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Rebecca West's digressions find freedom in framework of history

By Merle Rubin / June 5, 1985

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.

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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.

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.''