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Book Reviews West's Survivors in Mexico Rebecca West. Survivors in Mexico. Bernard Schweizer, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. xxx + 264 pp. $26.95 "BEFORE a war military science seems a real science, like astronomy ; but after a war it seems more like astrology." Apposite though it would be, this is not a comment on the invasion of Iraq and its messy aftermath, but is Rebecca West writing on World War I. Epigrammatic witticism was one of her literary strengths and her pithy insights have staying power. For instance: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her 1937 travel book that turned into an anatomy of Yugoslavia, was a critical and popular success partly because it predicted the outbreak of World War II; but its full flowering as a work of formidable perspicacity came in the 1990s when Yugoslavia devolved so violently into its constituent parts. Reprinted in Penguin's Twentieth-Century Classics , it has acquired cult status as an essential primer on the Balkans. Rebecca West's considerable and varied oeuvre—novels, literary criticism , travel writing, theological meditation, biography, historical and political analysis, newspaper articles on everything from free love to the Nuremberg trials—as well as West herself inspire as much admiration as her wide streak of nastiness and her intellectual blind spots arouse dislike, bewilderment and intellectual distrust. What is one to make of a woman who lodged an FBI report on one of her many former lovers— Charlie Chaplin—because of his Communist sympathies, or who regularly referred to her own son, Anthony West—by-product of her turbulent ten-year-affair with H. G. Wells—as the Antichrist? Par for the course, perhaps, for a woman born Cicily Fairfield—a name suggestive of Jane Austen novels and parsonages—who relabeled herself, at the age of nineteen, after the lead role in Romersholm. Ibsen's willful Rebecca wrecked several lives before taking her own. To rename herself for a suicide was no prophecy of doom or self-sabotage, however, but a ritual of transubstantiation: a phoenix impulse, triumphalist. Cicily was already dead and done away with; Rebecca, self-created, was a survivor 71 ELT 48 : 1 2005 of iron will, a fusion of creator and destroyer, maker and breaker as Siamese twins. Though West saw herself as a militant feminist, her credentials did not always impress contemporaries. In her 20s, she was writing for feminist and socialist newspapers while Wells (a family man, married to someone else) kept her in domestic servants and jewels. She seemed unaware of inconsistency. She declared herself passionately opposed to incursions on democratic freedom, yet in the 50s gave high approval rating to the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy and passed on names to an FBI contact in London. On her ascension to the British peerage in 1959, she was delighted to receive a letter from J. Edgar Hoover. She wrote him a nice little thank-you note: "It was most kind of you to send me your congratulations on my Damehood or Dameship, I haven't myself yet grasped what it should be called. I am proud of my honour, and proud too that the FBI should have sent me their good wishes. Long may they live to establish law and order!" —and this from a woman who was always turned on, intellectually and sexually, by anarchists . The fact is that contradiction and provocation were the essence of Rebecca West, the engine of her intellectual and sexual vibrancy. Her son, who loathed her, saw this as a mode of attention-getting and her life as constant theatrical performance. For objective judgment of her work, it would be more pertinent to view her as someone perpetually inhabited by both sides of a question, an intellectual juggler who could hold (or believed she could hold) opposing tendencies in a state of unstable equilibrium . That is why the first-time publication of West's final manuscript is of such value. Survivors in Mexico, with its meticulous editing and illuminating introduction by Bernard Schweizer, was begun when West was in her 70s and left as hundreds of pages of unfinished fragments at her death. The work represents not only her last word...


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pp. 71-75
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