Sunday, December 29, 2013

Karen Blixen

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. … 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.” Karen Blixen’s book Out of Africa is a true memoir in that she wrote it after the coffee farm she managed in Kenya for 17 years had failed. In the dark atmosphere hanging over Europe in 1936, she wrote from her family home at Rungsted, Denmark, looking back and distilling her love for the life she had lived in the high country in Kenya.

Isak Dinesen, is the pen name of Karen Dinesen von Blixen-Finecke, who lived and wrote from 1885 to 1962. She went to Africa with her husband, Bror, described by Beryl Markham as “six feet of amiable Swede and, to my knowledge, the toughest, most durable White Hunter ever to snicker at the fanfare of safari or to shoot a charging buffalo between the eyes while debating whether his sundown drink will be gin or whiskey.” When Karen and Bror separated, Karen was left to manage the farm, which was really too high up for growing coffee. There was little rain and coffee prices fell. Karen Blixen could not imagine leaving and fought it as long as she could.

Out of Africa is filled with vivid descriptions of the things that happened on the coffee farm and the people who worked there: her manager the Somali Farah, her Kikuyu cook Kamante, and Pooran Singh who worked the forge. She writes of her friends Denys Finch-Hatton and Berkeley Cole who came out to dine and listen to music. Though many assume Blixen was in love with Denys, she does not make much of this in the book. When they have a hunting adventure together she writes, “we were too wet, and too dirty with mud and blood to sit down to it, but stood up before a flaming fire in the dining room and drank our live, singing wine up quickly. We did not speak one word. In our hunt we had been a unity and we had nothing to say to one another.”

Blixen wrote in English, the language she used in her years in Kenya. It was her second language and even now, when I read Out of Africa, the slightly unfamiliar use of English, as if she were rolling the words over on her tongue, tasting and smelling them, makes me want to read them aloud. I first read the incantatory sentences at the beginning of this essay when I was 16. I had always been a reader, but these unforgettable words convinced me that real people, writing in our day could create of their own lives sentences which lifted those who heard them into a profound acceptance of the real.

Blixen saw herself as a story teller. She sat writing in the silence at the end of the day, far from home, writing stories to keep herself from anxiety, to regale her friends when they arrived. I am not as interested in the many stories she wrote, in which artifice rules. She let some of them get away from her, stories of romance and illusion. In Out of Africa Blixen restrained her writing to what she was sure of, to what she saw and heard and felt. The combination of a romantic nature steeling itself to realism is profound and makes for greatness.

Blixen lived during a time when imperialism in Africa was still very much alive. I was interested to find this critique of her by a young British woman, Esther Poyer, a raw food enthusiast and life coach. Esther visits Karen Blixen’s house, now a museum in the suburbs of Nairobi. She asks why anyone should be interested in Blixen. I can understand this. But allowing for her historical period, I find Karen Blixen a woman who loved deeply and did the best she could with her circumstances, spilling out her passion in shimmering sentences which live long after her.

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