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Lost & Found: Francine Prose on Rebecca West
Francine Prose has been gracing the pages of Tin House for as long as we’ve had had pages to grace. This Lost & Found on Rebecca West’s A Train of Powder appeared in our inaugural issue. Catch Prose’s latest dispatch for us, a Lost & Found on Annie Ernaux,in our new summer issue.
If Rebecca West’s masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is required reading for anyone wishing to understand the Balkans, A Train of Powder should be given to every juror in every capital case to supplement the judge’s instructions. Written between 1946 and 1954, these reportorial accounts of four controversial trials consider crime and punishment, innocence and guilt, retribution and forgiveness. As compelling as Court TV but without the frisson of voyeurism (and with the compensatory satisfactions of West’s breathtakingly lucid prose style), these elegant narratives remind us of the preciousness and fragility of our right to trial by jury. The exercise of that right depends on impartiality, intelligence, empathy, respect for our fellow humans and, above all on the concept—the rule of law—that some of our politicians have lately labored so hard to degrade.
The book’s centerpiece is “Greenhouse with Cyclamens,” a lengthy three-part essay on the Nuremberg Trials. West was sent to Germany by The Daily Telegraph in time to cover the closing arguments and the sentencing of the Nazi leaders; she was encouraged by a lawyer who pointed out that, because of the prevailing shortage of newsprint at the time, most newspapers hadn’t provided much coverage of the trials. The precision and clarity of West’s observations animate her crisp sketches of the defendants:
Hess was noticeable because he was so plainly mad; so plainly mad that it seemed shameful that he should be tried. His skin was ashen and he had the odd faculty, peculiar to lunatics, of falling into strained positions which no normal person could maintain for more than a few minutes, and staying fixed in contortion for hours. He had the classless air characteristic of asylum inmates; evidently his distracted personality had torn up all clues to his past…. Baldur von Schirach, the Youth Leader, startled because he was like a woman in a way not common among men who looked like women. It was as if a neat and mousy governess sat there, not pretty, but never with a hair out of place, and always to be trusted never to intrude when there were visitors: as it might be Jane Eyre. And though one had read surprising news of Goering for years, he still surprised. He was so very soft.
West portrays Nuremberg as a “citadel of boredom” from which, in the trial’s eleventh month, everyone longs to escape—everyone but the accused. To make us see the Nazis as eager to prolong the trial, (just as we would be in their situation, if we could imagine being in their situation) she forges a daring, imaginative link between our humanity and that of men we consider morally sub-human. Similar leaps are made in the book’s other essays: one of which concerns a lynching case and two others which provide accounts of British trials, one for murder, another for espionage. Though the structures of the essays often suggest the cagey withholdings and revelations of the murder mystery, the real source of narrative tension is their author’s determination to get under the skins and into the psyches of everyone in the courtroom, from the French judges at Nuremberg to the South Carolinian jurors.
Characteristically, West seems to be looking everywhere at once, gazing past the quotidian rituals of the trials to observe the larger communities from which the participants come. But always her attention keeps tracking back to the accused.
West’s obsession with the criminal psyche is partly metaphysical, for she is one of those writers who believe that concrete details can be piled up like a ladder to bring us closer to some higher mystery, or truth. Ultimately, however West’s fascination with those on trial has less to do with philosophy than with morality and compassion. Always her effort is to see (and make us see) that these demons are men, and that whatever we might learn from them and their crimes will be lost to us if we insist on assigning them to some other species. She reminds us that “if a trial for murder lasts too long, more than the murder will out. The man in the murderer will out; it becomes horrible to think of destroying him.” She describes the Nazi war criminals as they are about to be sentenced:
Their pale, lined faces looked alike, their bodies sagged inside their clothes, which seemed more alive than they were. They were gone. They were finished. It seemed strange that they could ever have excited loyalty, it was plainly impossible that they could ever attract it again…. They were not abject. These ghosts gathered about them the rags of what had been good in them during their lives. They listened with decent composure to the reading of the judgments, and, as on any other day, they found amusement in the judge’s pronunciation of the German names. That is something pitiable which those who do not attend trials never see: the eagerness with which people in the dock snatch at any occasion for laughter.
West is present in the courtroom when the men are told they are going to be hanged. “No wise person,” she asserts, “will write an unnecessary word about hanging, for fear of straying into the field of pornography.” Yet she concludes the first part of “Greenhouse with Cyclamens” with a bloodcurdling disquisition on the history of this form of execution, a description of the eleven condemned men slowly choking to death and of Ribbentrop struggling in the air for twenty minutes before finally expiring. Of course she believes that the Nazis, those “abcesses of cruelty” deserved to be punished—though she feels the act of execution further extends the long trajectory of cruelty and death. Ultimately, West’s faith in justice transcends the predicament of the individual criminal and the seriousness of his crime. She is less concerned with the pathology of the condemned than with the collective health of whole communities, countries, civilization—entities that, in her view, are also on trial in these proceedings. It’s not the cruelty of hanging that alarms her so much as what that cruelty can trigger in human nature: “For when society has to hurt a man it must hurt him as little as possible and must preserve what it can of his pride, lest there should spread in that society those feelings which make men do the things for which they get hanged.”
This astonishing book makes us long to know what Rebecca West would have made of the trials of O.J. Simpson, Susan Smith and the Menendez brothers—all the grisly mass entertainments, these gory cock fights staged on a colossal scale—that we have come to accept as legitimate legal procedures on which men and women’s lives depend. A Train of Powder makes us look harder to see what she might have seen: her flashes of insight into the minds of criminals and victims, her long gaze into the future to discern the distant shock waves, the social repercussions of these sensational trials and the ways in which justice is served or betrayed. How terrible that it should be out of print, this book that makes us pay a different sort of attention to the legal battles that periodically turn our living rooms, our offices, our neighborhood barber shops and bars into annexes of the courtrooms on which all the rest depends.
Francine Prose is the author of over 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, including Goldengrove, Blue Angel, Reading Like a Writer, and Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife. Her most recent novel is My New American Life (Harper, 2011).