Finding life and art of Rebecca West in posthumous novels

Cousin Rosamund, by Rebecca West. New York: Viking. 295 pp. $16.95. Sunflower, by Rebecca West. New York: Viking. 276 pp. $18.95. Rebecca West occupies a peculiar position in the literary pantheon. She has been accorded the status of a celebrity, yet her work remains, by and large, outside the canon proper, even though writers far less important, less central, less prolific, and less famous than she have been smoothly absorbed into reading lists, anthologies, and literary critic studies.

Late in life, she expressed regret that she had not concentrated more on writing fiction. While her novels have their admirers, many readers (including this one) have been drawn to her fiction only after having read her nonfiction. For, despite our automatic assent to the notion that fiction per se is more ``artistic'' than nonfiction, in the case of Rebecca West it is her nonfiction that more strikingly displays her unusual artistic and intellectual gifts. In reading her novels, one finds oneself listening not so much to the story as to the distinctive voice interpreting the fictional events and pondering their significance.

West was, first and foremost, a cultural critic. She did much of her work as a literary journalist. The originality of her insights, the seriousness of her ideas, and the leisurely grandeur of her prose set her apart. Not only is she ``weightier'' than most other literary journalists; she is weightier than most academic critics, devoting herself to consideration of the broad political, cultural, legal, and moral issues. In an age when so many artists took positions that required their admirers to apologize for them - from the fascism of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis to the Stalinism of many left-wing writers of the 1930s and the motley array of folly between them - West emerges, for all her store of strong opinions, as a figure requiring relatively little apology. She detested domineering aggression, yet was not a pacifist. Unlike some of her fellow anticommunists, she was even more vocal in her opposition to Nazism, whose ominous shadow she described in her masterpiece ``Black Lamb and Grey Falcon'' (1941).

As yet, however, her work has no firm place in literary history. She belonged to no particular literary or critical movement. She was not university educated and held no academic position. Although connected with the circle of Fabian Socialists that included H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, she was not really one of them. Although she came to know Pound and T.S. Eliot, she held no brief for the self-conscious movement of the self-proclaimed Modernists, and, indeed, would always remember Pound and Eliot for their ambition rather than their individual talents.

Witty herself, she appreciated wit in others, but disliked silliness. One of the themes of ``Cousin Rosamund,'' the novel unfinished at the time of her death in 1983 at age 90, was the wastefulness of cultivated triviality and the importance of being taken seriously. ``Cousin Rosamund'' is the sequel to ``This Real Night'' (1985) and ``The Fountain Overflows'' (1957). West's synopsis of the project appears in the useful afterword by West's biographer, Victoria Glendinning. The most riveting section of this lovely book is the part least rewritten, in which the heroine comes through a breakdown, overcomes her sexual anxieties, and marries happily.

Not surprisingly, the quasi-autobiographical aspects of Rebecca West's fiction have invited speculation, which West usually rejected. Yet despite her constant disclaimers, we are left with the strong suspicion that she very much wanted to reveal herself in her novels.

In ``Sunflower,'' a tantalizingly unfinished novel she decided not to publish in her lifetime, West not only paints a painfully detailed and astonishingly nuanced fictional portrait of the distintegration of her decade-long relationship with H.G. Wells, but she also provides an equally intimate account of a previously undisclosed episode in her life: her ill-fated attachment to the famous press baron, Lord Beaverbrook. ``Sunflower,'' though incomplete, is a finished work of art in its emotional intensity, its analytical force, and its intricately wrought design of tiny, jewel-like details reflecting and amplifying the flash of its major themes. In what is only an apparent paradox, these elements of artful fictionalization actually add to the overall effect of truthfulness, heightening the drama of West's self-revelation.

West's faithful attempts at recapturing precisely the complex feelings of a woman in love (a love that she only slowly discovers is not requited) even lead to what might be called political problems between the author and her chosen biographer, Glendinning, who comments upon West's all-too-glaring lapses from feminist ideals in her afterword to this book. One wonders what West would have thought of Glendenning's understandable determination to link events in the fiction with similar events in West's own life.

West's work, as a whole, is still difficult to categorize. This, I suspect, impedes its canonization. Yet this difficulty is actually an indication of her genuine value. In time, I do not doubt, this initial disadvantage will prove to have been a sign of the uniqueness that will assure her lasting renown.

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