Today we are on the trail of ‘Constantine’, the Serbian poet who guided Rebecca West in her travels through Yugoslavia in the 1930s. Who was this enigmatic figure?
EXTRACT FROM: Rebecca West 1941 Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. London: Canongate Classics, pp 393-4.
Constantine drank his coffee, pushed away his cup and said, ‘When you look at things, try to remember them wholly because you have soon to go home to England. I think of a story I heard from a monk of how King Alexander came to see the frescoes in his monastery which contained portraits of our Serbian kings of our old Empire, in the thirteenth century, which are real portraits, mind you. Before one he stood for three quarters of an hour, looking terribly, as one would look on one’s father if he came back from the dead, sucking him with the eyes. The monk asked him if he had a special cult for this king, and he said, “No. For all kings of Serbia must I have a cult. All kings I must understand, in order that the new dynasty be grafted on the old. And this king I must make a special effort to understand, since nothing that is written of hom makes him quite clear to me”. You see, he was a mystic, and because the channel of his mysticism was Yugoslavia, nobody outside Yugoslavia can understand him.’
He put his elbows of the table and rumpled his little black curls. ‘Nobody outside Yugoslavia undrestands us’ he complained. ‘We have a very bad press, particularly with the high-minded people, who hate us because we are mystics and not just intelligent, as they are. Ach! That Madame Genevieve Tabouis, how she writes of us in her Paris newspaper! She suspects us of being anti-democratic in our natures, when we Serbs are nothing but democratic, but cannot be bec ause the Italians and the Germans are watching us to say “Ah, there is Bolshevism, we must come in and save you from it”. And really she is not being high-minded when she makes this mistake, she makes it because she hates the Prime Minister, Mr Stoyadinovitch; and it is not that she hates him because he is a bad man, she hates him just because they are opposites. She is little and thin and fine, he is a great big man with a strong chest and much flesh that all comes with him when he moves; she finds all relationships difficult, and all men and women follow him as if he were a great horse; she is noble when she loves her country, and when he loves his country it is as natural as when he sweats and en somme he likes wine and can drink it, all sorts of wine, red wines of France, and she must drink only a little drop of mineral water from a special spa, and of that she has a special source. So they hate each other, and since she is idealistic and is therefore ashamed that she should hate people for the kind of marrow they have in their spines, she pretends to herself she hates Yugoslavia. And yet she is great in her way. But not so great, my pardon to you wife, my dear sir, who I know is a lady writer also, as Mr. Stoyadinovitch’.
I never heard anybody else in Yugsoldavia speak well of Stoyadinovitch except Constantine; but Constantine was sincere.
END OF EXTRACT
In 1999 Michael D. Nicklanovich identified Constantine as Stanislav Vinaver, a Serbian Jewish poet, in an article available here, from which the information below is drawn.
Stanislav Vinaver, the press bureau chief for the Yugoslav government under Prime Minister Milan Stojadinovic in 1936-1938. When they first met in the spring of 1936, Rebecca was 44, and he was 45. The British Council had invited West to lecture in Yugoslavia because she was herself an important journalist as well as a novelist of note. As a well-known and important official of the government, Vinaver had access to many interesting places and personalities, and he became her single most important “resource person,” guiding her through Yugoslavia and its history with tremendous, infectious exuberance….West recalls her first impression of Constantine: “The first time I was in Yugoslavia, Constantine took me down to Macedonia so that I could give a broadcast about it, and when we arrived at Skoplje, I thought I would have to run away, because he had talked to me the whole time during the journey from Belgrade, which had lasted for twelve hours, and I had felt obliged to listen…”
In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, she first describes Constantine as she and her husband are getting off the train in Zagreb: “Constantine, the poet, a Serb, that is to say a Slav member of the Orthodox Church from Serbia.” She wrote that he had “a head like the best-known satyr in the Louvre, and an air of vine leaves about the brow, though he drinks little. He is perpetually drunk on what comes out of his mouth, not what goes into it. He talks incessantly. In the morning he comes out of his bedroom in the middle of a sentence, and at night he backs into it, so that he can just finish one more sentence. Automatically he makes silencing gestures while he speaks, just in case somebody should take it into his head to interrupt.” She said the journalist spoke beautiful French which had “preserved in it all the butterfly brilliance of his youth” when he studied in Paris. He was a spell-binder who could come up with the “perfect phrase,” as “his hands grope in the air before him as if he were unloosing the neckcloth of the strangling truth.”
Stanislav Vinaver was born in Sabac, Serbia, on January 3, 1891. He was the son of Josif and Ruza (nee Ruzic) Vinaver. After emigrating to Sabac in the early 1880’s from the Russian part of Poland, his father had become a prominent Serbian physician. Rebecca West described his father as “a Jewish doctor of revolutionary sympathies, who fled from Russian Poland …and became one of the leaders of the medical profession…”
Vinaver had studied in Paris, music and mathematics as well as philosophy under the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927, and whose disciple Vinaver considered himself to be. Bergson attempted to prove, in powerful and highly figurative language, that ultimate reality is an elan vital, a vital force or impulse which can only be grasped by intuition. His view went against the dominant school of French philosophy which held that reality had a logical or geometric structure which could be seen through the reasoning of the scientist and logician. This philosophical debate pervades Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falconand her portrayal of the Serbian ideal.
Almost everything about “Constantine” was Bergsonian, and West wrote that “when he was deeply moved” he almost always spoke of “the days when he was a student under Bergson.” Of his old mentor he said: “…it was to miss the very essence in him to regard him only as a philosopher. He was a magician who had taken philosophy as his subject matter. He did not analyze phenomena, he uttered incantations that invoked understanding…we were the sorcerer’s apprentices.”
Constantine claimed to recognize Bergson’s sorcery through the prism of his own childhood experiences “…in my town, which is Shabats, there were three houses in a row, and in one house lived my father who was the greatest doctor in our country, and in the next there lived a priest who was the greatest saint in my country, and in the next there lived an old woman who was the greatest witch in my country, and when I was a little boy I lived in the first and I went as I would into the other two, for the holy man and the witch liked me very much, and I tell you in each of these houses there was magic…” When he first met West in the mid-1930’s, Vinaver was likely working on a memoir of his hometown which had been ravaged during foreign occupation in World War I (1914-1918). In one of his poignant reminiscences about his hometown, Constantine tells West and her husband: “In Shabats we were all of us quite truly people. There were not many people who spoke alike and looked alike as there are in Paris and London and Berlin. We were all of us ourselves and different. I think it was that we were all equal and so we could not lift ourselves up by trying to look like a class that was of good repute. We could only be remarkable by following our own qualities to the furthest. So it is in all Serbian towns, so it was most of all in Shabats, because we are a proud town, we have always gone our own way.”
In 1925 he married the German Lutheran, Elsa, whom Rebecca West called “Gerda” in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It may be pure fiction, but West explained that one of the few things the couple appeared to have had in common was a love of the German Romantics. The real Stanislav and Elsa Vinaver had two sons, Vuk and Konstantin.
About Elsa, the biographer Glendinning believes: “…it is doubtful whether she was as terrible as Constantine’s wife Gerda in the book, where she became a hate-figure, personifying insensitivity, stupidity, and everything Rebecca feared and disliked about the German mentality of the late 1930’s. Vinaver’s German wife had, in her turn, reason to dislike the dynamic foreigner who took up so much of her husband’s time, for Vinaver fell romantically in love with Rebecca, as he made clear in an elegant letter in French written after her final departure from Belgrade.”
On the train from Sarajevo to Belgrade, a trip which took thirteen hours, Constantine, in typical form, conversed with the English couple and other passengers nearly the whole time. He reminisced about Sabac, and, by chance, encounters his first love who had not promised to wait for him. He asked her: “Why did you treat me so? When I was very young, I was very handsome, and my father was rich and already you knew I was a poet and would be a great man, for always I was a Wunderkind.” Her reply was similar to West’s criticism: “There is too much of you! You talk more than anybody else, when you play the piano it is more than when any other person plays the piano, when you love it is more than anybody else can make, it is all too much, too much, too much!”Constantine’s anger and hurt is temporary, but after he sleeps and wakes, he talks once more of Bergson until “his black eyes twinkle.” West completes his portrait: “He was indestructibly, eternally happy.”
Vinaver later volunteered in the Serbian army, serving from 1914 to 1919. West wrote that Constantine “fought in the Great War very gallantly, for he is a man of great physical courage, and to him Serbian history is his history, his life is part of the life of the Serbian people.” West regarded him as a Serb “…by adoption only, yet quite completely, a Serb.”
One of his personal war stories related in West’s book might have occurred during the Battle of Cer Mountain on the heights above his hometown of Sabac. It was a tragic and horrifying tale of fraternal strife:
“There was a hill in Serbia that we were fighting for all night with the Austrian troops. Sometimes we had it, and sometimes they had it, and at the end we wholly had it, and when they charged us we cried to them to surrender, and through the night they answered, ‘The soldiers of the Empire do not surrender,’ and it was in our own tongue they spoke. So we knew they were our brothers the Croats, and because they were our brothers we knew that they meant it, and so they came against us, and we had to kill them, and in the morning they all lay dead, and they were all our brothers.”
“When the Second World War broke out, Rebecca and Henry offered Vinaver asylum in England, but he preferred to stay in his own ravaged country.” He joined the Yugoslav army in 1941 as the country braced itself for the blitzkrieg-to-come after the military coup which overthrew the government and invalidated its agreement to let the Germans pass through Yugoslavia to Greece.
During the Second World War, Vinaver was a prisoner-of-war in a German camp. Rebecca West sent him food packages through the Red Cross. Although he survived the war, they never met again.