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
the poetic, disengaged view of the nineteenth-century traveler who is keeping a diary of the strange and barbaric notions of an exotic kingdom, and not the view of a woman…whose brother, father, and grandfather had fought Germany in three successive wars.
She says that the “serene detachment that was fitting and beautiful in Out of Africa seems inappropriate and even negligent in the Berlin of 1940.” Inappropriate is not the word for Dinesen on Jud Suss: “I understood it would be a sort of propaganda film.”
Thurman has one idea, which is that genius and convention, aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, father and mother, fought to the death for Isak Dinesen’s soul. Dinesen’s mother, Ingeborg, came from a family of traders, and her father, Wilhelm, was an officer and adventurer with ties to the nobility, and according to Thurman there was a terrible battle going on between them in Dinesen’s head. (Dinesen thought so too, but she was never in any doubt that Wilhelm won.) Thurman’s biography is about that battle—even the African chapters. She misses the real battle that colonial East Africa must have been with Isak Dinesen in residence. Thurman’s piety isolates her. She has no instinct for her cast of characters—for those Kenya aristocrats trying so hard to refurbish their aristocracy in the African bush. She is a proxy, ceding to Dinesen the Great East Africa Life that Dinesen invented.
The Great East Africa Life is a familiar life by now. Hemingway used it again and again; and, in fact, his “Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is based on Bror Blixen. As Isak Dinesen described the life, it was part Landscape (“from the Ngong hills you have a unique view, you see to the South the vast plains of the great game country that stretches all the way to Kilimanjaro”) and part Natives (“The Natives were Africa in flesh and blood…and when the tall, slim, dark, and dark-eyed people travel—always one by one, so that even the great Native veins of traffic are narrow foot-paths—or work the soil, or herd their cattle, or hold their big dances, or tell you a tale, it is Africa wandering, dancing and entertaining you”) and part Animals (“I had seen the royal lion, before sunrise, below a waning moon, crossing the grey plain on his way home from the kill, drawing a dark wake in the silvery grass, his face still red up to the ears”). It had to do with the received wisdom of the ruling class:
The very poor people of Europe, in this way, are like the Kikuyus. They judge you not, but sum you up. If they like or esteem you at all, it is in the manner in which people love God; not for what you do to them, not at all for what you do to them, but for what you are.
And, for Dinesen, it was perfectly expressed in the person of Denys Finch Hatton, whom the Africans loved, like a god, and whom every white woman in Kenya seems to have wanted for herself. Judith Thurman (who ended up associate producer of the movie) put it this way: “In the role of Finch Hatton you would naturally want to cast Robert Redford. An actor on the way up, professionally humbler than [Meryl] Streep and Pollack, would not have been such a powerful symbol of what Finch Hatton meant to Karen, and what in fact he was, a true aristocrat.”1
Dinesen met Finch Hatton when she was four years into her marriage (which meant four years into estrangement). He was the second son of the Earl of Winchelsea—a white hunter, bush pilot, all-purpose East Africa entrepreneur, and, by all accounts, an engaging character. He died at forty-four, when his Gypsy Moth crashed. Beryl Markham has said that his death was “the turning point for Tania, because she could then claim him as her own, which she would not have been able to do if he had remained alive in Africa.” 2 Actually, Dinesen did not so much claim him as call his detachment freedom, and his indifference the discretion of a perfect friend. It was only after he died that she could give them a life together. Eventually, the life she invented became more real to her than the life they lived.
Wilhem Dinesen hung himself in a Copenhagen boarding house when his daughter was ten. He had been to the American wilderness and trapped and traded with the Indians, and he had gotten syphilis, just as his daughter got syphilis later on. Like Denys Finch Hatton, he probably served her best by dying. Dead, and unaccountable, he was the first of her fictions, the prototype for all the elusive aristocrats in her life and her work, the original free man, fulfilling himself by abandoning her. Her mother, on the other hand, lived to eighty-two.
There is no doubt that Isak Dinesen was drawn, despite herself, to the conventions of her mother’s world. Judith Thurman is probably right in saying that this explains the stories Dinesen wrote about wild, innocent girl-children of exceptional beauty and noble heart—children like the waif, Alkmene, or the parson’s daughter, Rosa, in her Winter’s Tales—who flee to their destiny from a tidy, domestic world which tries by definition to constrain them. Dinesen believed with the Greeks that beauty is its own explanation and its own intelligence. She believed the same of genius and of what she called “aristocracy.” In Kenya, it was easy for Dinesen to take Denys Finch Hatton’s Eton taste for genius, the languid shape of the man for beauty, and the Hon. before his name for a nobility of spirit that God and man had got together to bestow.
Dinesen’s letters to her family (Letters from Africa: 1914–1931) are the best record that we have of her time in Africa—not the Africa she invented but the Africa she lived—and the subject of Finch Hatton hangs over those letters, like unfinished business. She counted a lot on her brother Thomas: “Technically I have not been entirely honest in this situation,” she wrote to Thomas as late as 1927:
I thought that Mother would get a more really true impression if she apprehends the relationship between Denys and me as friendship, because then she will see it as a joy for me, while otherwise, given Mother’s background and philosophy of life, it would be difficult for her not to regard it as something of a misfortune…. However, if some time when you are talking to Mother you should feel that it would be better to give her a different view of the relationship, you are authorised to do so.
Her letters to Thomas are full of “Denys,” and at first she pleads for him with a cheer that is immensely touching:
Otherwise I…have been happier than anyone else on earth because I have had Denys staying here for a month. I hope he will be coming back and will perhaps stay for Christmas…. That such a person as Denys does exist,—something I have indeed guessed at before, but hardly dared to believe,—and that I have been lucky enough to meet him in this life and been so close to him,—even though there have been long periods of missing him in between,—compensates for everything else in the world, and other things cease to have any significance.
Later, the cheer is hard won:
Don’t mention this to the others. Nor if, for instance, I should die and you should later meet Denys, must you ever let him know that I have written or spoken of him to you; you are in fact the only person I have mentioned it to and it is actually a joy to have someone to talk to and who understands one. I know you can understand that there is a good deal of anxiety bound up in this shaurie; for me it has come to be more and more the only thing that matters in my life, and how will it end?,—well, that is not exactly what I mean, but the very fact of possessing something or having possessed something that is of such immense value to one, brings its own terror with it, and all my circumstances are so uncertain.
Her letters are as rambling and emphatic as her stories are spare. She used them to make her case for Africa, and for the life she led there. She was grateful to the family that was, for all practical purposes, supporting her Kenya farm and her two thousand Kikuyu farmers. “I am well aware that it would be a terrible grief and misfortune for me to have to give it up and go away,” she wrote in September of 1923, with the farm already failing.
If it seems to me that I have distanced myself so far in regard to every concept of fairness and decency and justice from the people on whom I am dependent, and if I believe I have come to the realization that in their opinion I am accepting far more from them than I can ever give back, and in fact more than it has ever been right and decent of me to receive,—then, seen from whatever point of view, moral, or dictated by common sense, can it be right for me to go on living here?
But she also wrote that “every human being requires a certain type of soil, temperature and altitude, very narrowly defined for some, almost universal for others,—in order to feel free and happy, that is to say, free to develop his nature to the utmost of which it is capable,” and it was clear to them all that she had found her soil in Africa. She had “being different” on her side. The family had being patient on theirs. But once the Westenholz-Dinesen clan started sending emissaries (Thomas came out for two years to see what could be done with the farm) it became hard to justify that soil, or, for that matter, the fact of Denys Finch Hatton, coming and going at his ease, and at no one else’s.
It was said that the best people went out to Kenya. In the hierarchy of Africa snobberies, Kenya got the titles, and the ordinary people went to Uganda or Rhodesia or South Africa. For a while, there was something to the assumption. The keen interest that early Kenya colonists like Finch Hatton and Isak Dinesen took in the land lotteries England held for servicemen after the First World War—they included lotteries for homestead land in Kenya—was more than conservationist passion for the wilderness. It had to do with the fact that soon some very ordinary people were going to be their neighbors. The early colonists wanted to keep Kenya for the best people. Certainly Dinesen did, although the truth is that there were not nearly enough of the “best people” in Kenya to begin with.
Kenya’s best people were a pretty tacky lot. Dinesen herself said so. The “officials”—the colonial administrators and the district officers and engineers who preceded the remittance men of the English aristocracy and its cousin aristocracies to East Africa—did not get on with them at all. The officials had had to clean up the mess in Kenya so that the rich settlers could come. They had to build roads and railroads and railroad bridges and lay the telegraph lines and die of malaria or get carried off by lions in the process. They had to settle tribes decimated by the Arabs’ East Africa slave trade, and they had to cure the diseases the Arabs had introduced. By all accounts, they were not very competent, but competent or not, some of them were idealists. They were going to spread progress over the dark continent like English marmalade. They built a club, the Nairobi Club, but the early settlers and the second-sons-turned-white-hunters wanted something more exclusive, and they built the Muthaiga Club—where they drank and slept when they came to town.
It must have been difficult for Dinesen to live among people whose most imaginative achievement was the men’s bar, people who were narrow where she would have had them noble, and so limited that they had no idea of the adventure they were on. They were of no use to her when she was inventing Africa, and it is not surprising, given the alternatives, that she kept to her blank page or was drawn to romantic young men like Berkeley Cole and Denys Finch Hatton.
She despised the clubhouse patriotism of the Kenya settlers. “One cannot help—despite ancient hatred of the Germans—reacting against the incredible boastfulness of the English,” she wrote in 1914, when the fighting began in East Africa. “While the English invariably behave like perfect gentlemen, one cannot go along with the colossal self-satisfaction.” Yet she worshiped royalty (no matter how inconsequential the head that bore the crown), and once she spent the only money she had on a huge ngoma for the Prince of Wales. (When he came back to Kenya in 1930, and she was not the real Baroness Blixen anymore, she was crossed off the list for the parties other people were giving.) In life, if not in art, she often got the real thing and the title confused. She seems never to have understood that, while it was quite all right to be a failed coffee-farming baroness, being an artist was something that made the English upper classes uncomfortable. It would be interesting to discover how many people in Kenya knew that she was writing poems there (and a “treatise” on love and marriage), and how many simply assumed she wrote because she was odd.
The settlers Dinesen admired were people with what I have heard East African blacks and Asians refer to as “the English confidence.” It was a leitmotif in her letters home:
Even apart from the natives one does meet out here,—in the midst of the fearful living death of the English middle class mediocrity,—some people who in a completely simple and straightforward way are looking for the primordial values of life…. And something that one has to admire in the English is their clear, almost inspired and simple understanding of their own nature and the completely unperturbed way they live in accordance with it. I believe that Tommy [her brother Thomas] resembles them, but that he lacks the aplomb or faith in the rights of his own nature that leads Lord Delamere, for instance, to turn his back on everything in England and live among the Masai.
The problem was that there was some difference of opinion among the Kenya whites over what the rights of their nature were. The crowd at the Muthaiga Club were so preposterous an example of England’s best people that they hardly seem like real people now. In Kenya, in the 1920s, they were very much in Dinesen’s life. They owned Finch Hatton as much as she did. They involved him in an “Englishness” she couldn’t really penetrate. They thought it was perfectly reasonable that Denys—whether out of sexual delicacy or family delicacy—should refuse to marry this ill and unsuitable and headstrong and (from the point of view of an English wife) unsuitable foreigner. They provided the setting in which he pursued his (real or imagined) affairs with other women. They gave the dinners to which the Baroness was pointedly not invited. They left her out—and for the wrong reasons. It is not that they were puritans. They were resolutely insouciants. They led gossip-column lives in a society-column world. They were devoted to parties, polo, adultery, and occasionally indulged in murder. They observed that the Baroness’s passion for Finch Hatton was not a passion in the right spirit. It made them much more uncomfortable than their own adulteries: it was so severe.
The women had nicknames like Cockie (Bror Blixen’s second wife was a Cockie). Half the men seem to have been called Jock. Beryl Markham’s first husband was Jock Purves, and the famous Lord Delamere’s son’s wife’s first husband was Jock Broughton (Sir Jock Delves Broughton), and he murdered her lover Joss, who was the Earl of Erroll. None of them were the sort of people with whom Isak Dinesen would have wanted to discuss her theories about nature’s noblemen. They are more at home in a cheerful and witty exposé like White Mischief, James Fox’s book about Joss Erroll’s murder. Fox is an English reporter, and he enjoys the Happy Valley crowd, as they were called, and their terrible behavior. He has an eye for the second-rate scandals that colonials got involved in when they tried to have a stylish good time.
“Class,” in Kenya, translated into effeminacy or caricature much more often than into that serious, mythic, moral relation to African race or the African landscape that Isak Dinesen wanted for it. She wrote to her sister Ellen that the women were particularly dreadful:
They have such appalling taste, always appearing in khaki down to the knees, with cartridge cases, and below the knee sheer silk stockings and high-heeled suede shoes, they are over made-up, screech frightfully and laugh hysterically, scold their workmen like fishwives, are furious about everything in this country and all have to look like girls of 17.
There was only one Englishwoman who seems to have interested Isak Dinesen, and that was Beryl Markham. Markham was raised in Kenya, a wild child fit for one of Dinesen’s tales, who played with the Nandi and hunted with spears and broke horses and fought lions—and who grew up to fly an airplane and seduce Bror Blixen and maybe Denys Finch Hatton, too. (Finch Hatton invited Markham along the day his plane went down, and Markham refused on what she said later was a premonition.)
When James Fox visited Beryl Markham a couple of years ago and asked about her “little walk-out” with Finch Hatton, Markham said that “he wasn’t the sort of chap who wanted to have affairs. He was too whatnot in himself.” When Fox asked about Finch Hatton and the Baroness she had this to say: “She was really after him. The thing is, he did like lovely food and good things, and she was very good at looking after everything, and, of course, he was well-bred, but I don’t think it really happened. I think that’s what buggered up everybody.” Of course, Markham was eighty-two by then, living at the Nairobi racecourse and drinking a lot of vodka and still using up the money the Duke of Gloucester had settled on her in 1929 to keep her husband of the moment, Mansfield Markham, out of the divorce courts. She could afford to take a long view of the Baroness. Her own African memoir, West with the Night, had been reissued the year before. Like Out of Africa, it was ravishing prose, and Markham was not particularly bothered that people said it had been helped along by a ghostwriter named Raoul Schumacher, whom she married in 1942 and left by 1950. Hemingway had recommended the book to Maxwell Perkins, with one (if the word applies) disclaimer: to wit, that “she omits some very fascinating stuff which I know about which would destroy much of the character of the heroine; but what is that anyhow in writing?”
Judith Thurman believes that Isak Dinesen got syphilis in September of 1914, when she was ferrying oxen and supplies from Kijabe to Lord Delamere’s volunteers near the Tanganyika border. The story goes that Bror Blixen, who was with Delamere’s patrol, visited her camp one night after spending the night before with an infected Masai woman, and that he promptly infected the Baroness. Never mind that the incubation period for primary syphilis is three weeks from first contact. It is likely that Bror Blixen already had syphilis when he spent the night in a Masai manyatta. It is likely that he got it not from a Masai at all but from one of his white girlfriends. Long before penicillin, there were people who lived with syphilis with hardly any symptoms at all—though not, as Thurman talking about Bror Blixen says, because of an “extraordinary constitution.” (You did not fight syphilis in those days by exercising.) But it is also likely that Isak Dinesen already had syphilis.
The facts of her case—as she alluded to them, and her Danish doctor, Mogens Fog, wrote about them when she died, and Thurman describes them—contradict themselves. Venereologists like Yehudi Felman, who is an authority on infectious syphilis, have said that they are baffled by the statements Thurman made about syphilis, and by her dogmatic diagnostic assumptions.3 They are baffled by the fact that Thurman has Dinesen the spinal deterioration of tertiary syphilis, in 1921—six years after an arsenic “cure” she took in Denmark, and only seven years after she was supposed to have been infected—when in reality the latency period between secondary syphilis and tabes dorsalis is twenty or twenty-five years. Dinesen was in Kenya from 1914 until 1931. If she had tabes dorsalis in 1921, then one could conclude that the Baroness contracted syphilis not from the priapic Bror Blixen (or any Kenya lover) but in Europe as a teen-age girl.
The point is not her syphilis, because she obviously did have syphilis and, whatever the dates, it eventually left her suffering from tabes dorsalis. It is the romance of syphilis which she created—and which is now part of the tale one accepts as “Isak Dinesen,” and reads into her characters, like Lady Flora Gordon in “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” buying her humanity with a kiss on St.Peter’s bronze foot that gives her the disease. The woman who could write to her younger brother, “If it didn’t sound so beastly, I might say that, the world being as it is, it was worth while having syphilis in order to become a Baroness,” had strong priorities—even if she did add that those priorities might not be “applicable to everyone.”
In 1948, when Dinesen was sixty-three and living at Rungstedlund, she made up her mind to seduce a young Danish poet named Thorkild Bjornvig, “by covenant,” for what she called a life in art. It was to be a mystical seduction, she said, because she had already made the “terrible sacrifice.” She had sold her soul to the devil in exchange for the gift of storytelling, and syphilis was the price she had paid, the Faustian seal on the exchange. She told Bjornvig that syphilis had removed her from a normal sexual life when she was young in Kenya (though in Kenya she had made much of the fact that she might be pregnant with Finch Hatton’s child). Syphilis added a dark and mysterious incapacity to what may have simply become chaste relations. It mixed up sex and art and disease in ways that were almost a convention for European writers of her generation.
In Out of Africa, Dinesen says that the Kikuyu on her farm were “never reliable, but in a grand manner sincere,” and Thurman remarks that this was also true of Dinesen’s idea of autobiography. “A poetic condensation of the real events,” she says, talking about the three-month trek across Masai land that Dinesen confabulated out of her supply runs in 1914 to Lord Delamere’s camp. “But it does justice to the experience.” Well, she could easily have been talking about Dinesen’s pact with the devil. It was “in a grand manner sincere.” It was valiant. And it certainly did justice to the experience. The fact is, though, that Dinesen could have had just as lyrical a moment with Denys Finch Hatton as Meryl Streep had with Robert Redford, swirling through mosquito nets and artful filters to a soft white bed. There is something acute, every now and then, in Hollywood’s pretty box-office revisionism.
Now, of course, Isak Dinesen is a tourist industry as well as a literary industry and a movie industry. People visit Rungstedlund on Sundays. It is an obligatory Denmark stop, the way the suburb of Karen is an obligatory Kenya stop for people on their way to the game parks. The New York Times has run its obligatory article called “In Search of Karen Blixen’s Kenya”; you can see from the pictures that the famous obelisk still stands, an unwitting and unwilling phallus on the site of Denys Finch Hatton’s grave. Kamante—now known to moviegoers as the cook who substituted local fish for suprême de volaille and nearly ruined dinner on the night the Baroness confessed to Berkeley Cole that she had fallen in love—has had his say about the Great East Africa Life. The photographer Peter Beard, who goes to Kenya every few years and comes away with some sort of coffee-table testimonial, published a collection of the old cook’s tales and drawings in 1975, and it was back in the stores in time for Out of Africa. It is an offering of unrelieved cuteness, with kindergarten script and crayon drawings and “chapters” with titles like “The Goodness of Mrs. Karen” and “Mr. Pinja-Hatern How He Got Fire” and nuggets of native wisdom on the order of “Mrs. Barance had no compromise with her husband, Mr. Barance Blixen, because he was such an extravagant man…I heard he died in the crashing of his car.”
Kamante, as it happens, is alive, or was when Sydney Pollack made the movie. He came out on location one day—although his book was not part of Universal’s “extraordinary movie/book tie-in opportunity,” which eventually included a Sierra Club picture book and new editions of Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. That “opportunity” moved even the editors at the University of Chicago Press to such best-seller fantasies that they reprinted Letters from Africa and Silence Will Speak (Errol Trzebinski’s biography of Finch Hatton) with pictures of Redford and Streep on the cover, in the place usually reserved for academic homilies. People in Kenya were not insensible to the advantages of the Dinesen connection, either, whatever the cost in self-esteem. One of the drivers who park in front of the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, waiting for tourists, has taken to identifying himself as the “brother of Saufe, son of Farah.”
Last winter, Edwin McDowell, the New York Times media reporter, pronounced “the Dinesen story…tailor-made for books and movies,” something, he said, on the order of Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man.4 (Sydney Pollack did better. He said Paradise Lost.) Richard Schickel, who writes movie reviews for Time, then produced a memorable column about Sydney Pollack’s “romantic idealism” and the “free-spirited, fullhearted gesture that everyone has been waiting for the movies to make all decade long” and the “emotional territory that is rightfully” Hollywood’s (though not the emotional territory that is rightfully Africa’s). Whatever the posters say about a true story, the eloquent tales and the fine life that were Isak Dinesen’s inventions have now passed through the sanitizing filter of Pollack’s sentiment, and it will take a while to get them back.
Pollack’s movie is a lovely and inane Lotusland product. It enjoys (and so do we) its plantations and white lawn dresses and gentle servants in gloves—and never considers the possibility that anything that looks as good as its fantasy of British rule might be troubling (or even false). It accepts the romance of race with which Dinesen turned her Somali majordomo, Farah, into a dark doppelgänger, an African mirror in whose esteem her own excellence was reflected. Dinesen’s Farah was “a cheetah noiselessly following me about at a distance of five feet, or a falcon holding on to my finger with strong talons and turning his head right and left,” and this, in the end, is how Pollack saw him. He never noticed the arrogance in those five feet of distance and that extended finger. He took them as Dinesen intended—as symbols of a silent pride that was somehow “Africa.”
“Nobody loves a downer,” one of Pollack’s young assistants nicely put it, and there were a lot of downers in the Baroness’s life besides syphilis and bad coffee crops and the inconstant and even perhaps incapable Finch Hatton. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was the only critic to remark that Pollack was out of his depth when he took for his heroine a woman who wrote things like “Farah was my servant by the grace of God” and “his [Farah’s] play of colours would fade and his timbre abate were he to stand alone. He needs a master in order to be himself.” In fact, Kael was the only critic to remark that it might take more than not shooting lions unless the lions attacked to make the Kenya patricians like Isak Dinesen “morally acceptable to us now.”
There is something immensely seductive about Dinesen in Africa. There is something seductive about all that land and a couple of thousand extra hands and a life that has more to do with the mortal dangers of safari than with the washing up. But then Dinesen herself was remarkable, and one does not have to despise her to acknowledge that colonialism was an ambiguous and morally complicated adventure—however high-spirited the conquerers and however amenable the conquered—and not the innocent romance she took it for when she wrote home, seventy years ago, to say that “with a little understanding and interest this society is in many respects ideal: social problems don’t exist here,—and they will not arise providing there is no mixing of the races.” Lately, we seem to submit to the most astonishing simplifications of the reality of Dinesen’s time. The president of Kenya says that colonialism was nothing more, or less, than the humiliation of Africa (“We are not amused,” the president announced, in the best British royal manner, after he had seen the movie), and Sydney Pollack resolves the colonial conundrum with a tearful scene in which Meryl Streep falls to her knees and begs the British governor general for a reservation for the Kikuyus she will be leaving behind when she goes home.
A lot of the Kenya settlers were driven not by Dinesen’s passionate aestheticism but by ordinary optimism. They also wrote memoirs—memoirs like Elspeth Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika and On the Edge of the Rift that were intimate and honestly domestic in attitude. They were not the sort of people to make grand gestures and fall on their knees in a receiving line—which is not to say that Africa intimidated them. They believed, like Dinesen, in colonialism. They believed what Theodore Roosevelt told them when he came out on safari and stopped to make a speech in Nairobi:
You young people are doing a great work of which you have every right to be proud. You have brought freedom where there was slavery. You are bringing health where there was disease. You are bringing food where there was famine. You are bringing peace where there was continual war. Be proud of yourselves, for the time is coming when the world will be proud of you.
And they were proud, because they also believed that “after slavery colonization was the most crucial event in African history.” 5
Errol Trzebinski has just written a book, The Kenya Pioneers, about some of those ordinary Kenya settlers. It is unlikely to be of interest to anybody but the settlers’ children and grandchildren once the Out of Africa season is over. But very early on, Mrs. Trzebinski makes a plain and accurate statement about the land where young Baroness Blixen built her coffee farm: “From 1896 until the First World War all manner of white men, bad and good, had found in East Africa a chance to make a fresh start.” The rest, you could say, is Out of Africa.
July 17, 1986
Judith Thurman, “An African Dream Reaches the Screen,” The Sunday Times (London), February 23, 1986. ↩
James Fox, “The Beryl Markham Mystery,” Vanity Fair, October 1984. The leader begins: “Questions buzz around Beryl Markham like demented tsetse flies.” ↩
—i.e., that the nighttime joint pains and headaches and high fevers Dinesen complained of in the fall of 1914 were symptoms of secondary syphilis (although they occasionally are symptoms of it). Certainly “severe depression” is not, as Thurman says it is, a symptom of secondary syphilis. The only sure symptom of secondary syphilis is a rash. ↩
McDowell gives the publicity figures for the “movie/book tie-in opportunity”: $5 million for advertising, 100,000 posters, 40,000 “educational kits,” and my favorite, 80,000 bookmarks. ↩
Errol Trzebinski, The Kenya Pioneers. ↩