied in mosaic...a fresco that is meant to be painted and is worked in mosaic is a mongrel...”

Stanislav Vinaver and Rebecca West

     By the spring of 1936, when Rebecca West met Vinaver on her first trip to Yugoslavia, he held an important post in the government as the Secretary of the Yugoslav Central Press Bureau. The British Council invited West to lecture in Yugoslavia because she was herself an important journalist as well as a novelist of note who had written articles and reviews for The New York Times,The New York Herald-Tribuneand The New Yorkerin addition to pieces for British newspapers and periodicals.
     West recalls her first impression of the voluble journalist: “The first time I was in Yugoslavia, Constantine took me down to Macedonia so that I could give a broadcast about it, and when we arrived at Skoplje, I thought I would have to run away, because he had talked to me the whole time during the journey from Belgrade, which had lasted for twelve hours, and I had felt obliged to listen...”
     She found Vinaver physically unattractive, but she valued his brilliant scholarship and teaching abilities. As a well-known and important official of the government, he had access to all places, and he had many interesting friends. Unquestionably he was her single most important “resource person,” guiding her not only through Yugoslavia but also into its most interesting history with his tremendous and infectious exuberance.
     West wrote: “I never heard anybody else in Yugoslavia speak well of Stoyadinovitch except Constantine.” In the book, he laments, “Nobody outside Yugoslavia understands us. We have a very bad press, particularly with high-minded people, who hate us because we are mystics and not just intelligent, as they are.” He goes on in this vein to complain of the Parisian journalist, Genevieve Tabouis: “She suspects us of being anti-democratic in our natures, when we Serbs are nothing but democratic, but cannot be because the Italians and Germans are watching us to say, ‘Ah, here is Bolshevism, we must come in and save you from it.’ And really she is not being high-minded when she makes this mistake, she makes it because she hates the Prime Minister, Mr. Stoyadinovitch; and it is not that she hates him because he is a bad man, she hates him because they are opposites.”
     In West’s private letters which were recently released following the death of Anthony West—her estranged son from her affair with H.G. Wells—she had written to her husband, the banker Henry Andrews, and described her rebuff of Vinaver’s physical advances in Macedonia. The author of a 1996 Rebecca West biography, Carl Rollyson, suggests that her letter “provided a cover and served as a diversionary tactic” for the fact that she “had resumed a romance with an old roue, Antoine Bibesco, during her evenings in Belgrade.”
     One finds it hard to imagine that West could have remembered so much of what “Constantine” said, but she did keep a journal, and his remarks were almost always striking. The fact that he loved West was an inspiration to him and her as well. In contrasting himself with professional tour guides who pay attention to detail and the whole, he said: “We can be responsible for what we love, our families and our countries, and the causes we think just, but where we do not love we cannot muster the necessary attention.”
     On her second visit to Yugoslavia in the spring of 1937, Rebecca West brought her husband along almost as a chaperon. As Fadiman noted, she seems to have “generously” put the “profoundest remarks” in Henry Andrews’ mouth. This raises the question of whether she put any words in Stanislav’s.
     The places in which they sound alike, however, are in his description of the philosopher Bergson and in her characterization of Bishop Nikolai, but it must be remembered that both she and Vinaver were romantics who bordered on the mystical and sought out people of great vitality. These were the very characteristics which West most admired in “Constantine.”
     Although there are three guides in Black Lamb Grey Falcon, West wrote little of the other two. One was “Valetta,” a Dalmatian professor of mathematics at the University of Zagreb with some Croatian separatist sentiment, the other “Marko Gregorievitch,” a Croatian journalist and Yugoslavist. She writes mainly of their arguments with Constantine.
     Valetta, who is a critic of  Belgrade corruption and the lack of Croatian representation in the government, raises Constantine’s ire. Constantine berates the Croatians for their lack of Slavic identification and preference for Austrian identity and for their lack of loyalty to Yugoslavia and their constant criticism of the government.
     Stoyan Pribichevich’s review criticized West for the lack of a balanced treatment of the country: “The Serbs have monopolized all Miss West’s love—and they well deserve it. But with the zeal of the enamored, Miss West turns on anybody who may reasonably or unreasonably disagree with the Serbs. The Croats, for instance, she dislikes wholesale, from beginning to end. The Slovenes...she mentions on three out of the 1,150 pages. There is something odd about English women: when they become interested in the Balkans, they are more partisan than the Balkanites themselves. And just as Miss Edith Durham was a violent hater of Serbs, Miss Rebecca West is a merciless critic of non-Serbs.”
     Pribichevich held Stanislav Vinaver at least partially responsible for the distortion. After revealing Constantine’s true identity and calling Stanislav a censor, he continued his attack on the press bureau official: “‘Constantine’ was a ‘writer and a poet,’ as Miss West calls him. But he was first of all Stoyadinovich’s official; second a talker; third, a writer; and fourth, a thinker. So that Miss West’s elaborate political analysis of Yugoslavia is what the Press Bureau wanted her to say...”
     Pribichevich’s article was a pre-publication review appearing in The Nationon June 8, 1941, after Yugoslavia had just disintegrated and been overrun by the Nazis. The book came off the presses in the fall of 1941 in New York and early in 1942 in London. West told Glendinning that Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in September of 1939 changed not only the ending of the book but its whole spirit and intention. West especially rewrote the epilogue with those events that the book “preternaturally predicted” having come to pass between 1939 and 1941.
     After citing several of West’s errors and distortions and calling her generally naive, Pribichevich asked “...what good does it do at this time to rake up this unpleasant past?” Then he closed saying that, in spite of its distortions, “Rebecca West’s book is a magnificent piece of writing. Her pages pour over you sometimes like an irresistible torrent, sometimes like a monotonous drizzle... Reading it, you actually see, smell, hear and touch as well; and you experience an intense sensual joy.”
     Those last three words sum up much of what Rebecca found in Yugoslavia and in Constantine, especially, as well as in others. That her words evoked that feeling in the critical Pribichevich is a measure of her success.
     Fadiman in his post-publication review of 1941 also saw “a little too much of Constantine” as well as “a little too much of everything in the book. Unless one loves Yugoslavia, the Serbs and ‘Constantine, the poet’ as their representative, the huge tome—whose former two volumes are now combined in one—is difficult reading. Although West did recreate at least one of their political discussions, she mostly avoids his politics and describes the poet as an extraordinary human being following his heart. Much of her most poetic prose in the book appears in describing him.”

West and Constantine in Yugoslavia

     In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West explores the initial reaction of an upper class English woman to her guide. She first describes Constantine as she and her husband are getting off the train in Zagreb: “Constantine, the poet, a Serb, that is to say a Slav member of the Orthodox Church from Serbia.” She wrote that he had “a head like the best-known satyr in the Louvre, and an air of vine leaves about the brow, though he drinks little. He is perpetually drunk on what comes out of his mouth, not what goes into it. He talks incessantly. In the morning he comes out of his bedroom in the middle of a sentence, and at night he backs into it, so that he can just finish one more sentence. Automatically he makes silencing gestures while he speaks, just in case somebody should take it into his head to interrupt.”
     However, there is much more than just a saving grace about Constantine, a quality which overrides the first impression. As West begins to take a deeper interest, she explains: “Nearly all his talk is good, and sometimes it runs along in a coloured shadow show, like Heine’s Florentine Nights, and sometimes it crystallizes into a little story the essence of  hope or love or regret, like a Heine lyric. Of all human beings I have ever met he is the most like Heine: and since Heine was the most Jewish of writers it follows that Constantine is Jew as well as Serb...”
     She said the journalist spoke beautiful French which had “preserved in it all the butterfly brilliance of his youth” when he studied in Paris. He was a spell-binder who could come up with the “perfect phrase,” as “his hands grope in the air before him as if he were unloosing the neckcloth of the strangling truth.”
     In Zagreb he advised West and Henry that the Old Town, whose villas and mansions were built in the Viennese style of the 18th and 19th centuries, should be seen in the evening “for in the walled garden before the house we will see iron chairs and tables with nobody sitting at them, and you will recognize at a glance that the person who is not sitting there is straight out of Turgeniev. You cannot look at Austria as it was the day before yesterday, at us Slavs as we were yesterday, by broad daylight.”
     The first place where they spend some time is Sarajevo where the mingling of the various cultures of Yugoslavia was most vivid. Constantine said that as a Serb he had felt that Sarajevo was “a Slav city in captivity” during its Austrian rule. He had come to think of it as his own and, as a veteran of the Serbian army of World War I, he believed that he and his fellow soldiers had fought not only for Serbia but also for the liberation of their South Slavic brethren from foreign domination.
     He appreciated the Muslim contributions to Yugoslav culture, particularly the “conception of love which made us as small boys read the Arabian Nightswith such attention,” and he introduced West and her husband to the Bosnian songs of lovesickness or sevdah. He explained that this image of love which demands secrecy and danger was “too beautiful.” He said it gave Sarajevo a special vitality and imparted to the Bosnians “a sensuality that is also a mysticism.”
     In the city of the famous assassination, where Gavrilo Princip shot the visiting Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on St. Vitus Day (Vidovdan) in 1914,  Constantine spoke of the inevitability of World War I and how unfair it was that “the little ones”—as he called the youthful patriots who shot the Austrian archduke—and the Serbs had been blamed for causing the war. According to him, Austria-Hungary was spoiling for the fight and had been for years. They nearly had gone to war with Serbs in 1912 over the Albanian question in the First Balkan War.
     Constantine believed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was oppressing its majority Slav population, feared independent Serbia because of its potential as an ally to the unhappy Slavs inside the empire. He despaired that Western Europe did not understand: “Behind the veil of our incomprehensible language and behind the veil of lies, the Austrians and Hungarians have told about us and our wrongs, the cause of the war—more than that, the reason for the war—is eternally a mystery to the vast majority of the people who took part in it and were martyrized by it. Perhaps that is something for us South Slavs to know, a secret that is hidden from everybody else.”
     Constantine did much more than simply show the English couple the sights. He knew that West was after insights. After he and his Bosnian friends had explained the favoritism that the Austrians had shown toward the Muslims during the occupation between 1908 and 1918, he took her and her husband to a Sarajevo reception for the Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Ineune and his War Minister Kazim Ozalip.
     The crowd did not applaud the Turkish officials when they spoke of the necessity of maintaining the unity of the Yugoslav state to prevent the aggressive powers from taking over the Balkan Peninsula. Accompanied by the Yugoslav War Minister, General Marits, the ministers had been sent by the Stojadinovic government to deliver this message to the Bosnian Muslims who, on the eve of World War II, felt that Austrian rule had been the next-best thing to the restoration of Turkish Empire.
     In his conversations with Muslims and Croats who were critical of either the government or of the entire Yugoslav idea, Constantine said repeatedly: “...they think that all the time they must die for Yugoslavia, and they cannot understand why we do not ask them to do that, but now we ask another thing, that they should live and be happy.” At this very critical time, Vinaver’s job was to keep the lid on things, and he constantly insisted that anybody who criticized the government did not believe in the Yugoslav ideal.
     West describes a restaurant scene in which a young rebel poet, “dressed in the style of a French Romantic,” like the ghost of Constantine, upbraided him for abandoning the opposition and joining the government.  Constantine replies that “for the sake of my country, and perhaps a little for the sake of my soul” he had “given up the deep peace of being in opposition” and sighs: “Dear God, I wish the young would be more agreeable to my generation, for we suffered very much in the war, and if it were not for us they would still be slaves under the Austrians.” Perhaps this incident is why, as Pribichevich noted, Constantine did not introduce West to any of the other great writers of Yugoslavia.
     Constantine was at his charming best at a party in Sarajevo with Jewish friends. He also had a certain magnetism which brought forth the children in people. He attracted a group of gypsy youths while he was pointing out the sights above Sarajevo on the way to Trebovice: “Something about the gestures of Constantine’s plump little arms as he showed us the city brought them tumbling about us.” West believed his charm was “a mixture of amused indulgence, as of a grown-up watching a child at play, and ecstatic expectation, as of a child waiting for a grown-up to tell it a fairy-story...”
     After seeing the sights of Jajce, the falls, the ancient Mithraic altar in a cavern, and the ruins of the old fortress on the hill, West tells the poet how her imagination often fails to find a way to use such scenes as a “point of departure.” Constantine compares the mind to an old soldier and then tells an old story of the defence of Jajce against the Turks.
     After a pause, he returns to his remarks and tries to explain the role of war in Balkan history and in the Balkan mind: “You have seen that all sorts of avenues our artists and thinkers have started lead nowhere at all, are not avenues but clumps of trees where it is pleasant to rest a minute or two in the heat of the day, groves into which one can go, but out of which one must come...we have not had so many artists and thinkers, but we have something of our own to think about, which is war, but a little more than war, for it is noble, which war need not necessarily be. And from it our minds can go on many adventures.” Constantine seemed to sense that war was coming again even though he was part of a government accused of appeasement.
     On the train from Sarajevo to Belgrade, a trip which took thirteen hours, Constantine, in typical form, conversed with the English couple and other passengers nearly the whole time. He reminisced about Sabac, and, by chance, encounters his first love who had notpromised to wait for him. He asked her: “Why did you treat me so? When I was very young, I was very handsome, and my father was rich and already you knew I was a poet and would be a great man, for always I was a Wunderkind(whiz-kid).” Her reply was similar to West’s criticism: “There is too much of you! You talk more than anybody else, when you play the piano it is more than when any other person plays the piano, when you love it is more than anybody else can make, it is all too much, too much, too much!”
     Constantine’s anger and hurt is temporary, but after he sleeps and wakes, he talks once more of Bergson until “his black eyes twinkle.” West completes his portrait: “He was indestructibly, eternally happy.”

Gerda in Yugoslavia

     After Constantine’s wife Gerda joined the touring group, according to the review written by Larry Wolff in 1991: “The narrative acquires the quality of a nightmarish novel...” One would think that West made up the marriage of Constantine—a Slav and a Jew, the two groups most targeted by the Nazis—and the German Protestant Gerda. It is a perfect literary device to describe the eve of World War II, and it is true.
     West’s husband, Henry Andrews, did speak German and frequently visited Germany where, in the 1930’s, he and many other Britons and Americans had investments. Obviously, he was not as much of a Germanophobe as was his wife, but even the cool Englishman was finally piqued by Gerda’s behavior at the German war memorial at Bitolj (Monastir).
     The fact that the fortress-like structure on the hill had no names shocked Rebecca West. An enraged Gerda asked West’s husband if he agreed. To her disappointment, he responded: “I don’t like it because it pays no sort of respect to the individuals who are buried in it and because it is a tactless reminder of the past to an invaded people.” West was sure that it was a sign that they “intend to come back and do it all over again as soon as they are given a chance.”
     After ruining the Macedonian tour, Gerda finally left, and Constantine was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His world was coming apart, and he finally also departed for Belgrade.

What Ever Happened to Constantine

     The real Constantine, Stanislav Vinaver, survived this novelistic demise in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. In fact, in the last half of the 1930’s, he produced six books which reflect this period when the lights were going out in his corner of the world. They also record the past with a powerful nostalgia for the things that he loved. Some had disappeared in World War I. Others were about to be extinguished in World War II.
     The first was Sabac i njegove tradicije(Sabac and its Traditions) which was published in his hometown in 1935. Cardak ni na nebu ni nazemlji(The Veranda Neither in Heaven nor on Earth) came out in Belgrade in 1938, a year in which three more of his works appeared: Momcilo Nastasijevic,Najnovija pantologija srpske i jugoslovenske pelengirike(The Very Newest Pantology of Serbian and Yugoslav Peasant Trousers) and Zivi okviri(Living Frames).
     That same year Stojadinovic’s government fell after he attempted a concordat with the Vatican. All could see the war coming, and in 1939 Vinaver’s Ratni drugovi(Wartime Friends) was published. Another of his works from this time or slightly earlier is Nemacka u vrenju(Germany Boiling). In the interwar period he also published translations of English children’s literature, and his other works from this time include Ruske povorke(Russian Processions) and Vidovitost generala Blika (The Clairvoyance of General Blik).
     According to Glendinning, “When the Second World War broke out, Rebecca and Henry offered Vinaver asylum in England, but he preferred to stay in his own ravaged country.” He joined the Yugoslav army in 1941 as the country braced itself for the blitzkrieg-to-come after the military coup which overthrew the government and invalidated its agreement to let the Germans pass through Yugoslavia to Greece.
     It appears that, during the Second World War, Vinaver was a prisoner-of-war in a German camp. Rebecca West sent him food packages through the Red Cross. Although he survived the war, they never met again.
     After the war, Vinaver returned to writing. Godine ponizenja i borbe, zivot u nemackim “oflazima”(Years of Degradation and Struggle: Life in the German Oflags) was published in Belgrade in 1945, and in 1952 his book-length poem Evropa noc(European Night) appeared in print. Drasko Redjep said it “captures a lyric moment in occupied Europe, in the concentration camps.” Also in 1952 Vinaver’s Jezik nas nasusni(Our Daily Tongue) was published in Novi Sad.
     Stanislav died at Niska Banja in 1955 at the age of 64. Rebecca West died in 1983 at the age of 91. When they first met in 1936, she was 44, and he was 45. Two of Vinaver’s works, Nad gramatika(Beyond Grammar) and Zanosi i prkosi Laze Kostica(The Delirium and Defiance of Laza Kostich), were published posthumously in Begrade and Novi Sad, respectively, in 1963.
     Vinaver is well-remembered for his superb translations and excellent criticism. Drasko Redjep pays tribute to that work: “In the field of translations, Vinaver has left a long line of translations such as those of Rabelais which even today are known for their masterful and rich lexicon.” In Umetnost i kriterijumi(Art and Criteria), the Yugoslav critic  Sveta Lukic said Vinaver “brilliantly reconstructs Rabelais, Villon and the German Romantics. He does it freely, seemingly nonchalantly, and yet completely.”
     Rebecca West was similarly praised by Fadiman who said that Black Lamb and Grey Falconcontained “an assemblage of characters shaped in the round by the hand of a skilled novelist.” Constantine is the foremost character to arise from its pages, and Rebecca West’s portrait of him in mid-life will endure as long as the book is read.

The Book and the Ideal

     Fadiman’s review of the book was probably the best. Both he and Pribichevich found the book heroic. In 1941, Fadiman wrote that “Yugoslavia satisfied in her a passion for a kind of life that seemed to be dying out in (Western) Europe, a life of nobility, richness, ardor, even ferocity. Mass propaganda, the rise of dictatorship, and the mechanization of man had conspired to throttle in western European life the one quality that, I should venture, moves Miss West more than any other—the quality of intensity.”
     As the leading ideas of the book Fadiman cited “the non-materialist quality of the South Slav character” and the struggle that character has had in order to survive the oppression of empires. He wrote: “Miss West’s anti-imperialism...leads her to defend nationalism, the spirit that makes the Serbs a great people, ‘the national equivalent of the individual’s determination not to be a slave.’” He noted that, of all the victims of Hitler, they alone made the conscious choice to die rather than surrender. As West said, they fought for life, not for martyrdom.
     “Rebecca West: This Time, Let’s Listen” is the title of a remarkable review written more recently by Boston College history professor Larry Wolff for The New York Times Book Reviewof February 10, 1991, after the recent civil war in Yugoslavia had begun. Because Wolff was writing a book about the origins of Western Europe’s attitudes about Eastern Europe which he felt should be revised after the end of the Cold War, he was likely drawn to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
     He wrote that he agreed with Rebecca West whose message to Europe was that it was incomplete without Eastern Europe. In his opinion, she found Western Europe poor and sick without the “complement of Eastern Europe’s health and wealth.” Indeed, with Constantine as her guide, she found a “civilization” which stood out in stark contrast to its “uncivilized” stereotype.
     Wolff even found the prejudicial images in Fadiman’s otherwise wonderful review of Black Lamb and Grey Falconwhich “invoked precisely the perspective that she sought to efface: ‘Why should this highly cultivated Englishwoman make pilgrimage after pilgrimage to these dark lands and these violent and primitive peoples?’”
     Wolff’s modern reading of Rebecca West was careful, and one passage evokes Constantine’s speech on veils: “The Iron Curtain of the cold war so emphatically defined Eastern Europe on all of our mental maps that it was almost impossible to see that curtains of less solid stuff had been drawn across the continent for two centuries. The idea of Eastern Europe as the continent’s backward half was invented in Western Europe to illuminate by contrast the greater glory of ‘Western’ civilization. Rebecca West was a journalist on the trail of that dishonest, self-serving appropriation of Eastern Europe, seeking to invert a tradition of condescension and to redefine the mapping of civilization in Europe.”
     Wolff wrote: “In the intense bitter rivalry between the Serbs and Croats that was tearing apart Yugoslavia in 1937, as it is today, Rebecca West was a partisan of the civilization of Serbia and the unity of Yugoslavia.”
     Rebecca West also said that the courage of the Serbs in the face of the Nazis should be an example to Britain and the rest of the West. They should stop thinking of Eastern Europe as black lambs to be sacrificed by the great powers. One might say that Constantine was wrong: in order to “live and be happy” the people did have to be willing to die for Yugoslavia. And Vinaver himself had to pick up his arms and fight the Germans again; the appeasement of Fascist Germany by sacrificing Eastern Europe had failed.
     Wolff concludes that it is time to read Rebecca West again, to follow her in discovering Eastern Europe anew. He quotes the prayer she uttered as the fascist bombs were falling about her: “Let me behave like a Serb.”
     At the time she completed Black Lamb and Grey Falconin 1941, the bravery of the Serbs was again the admiration of the world as it had been in World War I. She had loved not only Constantine the poet and the Serbs, but also Yugoslavia. In return, many loved her, not the least of whom was Constantine who helped teach her what it meant to be a Serb.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the express written permission of SERB WORLD U.S.A. Copyright 1999 by SERB WORLD U.S.A.

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