Rebecca West's digressions find freedom in framework of history

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This Real Night, by Rebecca West. New York: Viking. 266 pp. $16.95 Novelist, historian, biographer, critic, journalist, and moralist, Rebecca West may well be remembered as one of the most versatile and impressive minds of our century. When she died just over two years ago at the age of 90, she left a collection of works containing everything from a feminist critique of Henry James to an eyewitness account of the Nuremberg Trials.

The one question at the heart of so many others that engaged her attention was, in essence, the same that is embodied in the biblical story of the Fall: Why do men and women choose evil when they are just as free to choose goodness? In a voice that brimmed with a unique blend of tart, devastatingly witty impatience, and high seriousness, she expostulated at considerable length on the folly of those who persisted in choosing evil.

If any novelist writing in our time might have been expected to bring forth novels in the great 19th-century tradition of such profound moralists as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and George Eliot, we might well have expected that novelist to be Rebecca West. Yet the book in which her vision of the world achieves its deepest expression is not one of her novels, but ``Black Lamb and Grey Falcon'' (1942), which is not only an astonishingly detailed account of a visit to Yugoslavia, but an informed and impassioned analysis of its history and politics; it is not only a treatise on Yugoslavia, but also a meditation on the dark themes crystallized in the spectacle of a lamb being sacrificed in a pointless ritual on the Macedonian plains.

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Judged by her nonfictional works, West was a master of digression, of the purposeful meandering that gave her powers of observation, analysis, and synthesis such grand scope and that makes her books so knowledgeable, inclusive, and involving. Yet, in much of her fiction, digression seems to master her. H. G. Wells, whose personal relationship with West may have impaired his ability to evaluate her work, still has some valuable insights about her approach to writing:

She writes like a loom producing her broad rich fabric with hardly a thought of how it will make up into a shape, while I write to cover a frame of ideas. . . . She prowled in the thickets and I have always kept close to the trail that leads to the World-State. She splashed her colours about; she exalted James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence . . . and I wrote with an ostentatious disregard of decoration and was more of a journalist than ever. -``H. G. Wells in Love,'' Boston: Little, Brown. 1984-

In view of the general superiority of her nonfiction to her fiction, Wells's attempt to cast her as aesthete to his scientist is misleading. Undoubtedly, she was a formidable champion of art, which she saw as a power for life and light, ``bound,'' as she wrote in her biography of St. Augustine (1933), ``to incur the disapproval of the death-wish we all have in varying degrees, since by analyzing experience it makes us able to handle experience and increase our hold on life.''

Yet compared with Joyce, Proust, Lawrence, Conrad, James, and the other great artists she admired, West emerges as less of an artist, more of a journalist, albeit a journalist in the very highest sense. It is as if, handed the magisterial power of the fictionalist to shape and control all the material she may choose to include or invent, she exercises this power erratically. When writing about history, politics, or literature, on the other hand, she finds a certain framework already in place, leaving her free to follow the digressive threads in her search for cultural, political, and/or psychological patterns.

Toward the last part of her life, West's desire to look back over the century in which she had lived was channeled into two separate projects. One, ``1900'' (Viking, 1982), was an illustrated history of the years around the turn of the century. The other, a trilogy tentatively entitled ``Cousin Rosamund: A Saga of the Century,'' was an autobiographical but definitely fictional attempt to capture the past. Its first volume, ``The Fountain Overflows,'' chronicling the fortunes of the Aubrey family into the children's adolescence, was published in 1957. The second volume has finally been published now as ``This Real Night.''

Shades of the Fall permeate ``This Real Night,'' but this time West has chosen to emphasize a different aspect of the theme. Although she is still concerned with understanding why some people choose evil, her central insight has to do with the intrinsic evils of time itself.

At the opening of the book the three Aubrey sisters, their charming younger brother, Richard Quin, and their lovely, serene cousin Rosamund are poised on the brink of adulthood. They know moments of exquisite happiness that pass as slowly and richly as honey dropping from a spoon. The time in which they live seems unprecedentedly ripe and full of promise.

Like West herself, the Aubrey children come of age on the eve of World War I, the cataclysmic, unforeseen, uncalled-for aberration, whose undying reverberations would alter the course of history. ``[E]verything was agreeable about this time of carnival which preceded the Lent that was to endure all our lives,'' says Rose Aubrey, recalling those years.

The sense that we are young only once, poignant in itself, is sharpened by the suspicion that the world may have lost its bright future quite as irrevocably as any of the men who lost their lives in the trenches. The promise of individual lives and the promise of history are disrupted, then betrayed. The burden of continuity, of keeping alive that brilliant sense of joy that once seemed immanent in the world at large falls upon the individual consciousness. This remembrance of things past transcends nostalgia.

In this late novel, West's themes emerge, strong enough to carry the wealth of detail and digression heaped upon them. She succeeds in making us feel as she did the blending of two kinds of time: the ebb and flow of history and the passage of mortal time in a single human life.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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