Once upon a time in a wild and demented West

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Listening to a discussion of this book on Radio 4's Front Row, I found myself disagreeing with almost everyone: with presenter Mark Lawson for the idiotic claim that Rebecca West was now best-known for her relationship with HG Wells; with Peter Kemp for arguing that she was vastly over-rated; and with West herself.

An archive recording had West declaring that, had her life been more settled, she would have written only novels; that journalism and non-fiction intruded on her real vocation. Orwell said something similar, that history had forced him to become "a sort of pamphleteer". In both cases, though, the extra-novelistic work argues their claim to literary fame most powerfully.

The argument is clinched, in West's case, by her unwieldy masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1937). If everything else she wrote disappeared, this sprawling account of Yugoslavia would be enough to prove her a more important writer than Wells. If West notices a flower in a Serbian village it is magically there in her pages, as lovely and fresh as on the day it bloomed. Stooping down to sniff it, she inhales centuries of the Balkan history in which it has grown and she has steeped herself.

This combination of sensual responsiveness and a passionate belief in "the dynamism of ideas" makes her, one imagines, a natural letter-writer. And so, in a sense, she is. Sketches of fellow writers are as deadly as those of Lawrence (whom she admired). Scathingly perceptive about others - EM Forster is a "self-indulgent old liberal with hardly a brain in his head"; all Graham Greene's books "are the same, and are the same as Mauriac's books except for a more intense slyness" - West met her match in Virginia Woolf, who wondered why this "vigorous, undistinguished woman" conveyed a sense of "being a lit-up modern block, floodlit by electricity".

It's no surprise to find Woolf and her cronies cropping up in West's correspondence. The fact that she lived so long (1892-1983) means that we are treated, also, to later encounters with "that stupid lout Norman Mailer" and "an unutterably disgusting creature called William Burroughs".

Even if - like me - you find these swipes wickedly entertaining, it is difficult to read this volume without a diminution of affection for West the woman. Whatever the difficulties posed by life with Wells, with their illegitimate son, Anthony - whom she threatens to sue for libel over his autobiographical work Heritage - or with her husband, Henry Andrews, there is something exhausting about her tireless self-justification; her endless preoccupation with her own sacrifice. She claims, always, to be putting the record straight but, as the editor's helpful annotations make plain, doing so often involved twisting it.

From a precociously early age West was aware not only of her talent but also of the energy needed to sustain it. That is part of the groundbreaking achievement of Rebecca, the young suffragette and proto-feminist. Later this hardens into a reflex hostility to any version of posterity that might be independent of her own.

However, much here is genuinely touching. The wounded sense that her "life as a woman has been a failure" is still as raw in 1969 (when, resigned to a sexless marriage, she discovers evidence of Henry's serial infidelity) as when, in 1924, she felt "so infected" by Max Beaverbrook's treatment of their affair as "a tremendous joke"

The other side of this failure is her colossal intellectual success which, at times, was not incompatible with domestic wellbeing. In 1943, having "put on cherries to simmer with the red-currants and the raspberries", she sits down "to consider [an] interesting proposition about a book on the British Empire". She declines because "except for the fancy bits on religion and metaphysics that I would throw in in my demented way", she has little new to add. But it is exactly West's "demented way" that makes her such a great and original writer.

The reviewer's volume of collected essays, 'Anglo-English Attitudes', is published by Abacus

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