The Russians of Rebecca West

A scandalous case of espionage inspired THE BIRDS FALL DOWN, the first crossbreeding between Dame West’s interest in crime and latent for fiction. The consequences are examined here in detail by Mrs. Ellmann, a teacher, writer, and critic.

THE first pleasure of reading Rebecca West is the illusion of security which she creates. Each of her books renews confidence in the possibility of understanding human behavior. Murky effects of caprice and malice, of contradiction and even madness are welcome, not only because they are the perennial gratifications of interest but because they are moral complications. But these effects always move gracefully toward clarity. No one, in the course of this genuine entertainment, has to be afraid that he will witness living motions as a dog watches television, without reaching conclusions. What is seen appears to yield to evaluation, and therefore does not alarm. The certainty of comprehension is felt as a benefit not only to the reader but to the subject itself, which can only have been distressed before by its limitless ambiguity.

Now Miss West’s new novel. The Birds Fall Down, easily assumes the formidable matter of those Russian political attitudes which grew up into the 1917 revolution, the intricate debate between the endurance and defiance of absolutism, between Czarist and terrorist. These contraries are seen in the book as pathetic modes of idealism: when both have been made obsolete by the realism of Lenin, both can seem inoffensive, like old cannon on a common. The lugubrious title is taken from a poem, “Guide to a Disturbed Planet,” which decides that all behavior, like the behavior of both Czarist and terrorist, is infected by violence. It only says for human beings that after killing, they are capable of regret and sorrow — rather as, after eating, they are capable of indigestion and vomiting.

But the novel doesn’t concentrate upon any such abstract ethical reflections. It is not in the least severe or remote: all its assertions are personal, witty, even practical. Miss West, confronting wildness, always succeeds in taming it. When one says, “There is no use denying the horrible nature of our human destiny,” the destiny seems commensurate, possible to bear if it is calmly acknowledged. So, in The Birds Fall Down, a cultivated intelligence reassures us: we feel very soon on terms with the new violence — those of, at any rate, an equable distaste. Miss West’s interest in crime, which issued in The New Meaning of Treason, is now crossed with fiction for the first time, but the two have always brushed against each other. The essays on crime, so admirable in their arrangement of fact and subtlety of analysis, were an application, in a defensible sense, of imagination to actual event. At the same time, Miss West’s fiction has always appreciated a little hold on historicity. Its chief risk has been a polished and yet static loquacity, which she has often skillfully propelled by reference to actual times.

The scandalous case of espionage which is re-created in The Birds Fall Down might have attracted John Le Carré, having previously attracted the Russian novelist (and revolutionary) Boris Savinkov as well. This is the classic instance of the double agent Ievno Aseff, here called Kamensky, who for several years divided his talents impartially between Czarists and terrorists, making certain that each knew the other’s business. It was as though he himself secretly endorsed the sheer abolition of secrets. But being two Russians on these demanding terms, Aseff had an understandably small interest in England, so that Miss West must first of all create an Anglo-Russian ambience for his affairs. An Englishman named Edward Rowan has married Tania Nikolaievna Diakonov, daughter of Count Diakonov, then Minister of Justice (and employer of Aseff) in the Czarist government. The first issue of this improbable union is Laura Rowan, who at the time of the novel, 1909, is eighteen years old. But quite recently, and quite disagreeably, Edward Rowan has grown irresponsive: in fact, a submystery of the novel consists of allusions to one Susie Staunton, who seems to have played a game of double agent too, between Mr. and Mrs. Rowan. Disconcerted by Susie, Tania and Laura Rowan leave London to involve themselves in the still more turbulent homelife of the exiled Count and Countess Diakonov in Paris.

It is some time now since Count Diakonov lost the Czar’s favor through admittedly curious circumstances. Four high officials held the secret of three alternative routes, one of which a carriage containing two Grand Dukes was to take. The one route was picked only at the last minute, and yet in the course of their brief airing, both dukes and three of the officials — that is, all but Diakonov — were blown up by a terrorist bomb. A birch tree, let alone a Czar, would question that sequence of events, and the answer is the bewildered Diakonov’s removal to Paris. No one ever liked Paris less. He is wretched there, bereft of all but his household goods, his fortune, his six servants, his wife, and his secretary Kamensky.

And worse is to come. Domestic problems oblige Diakonov and his granddaughter Laura to take together what must be the most voluble train trip in the literature of mechanized times. They have scarcely chugged out of the suburbs when their compartment is invaded by another Russian, the terrorist Chubinov, who rudely wakes the Count to engage him in a conversation of one hundred pages in length. This conversation is the center of achievement in the novel: while it has tinges of fatigue, as very long conversations must have even in paradise, it has considerable eloquence as well. Moreover, the great swaying balloons of AngloSlavic speech can be relished at the same time that they are most neatly pricked by circumstantial evidence. It is possible for everyone to take part, seizing on little facts planted in subordinate clauses and solving in silence the same case, Russia vs. Kamensky, which Diakonov and Chubinov are solving at the top of their voices. Good show, almost too good. The difficulty is that having been, in a leisurely way, persuaded to feel alert and suspicious, one wants (perhaps childishly) to keep it up. But then, in the rest of the novel, criminal data are infrequent. Of the two deaths that occur, one is in bed and unnatural only in its verbosity; the other, though indisputably violent, is indisputably good (and not in the least puzzling) for all concerned survivors. There’s just no place to put Sherlock down. As in that other new Russian story, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, incident gives place to prolonged ordeal, which must always discourage curiosity.

MISS WEST is of course quite free to examine crime for purposes alien to police departments: she has the best of precedents, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, for doing so. The double agent Kamensky’s guilt is established on the train by his two victims, Diakonov and Chubinov. His deceptions are merely the point at which their moral natures, less delinquent but also less intricate, converge. As criminology, then, the novel chooses to be oblique: it does not care why this double agent wanted to be double. Nor does it retain, though it is based upon a historical case, the few external characteristics of the agent which are still remembered. In fact, the alterations of Aseff, the real person, in the course of making him over into Kamensky, the character in fiction, are of more interest in the novel than his crimes. Kamensky emerges all black and white and dapper as a penguin, in a crowd of penguins. He is “neat" and “undistinguished" in figure, his face “unlined,” his features bland and commonplace — Laura Rowan thinks that she would never notice him on the street. Aseff was, instead, distinguished by an unparalleled ugliness. That kind of bold bad looks which intimidate the viewer: people seeing him for the first time grew faint and stammered. And his figure. A seaside snapshot of the sort that always survives has survived: Aseff in a snug, short-sleeved swimsuit. It is a figure most people would notice, anywhere.

But why should he diet? It is not simply that Kamensky must look more Peter Lorre, more slickly spylike than Aseff did. Miss West has another character’s interests in mind. Diakonov’s eccentric good looks must not be obscured, in his own apartment, by Kamensky’s eccentric ugliness. Nor could such a Caliban as the real agent be plausibly shown, like Kamensky, opening doors for the Countess and running for the Count’s pills and in general exemplifying the “subordinate beyond one’s dreams.” Aseff’s was, in fact, an insubordinate nature, always defying or subverting control. Or he wielded control himself, doubly, while his supposed employers wielded it singly. If in the novel such a person is shown honoring and obeying Diakonov, even as he deceives him, it can only suggest that skill is never a match for breeding.

But Kamensky is brushed up for another purpose as well, to suggest that skill is not a match for beauty either. Kamensky is made into Laura Rowan’s at least conceivable suitor; he is groomed for the humiliation of thinking she will marry him. Again, the actual agent’s weakness in these matters seems, at least in the “Madame N.” of his later years, to have been different from that of the English popular novel. Madame N. looked like Anna Magnani in period costume, continental, effulgent, initiated. But we are moving now in an imaginative translation of the world, one whose irony is partly composed of that retributive pleasure, prosaic justice. Then, irresistibly, we enjoy seeing the man who took in the grandfather so cleverly being taken in himself by the guileless charms of the granddaughter. We perhaps have to be told, from time to time, that some forms of honesty can be as efficacious as others of dishonesty.

KAMENSKY’S significance must be deflected into insignificance for the quite proper reason that he will not or cannot adjust himself to the sanguine, and wholly credible, themes of the novel: the sense of (1) the not unattractive mixture of good and bad in all people and (2) the attractive mixture of the two in Russian people. Kamensky’s point of view is himself, his being Kamensky, a phenomenon as complex and as opaque as the deprived multitude out of which he came. We have come to understand that poverty is not so much a vacancy as a malignant creativity. Its genius is black, like Kamensky’s. But Miss West is an orderly and yet enthusiastic Manichaean: what exhilarates her in the study of personality is the possibility of discerning light and dark, of admitting and even enjoying the jumble of the two, without losing the hope of disentangling them. It is therefore in the debate between Count Diakonov and Chubinov, whose steady incomes have helped to render their purposes articulate, that she focuses her moral analysis.

Diakonov is a Russian for whom Miss West’s own historical study, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is the best preparation. Now, in a quite amusing way, the fictional character is everything that she has taught us the Slav must be: irrational, ingenuous, prejudiced, prodigal, lovable and intolerable, bellicose and lachrymose. In the past, Diakonov has governed his towering selfishness by unselfish conformity to God (Who appears to be the Czar of Heaven) and to the Czar of Russia (Nicholas II, the dimmest and the last). Diakonov expended almost all of his superhuman energy on what seemed to him the just administration of the police state—when he might, if he had chosen, have squandered this energy on the shooting of woodcocks. At mating time, the corpses of woodcocks used to fall down like “plump feathered rain” on his estate. In the course of the novel, however, the Count is immobilized by that superb Russian literary malady, brain fever, into which the patient collapses after a severe shock to his philosophical and moral system. Diakonov’s shock is received on the train, in the course of Chubinov’s appalling disclosures of Kamensky’s slyness. But by then an accomplished performance, of both extravagant folly and extravagant intelligence, is already complete.

And yet there is no intention of suggesting that a Czarist official might be politically blameless. Miss West is willing to admit the moral lapses of both Czarists and terrorists, among whom there were so many lapses to choose, and she wishes to maintain detachment. She mocks Diakonov’s inane forebodings: will the Czar be obliged to take India away from England? then will Edward Rowan be annoyed with Russia? A somber emphasis is put, too, upon the government’s regrettable taste for “perlustration,” which sounds so very late Roman and depraved, and proves to be opening other people’s letters. If that were the lower depths of Czarist brutality, no one could have felt the need to throw bombs. Impartiality proves to be difficult. A traditional novel like The Birds Fall Down imposes the necessity of some moral preference, but when the novel is based upon events, history intrudes, and through its complex details, impedes preference. Then, as soon as the Czarist seems rather too admirable, the terrorist seems rather too contemptible.

Certainly, a terrorist like “poor, dear, silly, futile, forever insignificant Chubinov” cannot compete with Diakonov’s inspired aberrations. He is allowed to be a member of the lesser nobility, but it is hard (perhaps only for Americans) to think in terms of bumbling and ineffectual baronets: they fade into schlemiels. Especially if one of them, like Chubinov, is constantly climbing in and out of a dreadful overcoat, made for him by a woman dentist, a hideous cavity of striped wool. It is allowed that Chubinov, like Diakonov, is loyal to some political ideal, and that he is himself a gentle and nervous tittle creature. But it is also indicated that the program he has supported was not only murderous but clumsy. The impression enters that men like Diakonov might eventually have made both the peasants and the Czars the happiest and most compatible of social beings, whereas the terrorists directed a slapstick comedy in the course of which several serious cabinet members were blown to pieces.

The argument, while it wants to hold dispassionately to the actual faults of both sides, is moved by the tragic grandeur of the one and the comic imbecility of the other. This diversion by feeling can be illustrated. At the end of the novel, the Count’s daughter Tania speaks with ironic optimism about the future of Russia. She recognizes present injustices but anticipates their removal.

Oh, we still have pogroms, but we know whose fault that is. Everybody who isn’t old or mad is against the persecution of the Jews, the next Tsar will put an end to it.

This is, of course, double-edged: there wasn’t any next Czar and there wasn’t “an end to it,” anywhere in Europe. What is more apposite from the point of view of revision is Tania’s severance of her own acquaintance from any contact with such regressive aspects of society as the pogrom. But the historical counterpart of Diakonov was a man named Lopuhin, whose career seems to have been somewhat compromised by pliancy: by his tacit acceptance of the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, and by his cooperation with the Minister of the Interior, von Plehve, who was held most responsible for that pogrom and whose assassination by the terrorists in 1904 was received with almost as much satisfaction by other Czarist officials as by the revolutionaries. The prototype Lopuhin seems, in Boris Nikolaievsky’s Aseff the Spy, to have held progressive opinions in private, but to have advanced his public career on slightly different terms.

But perhaps all possibility of heroic posture in fiction is denied if historical detail cannot be altered or elided at will. And, in fact, it is not minutiae of biography that bring about the novel’s ultimate partiality. Both of these men, Diakonov and Chubinov, presumably wanted to do good, one on behalf of the established government, the other on behalf of the governed. Both, in their opposite services, became implicated in violence. They must both then be frustrated, and so pitiable, persons. Their only difference must be, as Miss West indicates, in styles of frustration, and of the two styles Diakonov’s can be considered the better. Why not? But the degree of personal grace with which one holds a position in politics is not an absolute as it is in ballet. What one misses is the correlative of political principles, the people whose lives they may change. Without them, the debate is formal and disembodied. The question is set: How are the Russian masses to be best directed? But one has a sense of only the directors sealed in a train compartment, a boardroom in motion, a quite brilliant encounter of egos.

The political dialogue is further disparaged by submitting it to the judgment of Laura Rowan. While the Count and Chubinov argue, the reader listens with Laura, through whose crystalline mind all these clouded and tendentious Russian thoughts are filtered. Her judgment is youthful and modest: “Mentally,” she mentions, “I am an albino.”But her naïveté is, if anything, her guarantee. It allows her to see quite freshly that “the male world,” the world of political thought, is “deep, deep in the dust of tedium.” For one so young, Laura is also surprisingly practical. She hates things to get squalid or sordid or horrid, but when they do, she manages them with a brisk and immediate competence.

Managing along with her, one realizes that it anyone can keep these exuberant Slavs from running out into the traffic, it is Laura. Devoid of experience, she is by nature capable of sharing Lenin’s contempt for the opposing whimsies endorsed by Chubinov and Count Diakonov. There is no use denying, she persuades us, that speculation is inferior to decision. Laura would not, of course, support a dictatorship of the proletariat, being rightly committed to the better system of a constitutional monarchy (her father is an M.P.), but she represents the familiar principle of common sense, which The Birds Fall Dawn, for all its condescension to passion, never wholly relinquishes. It is Dostoevsky admonished.