Out of Africa
Seven Gothic Tales
The Angelic Avengers
Letters from Africa: 19141931
Daguerrotypes and Other Essays
Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller
West with the Night
The Pact: My Friendship with Isak Dinesen
The Flame Trees of Thika
On the Edge of the Rift: Memories of Kenya
Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and his Relationship with Karen Blixen
The Kenya Pioneers
Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa quotations from
Maybe Sydney Pollack was right in his movie Out of Africa. Isak Dinesen wanted to marry Denys Finch Hatton and Denys Finch Hatton didn’t want to marry Isak Dinesen, and the rest of the biography, or, rather, the rest of the industry. Isak Dinesen has become, is an exercise in exotic invention of the sort Dinesen herself practiced.
Dinesen’s best tale was herself. She was born Karen Christentze Dinesen. She took Isak—“the one who laughs”—for her readers, but her family called her Tanne, her friends Tania, and after she got engaged to her Swedish second cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, she called herself the Baroness. She was a wealthy Dane who had made the traditional European marriage for a young woman of her day and position—her share of her family’s wealth for her husband’s title—but she suffered from that ardent Scandinavian claustrophobia that Ibsen and Jacobsen had turned into a feminine convention, and she took marriage for a kind of liberty. Marriage took her to the East Africa Protectorate of Kenya in 1914, where she established herself as mistress to two thousand Kikuyu tribesmen and began to farm coffee in the highlands. She lived in Kenya for the next eighteen years.
Whatever she actually found there she turned into a metaphor for beauty and aristocracy and honor as she understood the words. Her life was a performance. Inventing that life, she produced what is without a doubt the most irresistible prose ever written about East Africa. There are passages so heartbreaking that you nearly weep in advance. You weep at “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” because the first line of Out of Africa is a madeleine that holds the memory and anticipation of lines like these:
If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a color that I had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?
You weep—and rarely stop to ask, What does this mean? Whose sweaty faces? Whose dress should make the air quiver? Who is the artful woman who can talk so forcefully about infinite absorbing implacable Africa not quivering with the colors of her dress or her soul, because, of course, she believes it does?
Dinesen’s invention of herself in Africa was not so much a matter of duplicity (though she had plenty of duplicity) as of a kind of singlemindedness in placing herself at the heart of the colonial adventure, and in identifying herself with the act of imagination that adventure was. She …