|This month's review again falls into the category of "Classic"; yet it is, as Under the Tuscan Sun, another memoir. As with most readers, probably, this was our first taste of this author's work, and it was . . . a surprising introduction. Read on, dear patron, and enjoy.|
(AKA Karen Blixen)
I will admit, I was drawn to this book, via the same avenue as most of Isak Dinesen's modern readership; the 1985 film entitled Out of Africa drew my curiosity about Ms. Dinisen (1885-1962), and being familiar with the film, I thought the book would be the most logical choice to make my way into this--to me--new author's works.
Unfortunately, I came to find the two were nearly mutually exclusive.
In the movie, we are given a look at Karen Blixen's life as she lived it, for seventeen years, in Africa. We are treated to a romantic drama focusing on the strange love triangle present between Karen, her husband--the Baron Bror Blixen--and her friend/paramour Denys Finch-Hatton, and the struggle that weaves its way between them, bolstered by war, doubt, shaky financial standing, and jealousy. Karen finds her Muse, in Finch-Hatton, and we are told that he inspired her later leap into that literary life that made her, finally, the famous author Isak Dinesen.
If you go into this book looking for that drama, be ready to be disappointed. Out of Africa was written years after Karen Blixen's return to Denmark, years after she had become something of a success as "author Isak Dinesen", yet it focuses on nothing save her years in Africa, and not so much her life there--for there is nearly no mention of her ... shall we say interactive(?) personal feelings of the country as one might expect from a colonist in a new country; rather, she based her narrative nearly solely on the landscape, and the tribes and their dramas that swirled about her, and pulled her in. From her sweeping descriptions of tribal rituals. to her minutely-tuned expositions on the thinking of each and every one of her squatters (those tribes that settled on her land and did most of the work necessary to keep her coffee farm running smoothly), to the almost catalog-like narratives of each one's personal dramas, Isak Dinesen makes sure her readers realize just how deeply in love she had fallen with the people, and through them, her farm. She gave particular deference to Farah Arden, her manservant, without whom, no doubt, she never would have been able to retain the farm as long as she did.
Still, Farah aside, I found this very hard to get into. I said it earlier, and I will reiterate: do not go into this thinking you will get a narrative re-telling of the movie script. This is a memoir of her life in Africa, with nearly no mention of the men you expect to hear about. Denys Finch-Hatton gets a mention or three, as does Berkeley Cole; on the other hand, her husband Bror--if he is mentioned at all--it is once, and in passing. There are snippets here and there that were pulled for the movie (contrary to most considerations of the two, there are), so you will definitely recognize some lines here and there (if you have seen the movie), but on the whole, Out of Africa reads more like an anthropological study of various African tribal societies and their members than anything else, sometimes tediously so. Strung together stream of conciousness-style, it is not hard to imagine her threading this narrative out as was depicted in the movie, where she sat for hours making up, word by word, stories for the enjoyment of her listeners. The difference here is that this was her life, in all its giddy and gritty details.
What seemed lacking, however, and this is where I will no doubt put off some readers, is her experience of it all. Of course she dealt with all the natives, settlers, and other flora and fauna mentioned herein, but somehow, I did not get the feeling that she really experienced anyone or anything herself, save now and again; it felt as if she merely was a part of the goings-on as a fly on the wall, even when it comes to the recounting of her occasional maddening confrontations with all sorts of men and women, whether native king or pauper, English governor or soldier--unless that person happened to be a native farmhand, or a settler struggling to save his or her farm, as well. And save for one mention, late in the book, she avoids the subject of her literary attempts almost completely.
Unfortunately, I think that is what made it so tedious a thing for me to read, because this is really what I had expected. I was hoping she would gush endlessly about how her time in Africa brought her to her own creativity, but it was not so. Instead, she just gushed without seeming to have an idea to do more than to explain to the reader how much she loved the tribes around her. I have not yet read any of her fiction, but I am hopeful of that experience, for--from what I have seen--she was a rather talented storyteller. Out of Africa, on the other hand, reminds me that essay and fiction are two completely different animals, and that sometimes, the best narrator of your life is not yourself.
Still, if one goes into the book keeping in mind that her goal was to introduce the reader to Africa and its inhabitants--native, settler, human, animal--I believe one will have a better experience with Out of Africa, and on the whole, I do recommend it; there are some gems to be found inside, but I lead you on your way with the caution: Things are not always as they seem. So step forward, dear reader, but do keep a watchful eye for hungry lions. ;) This is no straightforward journey; but you may find the destination pleasing. Enjoy!
For more information on Isak Dinesen, see the Karen Blixen - Isak Dinesen Information Site