1937, 271 p.
I don’t often read the book after I have seen a movie but as I’m in Kenya, it seemed particularly appropriate that I do so in this case. I saw the movie many, many years ago and can barely remember it, but it seemed to me that the Robert Redford character was rather dominant in it. Obviously the screen writers were drawing on other source material in scripting the film, most particularly her letters I expect, because the Denys Finch-Hatton section is minor in the book and certainly not the main theme. In the book, it is a rather chaste relationship, and she says nothing about Baron Blixen (her husband), adultery or syphilis. She says little about the white settler Happy Valley set, and is even rather dismissive of them.
I confess that I was struggling a bit at first. It is very much a book of its time and colonial mindset, and I found myself bridling at her patronizing ethnographic commentary and the see it-shoot it attitude that pervades the book. She asserts a oneness with Africa and with her workers,most particularly Kamante the cook and Farah her overseer, but it is shot through with a strong sense of noblesse oblige. Nonetheless, she is critical of other people’s colonialism, but not her own. Yet in many ways she comes over as an anti-colonialist that we might want to identify ourselves with today. She comes to regret her participation in hunting; she lobbies the government for a reserve for the Kikuyu people and she recognizes that both white and native are obsessed with their own worldview and oblivious to the ‘other’:
The tales that white people tell you of their Native servants…If they had been told that they played no more important part in the lives of the Natives than the Natives played in their own lives, they would have been highly indignant and ill at ease… p. 186
There is not really a strong narrative line at all: it is more a series of connected and roughly chronological short stories. One chapter ‘From an Immigrant’s Notebook’ is exactly that: vignettes that feel a bit like writing exercises that could be taken from a scrapbook.
My reading of this book has been completely shaped by my experiences while reading it. I had commenced it in the knowledge that we would be visiting Karen Blixen House, and having been there, I have a much greater appreciation of the book. Her life here centred on her farmhouse and she describes events within the various rooms and places: writing in her sitting room, meeting with her workers on the round stone tables on the west porch, working in her kitchen. I’ve been there now, and can see her there. But it also reinforces for me the strong sense of possession she proclaimed as colonist – ‘her’ kitchen, ‘her ‘ house, ‘her’ natives.
The writing is evocative and beautiful, deeply imbued with a sense of place.
The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt, like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers… (p. 15)
However, I must admit that had I not visited the house, I would have closed the book thinking that it had been a rather insipid, dated and slight story. And I must say that this book and the film seem to have very little connection at all.
Postscript: I’ve just read an article that compares the book and the film which argues that Blixen’s voice and viewpoint in the film has been twisted completely out of shape to emphasize the Denys Finch-Hatton character as the romantic and anti-colonial lead. If you can access it (try State Library perhaps), the citation is:
Cooper, Brenda, and David Descutner. ““It had no voice to it”: Sydney Pollack’s film translation of Isak Dinesen’s out of Africa.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 82.3 (1996): 228-250.