Monday, September 29, 2014

AFRICA: KAREN BLIXEN'S ESTATE AND WOMEN'S MEMOIRS

When we started planning this trip a year ago, one of the places I was really excited to visit was the estate of author Karen Blixen in Nairobi. Blixen, who also wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen, is the author of the memoir Out of Africa, a book most of us probably wouldn't have heard of if not for the beautiful movie of the same name. 

Christhopher Ondaatje, the author of Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari, wrote ". . . for anyone who longs to relive African sights, sounds and smells, [Out of Africa] is the film to watch and watch again; the next-best thing to being in the bush." 

I read the book right before our trip, and Bob and I watched the movie, which reminded me how much I love the combination of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. (It won seven Academy Awards in 1984, including the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography.) In addition, the soundtrack has long been my favorite of the many scores composed by John Barry. I think I got the CD for Christmas the year the movie came out, and I've since listened to it hundreds of times.
By the time we finally got to the Karen Blixen Museum, the setting of the movie had become part of our lives-- the awe and unpredictability of the vast landscapes, the wondrous variety of living things, the enigmatic natives--and as we drove up to the house, I could almost picture Karen sitting on the front porch, patiently sipping her English tea and scanning the sky for Denys's biplane.

Did Karen Blixen's Kikuyu servants trim the bushes in front of her house into topiary masterpieces?
I think not.
Almost. I was trying to feel it, really I was, but what I was really feeling was an intensifying rumbling in my stomach and a pounding dizziness in my head. The air was hot and stifling inside the house, and by the second room, I realized I needed to get out--fast.

Sad to say, the only room I got a really good look at on the Blixen estate was the tourist bathroom, where I spent twenty minutes or so emptying my churning stomache. Lucky for me, my primary care doctor had the foresight to send me to Africa with a regimen of Cipro. As I had only thrown up three times in almost thirty-five years of marriage and prided myself on never being sick, I pooh-poohed her concerns, but I don't think I'll ever question her judgment again. It took about thirty-six hours, but the pills saved me. I won't ever travel abroad again without them. By the way, no one else in our group of six couples got sick. What did I eat or drink that no one else did? The great mystery.

By the time I crawled out of the bathroom, the tour was finished. Alas, I will have to make do with images from the movie and from my imagination as I re-read the book--unless we someday make it back to Nairobi. If we do, I'll definitely be dragging my husband back to the Karen Blixen Museum.

READING:
One of the great surprises of my literary tourism of East Africa was the number of African memoirs written by white women. I read SIX before and after this trip: The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley, Born Free by Joy Adamson, Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Dame Daphne Sheldrick, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, West with the Wind by Beryl Markham, and I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson. 

The last three of those books covered approximately the same time periods (early 20th century through 1930s) and were published between 1937 and 1942. 

I was prepared to fall in love with the print version of Out of Africa, but while I liked it, I didn't love it. Maybe my expectations were impossible to live up to, or maybe the fictionalization of the story to make a Hollywood blockbuster made the much less romantic truth seem wearisome. I suspect it was the latter.

I expected a story with a beginning and an end, clear cut characters, crises and conflicts, and resolutions. And I expected a love story. What I got was a series of relatively self-contained vignettes, beautifully written but sometimes disconnected. There were fairly well-developed characters, including some really interesting natives not found in the movie, but they came and went out of the narrative. I couldn't ever really get invested in their lives. Mostly, I wanted so much more out of the affair the author had with Denys Finch-Hatton, but she was quite circumspect, implying a little bit and divulging almost nothing.

Still, this is a must-read for anyone traveling to Kenya. Blixen lyrically describes the ups and downs of the seventeen years she spent in what was then British East Africa before falling coffee prices and environmental issues forced her to give up on her coffee plantation and return to Denmark.

The well-known opening line has new meaning to me now that I have been there:

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills.

Here are a few of my favorite passages:

Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.  [This might be my favorite line.]

There is a particular happiness in giving a man whom you like very much, good food that you know you cooked yourself.

You know you are truly alive when you're living among lions.  [I think that's because you realize that you could soon be dead.]

The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.

The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue.

The Kikuyu, when left to themselves, do not bury their dead, but leave them above ground for the hyenas and vultures to deal with. The custom had always appealed to me. I thought that it would be a pleasant thing to be laid out to the sun and the stars, and to be so promptly, neatly, and openly picked and cleansed, to be made one with Nature and become a common component of a landscape. [I think my husband would love to be "disposed of" in this way.]

But by the time that I had nothing left, I myself was the lightest thing of all for fate to get rid of.

When in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them.  [And this might be the TRUEST line.]


If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe, of the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me?




West with the Night with Beryl Markham was a totally different kind of surprise. I loved it. It had what I had missed in Out of Africa--plot, characters, action, and suspense. The bigger surprise, however, was that so many of the characters from Out of Africa showed up in West with the Night. Markham, a British-born bush pilot in Kenya (one of the first female pilots AND a racehorse trainer), was not just a feminist trailblazer; she was also beautiful, highly intelligent, eccentric, a non-conformist, and a "man-izer."  I was shocked to learn that she had affairs with both Bror Blixen (Karen's husband) and Denys Finch-Hatton (while he was living in Karen's house).  THAT wasn't in the movie, now was it? Poor Karen.

When this book was published in 1942, it had moderate sales, and then it disappeared until Ernest Hemingway himself raised it from the dead, and he did it from the grave. Almost twenty years after Hemingway's death, a letter was discovered that he had written to his publisher in which he referenced Markham's book:

Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? . . . She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . it really is a bloody wonderful book.

Well, with that recommendation, the book was resurrected, reprinted with the 80-year-old Markham's blessing, and became a best-seller just in time to lift her out of relative poverty and obscurity for the last three years of her life.

Like Out of Africa, West with the Night has a wonderful beginning:

How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, "This is the place to start; there can be no other." But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names--Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru.

Here is a good example of her "bloody wonderful" writing:
Even in 1935 it wasn't easy to get a plane in East Africa and it was almost impossible to get very far across country without one. There were roads, of course, leading in a dozen directions out of Nairobi. They started out boldly enough, but grew narrow and rough after a few miles and dwindled into the rock-studded hills, or lost themselves in a morass of red muram mud or black cotton soil, in the flat country and the valleys. On a map they look sturdy and incapable of deceit, but to have ventured from Nairobi south . . . in anything less formidable than a moderately powered John Deere tractor was optimism to the point of sheer whimsey, and the road . . . called "practicable" in the dry season, had, when I last used it after a mild rain, an adhesive quality equal to that of the most prized black treacle.

And another:
Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just "home." It is all these things but one thing--it is never dull.

And another:
Ahead of me lies a land that is unknown to the rest of the world and only vaguely known to the African--a strange mixture of grasslands, scrub, desert sand like long waves of the southern ocean. Forest, still water, and age-old mountains, stark and grim like mountains of the moon. Salt lakes, and rivers that have no water. Swamps. Badlands. Land without life. Land teeming with life--all of the dusty past, all of the future.

And another:
The Serengetti lay beneath me like a bowl whose edges were the ends of the earth.

Those are all from the first twenty-five pages of the book. My copy has something highlighted on about every other page. AMAZING writing.


My final woman's memoir is I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson. 

After Martin Johnson took a two-year voyage around the world with Jack London, he went on tour in the United States with his photographs and mementos from the trip, and in his home state of Kansas he met a pretty young thing named Osa Leighty, whom he married and carted off to the wildest, least civilized places on earth.

Martin and Osa spent years together in various parts of the South Pacific and Africa gathering film footage for several feature films, such as the 1922 documentary Headhunters of the South Seas or the 1928 film documentary  Simba: King of the Beasts, filmed in Kenya. (Typically, Martin did the filming and Osa held the rifle, ready to shoot if any of the film stars--which included cannibals as well as wild animals--got hungry.) These and all of their early films were filmed in black and white and without sound. Their first movie with authentic sound was Congorilla, a 1932 documentary filmed in the Congo.

Both Martin and Osa got pilot licenses in 1932, and they were the first people to fly over Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro. A 1935 film made from this flight was the very first talking picture to be shown on a passenger airline, and that year the Johnsons were on the front of a Wheaties  cereal box, the first married couple so honored.  In 2006 to 2010, American Eagle Outfitters even had a clothing line named after them, Martin + Osa.

I'm not making any of this up. Honest. They were the very personification of "adventure." Secretly, I think my husband was Martin in his previous life. I'm not sure who Osa was--someone much braver and less sensible than I.
I love love love this picture from here. These two could be straight out of a Hemingway novel.
Come to think of it, they would also fit in well in an Indiana Jones movie.
Anyway, I had never heard of this book or its author before I started my Reading for Africa frenzy, in spite of the fact that the book was the best-selling nonfiction book of 1940.

Johnson has a delightful writing style, full of dialogue and humor, and the book is full of on-the-edge-of-your-seat stories about filming hungry cannibals and menacing wildlife. I can't believe no one ever made it into a movie.

Osa and Martin don't make it to Africa until about half-way through the book, but that's okay, because by the time they got there, I was fully vested in their story. After their first safari, they flew back to New York and enlisted the financial backing of George Eastman (of Eastman Kodak fame) so that they could stay four full years in Northern Kenya on their second African trip.

My favorite passages? It's impossible to choose, but I do like these two:

"Never ague with a woman," my husband grumbled . . . . "Nine times out of every ten she's right."

. . . it was not very long before we witnessed one of the most amazing sights of our travels. Stretched far and wide as far as the eye could see were animals. It was breathtaking. There were tens of thousands of wildebeeste. Those who have seen but one or two isolated animals such as ostrich, zebra, or giraffe in zoos or circuses can have no conception of what it would mean to see miles and miles of unfamiliar animals. There were countless wildebeeste, Thompson's gazelle, Grant's gazelle, warthog, topi, zebra, kongoni, giraffe, hyena, ostrich, and jackal. High overhead, vultures floated in wide circles on motionless wings.

It is enlightening to see Africa through the eyes of people like ourselves--a couple who just wanted to see some animals--but people who took their photos ninety years before we did. I was more surprised by what hasn't changed than by what has.  Even if you've never been to Africa, this is a great read.

Next Up: Final Post from East Africa: Kazuri Beads and Carnivore Restaurant

3 comments:

  1. For long and complicated reasons, I've never seen the entire movie "Out of Africa". I'm going to try to fit it in one of these days. It must be fun to see it again after being in Africa.

    Lots of interesting books, too, to add to my list.

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  2. Great passages, great writing. The book "Out of Africa" bored me to tears, the movie was much better. The landscape just demands extraordinary people inhabit it.

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  3. I loved your line: "the setting of the movie had become part of our lives" and after reading along with you, I will have to watch that movie again. (The scene of her getting her hair washed made the list of a lot of women's wildest fantasies, I'm sure.) I also liked learning about the other writers and their adventures. I've watched the Flame Trees of Thika (starring Hayley Mills) and loved it. But I'm most sorry that you didn't see the Karen Blixen house--it will have to remain a goal of yours. (Glad you made it through the rest of the trip!)

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