Monday, 23 August 2010

Elegy to Africa

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
In the 1920's Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) ran a coffee plantation at the foot of the Ngong Hills in Kenya. Published in 1937, Out of Africa documents Blixen's love affair with the people and landscape of Africa. Poetic descriptions of the rain falling on the young coffee plants, the 'blue vigour' of the African sky, the zebra and foal at the waterhole and successfully getting an English white peony to bloom on the African soil combine with action and adventure. Blixen goes on safari, resolves tribal disputes and enjoys exhilarating flights with Denys Finch-Hatton in his biplane.

Blixon was very much aware that the Africa she knew and loved was changing. The days of the great white hunters like Berkely Cole were coming to an end and when the coffee plantation failed she returned to her native Denmark. At times her generalisations about 'the natives' seem patronising and she takes rather too much pleasure in shooting lions, but in her dealings with the Masai Mara and Kukuyu she is unfailingly generous and kind. Her writing is literary and beautiful.

Along with Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Out of Africa is one of my favourite books about the experiences of western women in Africa.


Rachel (Book Snob) said...

I've meant to read this for years. Thank you for this tantalising review - there is something so magical and exotic about Africa, and having been myself and having that illusion well and truly shattered, I'd love to read about another woman's experience in simpler times.

Steph said...

How interesting to see a copy of this book published under Blixen rather than Dinesen! I have a copy of this one, but haven't read it yet... I'm planning to read The Poisonwood Bible soon, so I'll have to keep in mind that this might be a nice complement to that one!

Anonymous said...

I love this book. I think it's so moving.

A Bookish Space said...

What a lovely coincidence - I actually bought a copy of this book today. I am looking forward to reading this after reading a biography about Idina Sackville-West last year, and have recently finished a biography about Alice de Janze, both of whom were important figures in the happy Valley set in Africa. I seem to remember that Alice and Karen were at one point neighbours while in Africa.

Eileen said...

I recently read Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. It takes place in Kenya's post-independence era and is very anti-colonialist. In an interview with the Guardian Thiong'o described Out of Africa as "one of the most dangerous books ever written" about the continent because it's basically condescension disguised as love. I haven't read it myself but definitely intend to some time. Even if it is highly problematic, it's still a valuable historical artifact.

LIzF said...

I read this years and years ago when I was going through a bit of an African phase as I seem to recall reading The Flame Trees of Thika at around the same time.
As I still have The Poisonwood Bible to read, I might see if I can find my copy and re read it.
BTW apologies for not having sent the Rumer Godden book yet! I haven't forgotten but I have had very little time to read lately and am only half way through! I will put it in the post ASAP!

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I tried reading this both before and after we went to Kenya, but I haven't been successful. I hopes to read it one day.

Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorites; for its descriptive language and sense of adventure, for its beauty and sorrow and pain, and for a time and place now past. I didn't find Blixen/Dinisen as condescending as others have. Perhaps I should and might upon reading it again some day. Taken in the context of the time she wrote about and that she penned it many years after she was there gives it a historical bent that I can live with. Your review wants me to read it again.

Nan said...

I haven't read this and really would like to after reading your post. I did see the movie - how do you think they compare?

I just heard from a friend about a friend of hers' daughter who is spending some college time in South Africa. The dangers are just incredible. She has to be accompanied when she goes places. She went to a birthday party and two of the guests, 13 year old girls, were killed on their way home. There are murders all the time. Not a place I am interested in visiting except through books.

Shelley said...

The thirties are my time period, although I couldn't be further from Africa (I just noticed your love of Steinbeck)--however, I'm curious about the racial issues raised by this novel. said...

I have very warm memories of Out of Africa. Yes, it is a period piece, but it gives us a time and place and white-person attitudes which are gone or changed beyond recognition. My overall impression was how much she loved Africa and its people.

Mae said...

This sounds good. I never knew it was a book or that it was memoir. I'm fairly under-read in this section. The only other similar title I've read is The White Masai which I thought was quite bad. The writing, not the story.

Laura McDonald said...

I have meant to read this for a very long time but never have. Another suggestion for the women in Africa motif would be Mary Kingsley's "Travels in West Africa". She did it way before everyone else, and I found her take on the political situation quite fair--surprising considering the common views at the time. She's also very funny.

Vintage Reading said...

Rachel, this book has been haunting me since I read it and is probably one of my favourite re-reads this year. I'd love to visit Kenya.

Steph, yes I was surprised it was under Blixen I believe she wrote under several different names. It would contrast well with the Kingsolver.

musings, I can't stop thinking about this since I've read it - I believe she wrote another book about Africa - Shadows on the Grass so I need to try and read that one, too.

Ah, yes, was the Idina Sackville-West book called The Bolter? I remember seeing reviews of it. I'm now intrigued by the Happy Valley, set, too and I want to read more.

E L Fay. That's very interesting. I'd like to read the Thiong'o article although I have to say that my praise is for Dinensen's literary qualities. I do need to read about Africa by Africans. I've heard that Things Fall Apart is an excellent book.

LizF, hi. I'm reading The Flame Trees of Thika right now. Very enjoyable it is, too. No rush with the Godden - it's not like I'm short of reading material!

Thomas, hi. I'd love to see Kenya. There are some books I've attempted more than once - The Secret History, by Donna Tartt springs to mind - never got through it!

lifeonthecuff, I would agree that the sense of sorrow and pain and an overwhelming love for Africa is my lasting impression of this book. I think when you read anything from the early 20thC you have to keep a sense of time and place. This book has been haunting me since I re-read it and I need to read Shadows on the Grass which I've heard is even better - although not as well known.

Nan, the film is a little hazy in my memory but Meryl Streep was very good as Blixen and the wardrobe department did her proud! I'd like to see Kenya. The book is wonderful and I'd highly recommend it.

Shelley, it's true that Blixen refers to 'the native' as a collective rather than treating them as individuals, but she loved Africa, the landscape, the wildlife and the people and once she left, she never went back.

silverseason, yes, this was a re-read for me - I originally read it in the eighties - and although I loved it then I found it even more poignant this time.

Mae, I would highly recommend this book. I want to read more about Africa, too.

Laura, Ah yes - Mary Kingsley. Wasn't she the Victorian travel writer? I must put that on my tbr list.

Jillian said...

This is a lovely post, and it really is quiet a beautiful book. It reads like Whitman in places.

I admire Dinesen's strength.

Vintage Reading said...

Jillian, thank you for your kind comment. I can't get this book out of my mind and I'm going to seek its sequel Shadows on the Grass. I read Whitman a few years ago - I need to revisit his work.