Classic per Month Book Challenge: Out of Africa

If you haven’t gotten the scoop on my self-challenge to read one classic novel per month for a year, you can find it here.

You may have noticed that I began the month intending “Far from the Madding Crowd” to be my April classic.  However, after 80 pages of Not Much Happening and Lots of Sheep Drama, I gave up.  For now, at least; this article makes me want to give it another go in May.

Take two was Out of Africa.  Have you seen the movie?  It’s one of my favorites. It’s directed by Sydney Pollack, won a few awards, and stars Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

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The movie is dreamy and sweeping and for years, I’ve wanted to read the book it’s based on.

Out of Africa was written by Danish-born Isak Dinesen.*  It’s her account of her years spent in Kenya (then British East Africa) on a coffee farm she owned with her husband, the Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke.  While the movie version revolves around the relationship between Dinesen (Streep) and fellow European expatriate Denys Finch Hatton (Redford), the book says little about this, and focuses primarily on the state of the farm; describing the customs and personalities of local tribes; and above all, Africa itself.  Despite the title, the book is immersed in Africa; the country envelopes and hypnotizes Dinesen, and she writes about it as if it’s a living, breathing being:

If I knew a song of Africa, — I thought, — 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 colour that I had 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 look out for me? (83)

This brings me nicely to what I liked best about Out of Africa: the language.  Dinesen uses it to capture the scenery, but also to capture what Africa feels like.  I’m drawn to writing in which place is more than one thing: it’s not a look, but it’s a smell, texture, echo, taste. (Because in real life, how a place feels to us is a combination of all the above.)

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air.  Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air … In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana.  Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart.  In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be. (4)

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There are troubling parts to the story, too.  This is the height of British imperialism in Africa.  Dinesen writes extensively about the differences she perceives between Africans and Europeans, with enough detail to suggest that she made a study of it: “When the first steam engine was constructed, the roads of the races of the world parted, and we have never found one another since” (224).

Out of Africa is not much the story of Isak Dinesen.  It is a series of moody, nostalgic, often random observations about Africans, Europeans, and Africa as a personified being.  Though Dinesen herself comments upon her own fine storytelling ability, the yarn of her life in Africa is missing from her memoir.

 

Rating: 2.5 stars.  One cannot live off imagery alone.

Related reading: Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (I will be reading ASAP), Shadows on the Grass (Dinesen’s companion to Out of Africa), A Passage to India (similar themes/era)

Citations:

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*Isak Dinesen is a nom de plume for Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (commonly Karen Blixen)

Dinesen, Isak. Out of Africa. New York: Modern Library Edition, 1992. Print.

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