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[159] The Birds Fall Down – Rebecca West

“He (God) may care for each individual, but for the destruction of one system by another, this is part of his plan. There is such war between nations, between empires. And take heed of what this little war, the woodcock shoot, really is. Men who are threatened with a thousand perils go out with guns against birds who enjoy almost complete safety in the forest.” [72]

The Birds Fall Down is an ambitious novel whose force is towards demonstrating the inevitability of the upheaval in Russian society that came in 1917. It’s based on a true story that Rebecca West first heard when she was very young from Ford Madox Ford, whose sister married a Russian refugee. As befit to spy fiction, the opening paragraph, which Francine Prose deems as the model that both catches readers’ attention and affords informative nuances, is beautifully written and poised in the flow. It doesn’t ease one’s forebodings. It sets the probing tone for the rest of the book in a heavily charged atmosphere: There are secrets everywhere from the very first pages.

“Presently she heard the click of the french window which opened on the entrance, and she set down her embroidery and prepared to eavesdrop. For the last year or so everybody in the house had been eavesdropping whenever they had a chance.” [1]

One summer during the turn of the century, 18-years-old Laura Rowan is about to accompany her mother Tania, who is Russian, to visit her mother’s father, Count Nikolai Nikolaievitch Diakonov, who lives with his sick wife in exile in Paris. Laura’s father, one Edward Rowan, Member of the Parliament, a philanderer disguised in propriety (secret again), is opposed to the trip. About 18 months ago the Count has been unfairly banished by the Tsar on suspicion of treachery. The charge is obviously ungrounded because he has been subjected to a conspiracy. To better tender her grandmother’s sickness, of which the gravity is a secret to the old Count, Laura is deputed to take her grandfather to the seaside resort.

Count Diakonov’s ruminations on why he was exiled, in what ways the French are decadent, how to hunt the mountain cock are just mere overture compared to the conversation in tandem. On the train to the rural in northern France, the girl and the old man are joined by Chubinov, an old friend but now a terrorist, who warns him of his danger. Hence begins a monstrous conversation, uttered rather than spoken, that spans over 100 pages as the Count and Chubinov revile each other one minute only to reminisce together fondly in the next. This exchange of diatribes becomes so hypnotic but persistence of which would be rewarding to understand the novel, because all vital shifts and revelations—what domestic clutters has forayed into an insidious plot—take place during this conversation.

Before the train journey is over, it becomes evident that the virtuoso terrorist, whose charm Chubinov has attracted to, and the amicable oddball of a police spy, who has been the mainstay of the Count’s old age, are one. The person is a double agent whose ingenious justification of his position is that he’s performing both an act and its negation to achieve a Hegelian* union of opposites. The two organizations involved in this novel—Tsardom and reactionary—will begin to perish in their self-doubt.

The strength of The Birds Fall Down, despite its density and inaccessibility, lies in the fact that West understands treachery every bit as fully as she understands loyalty. She perceives reality as being shifting and endless treacherous shoals, like a moving train on which the key confrontation of the book takes place.


*Hegelian dialectic, usually presented a threefold manner, was stated by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus as comprising three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction, an antithesis which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two being resolved by means of a synthesis. This model is named after Hegel but he himself never used such a formulation and denounced such ways of thinking. Rather it is due to Fichte. Hegel himself preferred the term Aufhebung, variously translated into English as “sublation” or “overcoming,” to conceive of the working of the dialectic. Roughly, the term indicates preserving the useful portion of an idea, thing, society, etc., while moving beyond its limitations. Jacques Derrida’s preferred French translation of the term was relever.

8 Responses

  1. […] [159] The Birds Fall Down – Rebecca West […]

  2. Doesn’t sound like an easy book but with a historical significance. Thanks for the great, thoughtful review. I tried to google her and there aren’t too many reviews out there. You should review more of her works. 🙂

  3. I am so behind in my blog reading, aren’t I–I had to scroll down the page to read this post! It sounds like a challenging read, but I still want to get to this one. I’d like to save it for when I can devote uninterrupted reading time to it. The opening paragraph is great!

  4. John:
    I have a feeling you’ll enjoy this book. I love her writing and the story is gripping if you are patient to read through the long conversations.

  5. Danielle:
    The opening paragraph is one of the greatest, in terms of capturing details, foreshadowing, and setting the mood. Yes, you’ll have to read the book on its own. Focus is the only prerequisite. 🙂

  6. […] Backlist Fiction The Birds Fall Down Rebecca West The Uncommon Reader Alan Bennett A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian Marina […]

  7. french translation is kind of hard at first but if you get used to it, then it is easy `-:

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