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 wrote two memoirs of the years she farmed in Africa—memoirs “inspired,” if that is the word, by her life but not particularly scrupulous when it came to the reality of that life. She stripped Africa, and herself in Africa, of everything tedious or ordinary or ignoble, turned memory into an art form somewhere between truth and fiction, and ended up as innocent and honest as the “I” she used and as enchanting as the woman she invented.
Sydney Pollack had nearly forty million dollars to spend on Out of Africa, but he was no match for Dinesen. He was undone by her imagination. He took her at her word. He believed her that her unhappy passion for Denys Finch Hatton was a love affair with which Africa really did quiver. The movie he made about her is a kind of last safari. It is lit by Africa’s sky (and softened by Hollywood’s best gauze) and not by any illumination of its own. The beauty that people talk about after they have eaten their popcorn and blown their noses is a postcard beauty, and the ache they feel has nothing to do with the script and very little to do with the performances. It has to do with the fact that everything they see in the movie is about to disappear forever—Dinesen, Finch Hatton, the wilderness, the highlands, the roaming herds, the great migrations across unbroken land, the plantations, the white lawn dresses, the gentle servants in gloves, the courage of hunters, the intimacy that comes from danger, the excitement, and on and on.
Pollack is a master of what could be called the genre of imminent loss (The Way We Were is really an Out of Africa set in Beverly Hills). He never lets his audience forget that Africa is Vanishing Africa, that it is as fragile, as poignant, as ephemeral as it looks to Isak Dinesen from Denys Finch Hatton’s airplane. The movie would have irritated Dinesen—it is so broad. There are the fresh Land Rover tracks on a heretofore unspoiled landscape, the nighttime tales that will have to end, like Scheherazade’s, the insistence that everything is happening for the last time, and that Isak Dinesen’s love affair with Denys Finch Hatton is the candle that will take Africa with it when it burns down.
But in the end we all believe Isak Dinesen. This is part of her fascination for us now. Her Africa belonged to her stories, not her life. It may be that the lure of Africa was on her, or it may be that she created an Africa to allure her. “Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility,” she says at the beginning of Out of Africa—six years after she has sold the farm and gone home to Denmark. “In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.” No wonder she looked so spidery in her old age. She was an Arachne, spinning a web for the romance of Isak Dinesen when she wrote her African tales. “I have the great good luck in life that when I sleep I dream,” she said of Africa. “And my dreams are always beautiful.”
Most of the images we have of the East Africa that Isak Dinesen knew are literary images. East Africa was short on artifacts. There was no Sphinx lying around, no obelisks covered with hieroglyphics to carry home. The beautiful masks and sculptures that the peoples of west and central Africa produced in such abundance were notably absent on the other side of the continent. And there were no great English artists of East African colonialism, either, no English Delacroix whose enthusiasm it was to paint eland and elephant herds or Kenya grasslands on the walls of the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert. This is odd, considering the tradition of English landscape painting and horse-and-hound painting. Kenya was a settlers’ culture, and even the photographs it produced were family snapshots and foot-on-the-lion’s-mane safari souvenirs, at least until National Geographic came along and discovered the noble Masai warriors and their red ochre body paint and their (literal) thirst for blood.
For the British, East Africa was always more of a moral landscape than a picture. When Isak Dinesen docked in Mombasa in January 1914, the Kenya British—and to an extent the Danes and Swedes like Bror Blixen who had settled in Kenya under British rule—were accumulating, along with their buffalo horns and their snapshots, an idea of privilege, a kind of collective colonial persona. “They are interested in perhaps ten among all the phenomena of life,” Dinesen wrote to her mother. “For instance, they enjoy wine, hunting, a certain kind of love with sincere understanding, but anything other than this is a closed book to them. And yet all the same they think they can rule the world—and the odd thing is that they are not at all bad at it!”
The British saw in East Africa a landscape to corroborate the prerogatives they took for themselves. It was as if the lion’s claim to the other animals of the bush and the Masai’s claim to everybody else’s cattle reflected their own claim to the people of the continent, and in the rhetoric of colonialism it gave the field of their expansion a mythic geography. This, of course, is also what Dinesen claimed for herself—a mythic relation to African race and the African landscape. Her Kenya “aristocrats”—Denys Finch Hatton or his Masai tracker or the lions he hunted—were decked out in their qualities, like knights of the wilderness. Inventing herself and her Great East Africa Life, she reinvented them as White Hunter and Proud Warrior and King of the Highlands. Arriving in Kenya with her Paris clothes and her silver and Limoges, Dinesen announced herself as one of them. She, too, was mysterious and alone. She was a baroness. She was also a writer. She took Kenya for a blank page.
In 1982, four years before Sydney Pollack got his Oscar, Judith Thurman wrote the biography Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. It is the best biography of Dinesen we have, or are likely to have, or are likely to want. Thurman’s research is admirable. She spent seven years putting together Dinesen’s life, learning Danish, traveling, sorting through everything Isak Dinesen ever wrote and everything anybody else ever wrote about Isak Dinesen, interviewing virtually every person she could find who had had something to do with Dinesen or Dinesen’s world. The result of all that work is that we now have a proper Dinesen bibliography and an accurate Dinesen chronology—a thoroughly annotated life, with every text and reference and difference of opinion or interpretation included.
Isak Dinesen is the sort of biography that is usually called exhaustive. The fact is that it exhausts the life and the stories, and it exhausts us. It is immensely respectful. Thurman “reads” Dinesen in the way that Dinesen read Africa. She seems to have adopted Dinesen’s imagination when she took Dinesen on. She does not know what to say about the things that were queer or questionable in Dinesen’s character. She gives, for example, only two pages to the visit Dinesen made to Berlin in 1940 to write about the Third Reich for the Danish paper Politiken. Dinesen’s “Letters from a Land at War” were so polite, so resolutely aesthetic, in their response to Germany that Dinesen herself seems to have been the only Isak Dinesen fan who did not want to see them disappear, and eventually even she was uneasy enough to write a little disclaimer, wondering whether her readers might object to her perhaps “unreasonable indirection.”
As it was, her most pressing reference to the nightmare of Germany in 1940 had to do with the strange conjunction of the planets over Berlin that spring—with “Uranus, mate of the earth, as if ready to jump up and take to flight” and “Mars [waiting] restlessly with its dull reddish luster” and Venus shining like a diamond, “the eternal renewer of life.” Thurman’s view is that the letters took