Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Out Of Africa: Karen Blixen

I haven't seen the movie: I doubt that it's worn well.

Karen Blixen had a tidy mind- and liked to keep her writings in separate files. A Gothic Tale is different from a Winter's Tale- even though the reader may struggle to put their finger on the distinction. It's not just that she puts them in different books but that when she collects together the sweepings of her work desk- which contains examples of both- she puts them in separate sections. A third category belongs to stories extracted from the novel Albondocani (which never got itself finished) and a fourth to the fable-like tales she calls Anecdotes of Destiny. Even more watertight is the separation she made between her works of fiction and her memoirs. The first she published as Isak Dinensen, the second under her own name. There were other pseudonyms for other types of work and in Germany she became Tania Blixen. Masks, masks, masks.

Out of Africa is her best known work though not her best. You'll pay through the nose for a first edition- whereas first editions of some of her later books are cheap as chips. She was primarily a great short story writer- and her memoirs of her life in Africa eschew linear narrative and are organised as if they were short stories- each with its own beginning, middle and end. They give little away that is too tritely personal. You only learn there was a husband floating around about three quarters of the way through the book- and while her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford's character) is hinted at a swift and superficial reader would probably not realise that he was anything more than one of the many friends who visited her on her farm. She loved to be elliptical, suggestive, occult.

She has been called racist. Fair enough; you can't take her out of her times. But I think segneurial would more accurate- because the way she looks at Africans is exactly the way her fictional 19th century aristocrats look at their peasants. Admiration, love and a sense of responsibility are part of the mix; there's no-one she despises. She observes de haut and she anthropologizes but she does that with Europeans too- and all her people- black and white- are individuals before they are types. She isn't writing history or sociology but raising the dead. Her landscapes are vivid. She is rather more accepting of colonialism than our generation would want her to be- but then again- complexity and ambiguity are her element. She doesn't simplify her subject- and neither should we simplify her.

I had family who farmed in Kenya; my mother's cousins- a couple of generations younger than Blixen. They were the ones who reaped the whirlwind. Cousin Jeremy, who died in New York State last year, was said to have shot a man during the Mau Mau. None of them lives in Africa now.

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