Thursday, July 15, 2010

Out of Africa

Earlier this week I finished Out of Africa, Karen Blixen's account of the seventeen years she spent running a coffee farm in Kenya. It's an episodic memoir with no particular narrative arc, filled with strange, brief stories of happenings on the farm, and portraits of people she knew there. From other accounts it's clear that she was not always happy there, running an isolated and unprofitable farm by herself, but she didn't write the book until she had moved back to Denmark and had time to develop some nostalgia.

I couldn't read it without being perhaps hypersensitive to the implications of her being a white colonist in Africa, but I think one is unlikely to find a less racist account published before 1937. This is not to say Blixen is a model of enlightenment, just that she seems to have been one in her time. Much of the book is about the native Africans on her farm, and the attention she pays to their cultures, their conflicts, their personalities, and most of all their individuality, is fairly astonishing. I suppose I'm comparing her to Joseph Conrad, who, as I read him, was horrified by the idea that Africans might be as fully human as white people. Blixen seems to take this as a fact, and doesn't appear to be remotely troubled by it.

At any rate, it is inarguable that Blixen is an extraordinary writer. Just today I finished another book which shall remain nameless, in which this description appears:

"The air was clear, and the clouds piled high above the mountains were just beginning to be glossed with pink and gold rays from the early evening sun. And I knew suddenly that without taking a step or counting a second, I had yet reached some other world, that co-existed with my own. I felt the infinite space about me, and knew that I and Dora [the horse] and each tree and human being were carved from that infinity of time and space. The fading leaf and uncurling petal each held a place in the great design as important as the mountains and towering clouds, and all bore within them the seeds of a majesty beyond our horizons."

Compare this to Blixen's description of air and what it brings to mind:

"The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air. Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. 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 a blue vigor in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."

Blixen has ruined all other prose for me. She has a way of writing beautifully and exactly without straining, whereas you can sometimes see other writers pulling a hamstring to achieve something undeservedly florid and inexact, which leaves you asking yourself whether you can't make it mean much because you're stupid, or because it doesn't actually mean much. To be fair, the first quotation is from a book that probably would be classed as "faux literature" and may not have been aiming for life-altering profundity. I am also comparing a novel with a memoir, which is not entirely fair. But I have gotten a book of Blixen's stories out of the library and shall report back whether her descriptive powers go to pot when she's making things up. Somehow I doubt it, though. This book contains some of the best writing I've come across in an awfully long time, and is worth reading for the descriptions of Africa alone.

I would happily do a whole segment comparing the book and the movie, but even though I saw the movie less than a year ago, I remember very little about it. I believe Meryl Streep spends some time on a veranda. And I think Robert Redford is in it. The main difference I can think of is that in the movie you can obviously tell that the author is a woman, while the book gives no personal details whatsoever and was published under a man's name. This is not insignificant, as it means we are given no insight into how Blixen's gender affects her experiences in Africa, which would probably have been interesting. Anyway, after I read the book I went looking for answers to all of my unanswered questions and I ended up reading IMDB's trivia for the movie. There, I found this: "Meryl Streep was extremely nervous throughout the hair-washing scene, which was shot close to some very territorial hippopotamus." Aaaaand my interest in moving to Kenya and running a coffee farm is officially over! But it's okay, because Out of Africa is so clear and precise that just having read it makes me feel like I've already had the experience. That will save me seventeen years and some close calls with lions.


Maeve said...

What you should really watch (if you haven't already) is Heat of the Sun ( SO good. I will say no more.

Simon said...

I have not already seen that. Thank you for the recommendation! I shall track it down.