Wednesday, October 21, 2015

1,001 African nights with Isak Dinesen

I was young, and by instinct of self-preservation I had to collect my energy on something, if I were not to be whirled away with the dusk on the farm-roads, or the smoke on the plain. I begun in the evenings to write stories, fairy-tales, and romances, that would take my mind a long way off, to other countries and times.
I have been reading Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, a collection of memoir and essays inspired by the decades Dinesen spent in Kenya on a coffee plantation. The book is not the story of Dinesen's unhappy marriage to her cousin the Baron Blixen and her later love affair with hunting guide Denys Finch-Hatton. The book is a collection of episodes from Dinesen's memory, carefully-crafted moments in time that give the reader the mood of Dinesen's idea of Africa, rather than the story of her life on the plantation.
As I was standing before my house a shot fell, not far off. One shot. Then again the stillness of the night closed on all sides. After a while, as if they had been pausing to listen and were now taking it up once more, I heard the Cicada chiming their monotonous little song in the grass.

There is something strangely determinate and fatal about a single shot in the night. It is as if someone had cried a message to you in one word, and would not repeat it. I stood for some time wondering what it had meant. Nobody could aim at anything at this hour, and, to scare away something, a person would fire two shots or more.

[...]Two minutes later a motorcycle rounded the drive at a terrific speed and stopped in front of the house, and someone knocked hard upon the long window of my sitting-room....Outside was my mill manager, wild-eyed and sweating in the lamplight....His cook had had a day off, and in his absence a party had been given in the kitchen by the seven years old kitchen Toto, Kabero...As, late in the evening, the company became very gay, Kabero had brought in his master's gun and, to his wild friends of the plains and shambas, had acted the part of a white man....

I knew the children who had been shot, from the plains of the farm, where they had herded their father's sheep. Wamai, Jogona's son, a lively little boy who had for some time been a pupil at the school, was lying on the floor between the door and the table. He was not dead, but not far from death, and unconscious even, though he groaned a little. The child that shrieked was Wanyangerri, who had been the youngest of the party in the kitchen. He was sitting up, leaning forwards, towards the lamp; the blood spouted, like water from a pump, from his face--if one could still say that, for he must have stood straight in front of the barrel when it was fired and it had taken his lower jaw clean off. He held his arms out from his sides and moved them up and down like pump-spears, as the wings of a chicken go, after it has had its head cut off.

When you are brought suddenly within the presence of such disaster, there seems to be but one advice, it is the remedy of the shooting-field and the farmyard: that you should kill quickly and at any cost. And yet you know that you cannot kill, and your brain turns with fear. I put my hands to the child's head and pressed it in my despair, and, as if I had really killed him, he at the same moment stopped screaming, and sat erect with his arms hanging down, as if he was made of wood.
That is the way the narrative is built: events arise from the dark, take shape and accumulate actors and conflict and then are finished, vanishing into the blue mist. The episodes, either tragic or joyful, are interrupted by colorful digressions as Dinesen wanders off the road into the tall grass to point out a Serval cat hidden in the top of a tree and a brief description of how she once shot such a Serval cat after midnight and half regretted it forever and then she has led us back onto the road again to finish the tale of a tribal council. All of it is splendidly done, easily managed, confident and precise. Out of Africa is one of the best-written books I've ever read.
One year the long rains failed. That is a terrible, tremendous experience, and the farmer who has lived through it, will never forget it. Years afterwards, away from Africa, in the wet climate of a northern country, he will start up at night, at the sound of a sudden shower of rain, and cry, "At last, at last."

In normal years the long rains began in the last week of March and went on into the middle of June. Up to the time of the rains, the world grew hotter and drier every day, feverish, as in Europe before a great thunderstorm, only more so.

The Masai, who were my neighbors on the other side of the river, at that time set fire to the bast-dry plains to get new green grass for their cattle with the first rain, and the air over the plains danced with the mighty conflagration; the long gray and rainbow-tinted layers of smoke rolled along over the grass, and the heat and the smell of burning were drifted in over the cultivated land as from a furnace.

Gigantic clouds gathered, and dissolved again, over the landscape; a light distant shower of rain painted a blue slanting streak across the horizon. All the world had only one thought.

On an evening just before sunset, the scenery drew close round you, the hills came near and were vigorous, meaningful, in their clear, deep blue and green coloring. A couple of hours later you went out and saw that the stars had gone, and you felt the night air soft and deep and pregnant with benefaction.

When the quickly rushing sound wandered over your head it was the wind in the tall forest trees--and not the rain. When it ran along the ground it was the wind in the shrubs and the long grass--and not the rain. When it rustled and rattled just above the ground it was the wind in the maize fields, where it sounded so much like rain that you were taken in, time after time, and even got a certain content from it, as if you were at least shown the thing you longed for acted on a stage--and not the rain.

But when the earth answered like a sounding board in a deep fertile roar, and the world sang round you in all dimensions, all above and below--that was the rain. It was like coming back to the Sea, when you have been a long time away from it, like a lover's embrace.
The literary touchstone for Out of Africa is Tales of the Arabian Nights, including the framing story of Scheherazade. Dinesen spins her tales not only because she loves to tell stories, but also to keep death at bay, to preserve the lives of her Kenyan farm, her Kikuyu and Somali and Masai neighbors, her friends from neighboring farms, and her lover Denys Finch-Hatton. Dinesen says these names, describes these places, and they live; even those who die within her narratives return ("That man died at the beginning of the story. But go on.") because Out of Africa is a great pattern, a web or a loom, not a single forward-moving story, not a novel. It's a dream, I think, dreamt by Karen Blixen after she was forced to sell the farm and move back to Denmark, and the book has indeed a dreamlike quality, as if these episodes were not possible in waking life.

I had no idea what I thought the book would be. I was expecting a romance, but not a romance where the partner was a land and not a person. Dinesen's prose is steady, mild, gentle. There is something magical on every page. It is, I tell you, one of the greatest books I've ever read.
So I went to bed, taking a book with me, and leaving the lamp to burn. In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun. Your mind runs, transported, upon a fresh deep green track.
Dinesen provides just such a fresh deep green track for her readers.

Here is a sort of interview with Karen Blixen, not too long before her death. It is not particularly enlightening.


  1. I do love that book, but I must not love it as much as "Seven Gothic Tales" because I have not reread it as yet.

  2. Scott actually makes Out of Africa sound more like Seven Gothic Tales than I had thought likely. Much is explained.

  3. I haven't read Seven Gothic Tales. I hear that it's quite different from Out of Africa, that that OoA was a big surprise to readers when it came out, quite unexpected. I'm not sure what the surprise was, though.

  4. As you know, "praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun" is how I read "Ophelia's Ghost."

  5. Such a beautiful and wise book, a poem even, with lines that circulate in my head the way lines from certain poems do.

    I wasn't aware that Out of Africa was a surprise to Dinesen's readers, but I can hazard a guess as to why: she's discarded the various guises used by the narrators of her stories and is just there, just her, before this overwhelming and beloved land, as though someone's gently turned up the lights to reveal the storyteller in the dark. The Sydney Pollack film gets that quite nicely in the scene in which Dinesen is bewitching her audience of two with a story at night, that mesmerizing quality both of the tale and of its teller.

    1. A poem, yes, that's what it is. Some readers find the matter-of-factness of the violence off putting, but a major theme of Out of Africa is that nature is unpredictable, and real life is full of the unexpected. It's a book about loss, after all.

      Some day I'll have to watch that movie. Bruno Ganz is one of my favorite actors.

  6. Scott, you make this sound so-o-o-o-o much more interesting and worthwhile than the movie. You've nearly persuaded me that _Out of Africa_ as a book deserves my attention.