Karen Blixen

Out of Africa

Willa’s novels left me with a profound feeling of contentment. I had no wish nor need to start reading anything new. However, out of an (in cases such as this, highly questionable) necessity to have a book by the pillow to dip into for a few minutes (or a half an hour; or maybe even longer) before going to sleep, I picked up Out of Africa.

It proved to be a good choice: it has substance but is not too engaging or demanding (I wanted nothing that would ‘outflavor’ Willa); chapters stand well on their own and, even within them, there are passages that would make a pretty collection of vignettes. For example:

Denys Finch-Hatton and I went with Mr. Bulpett for a picnic to the top of the Ngong Hills on his seventy-seventh birthday. As we sat up there we came to discuss the question of whether, if we were offered a pair of real wings, which could never be laid off, we would accept or decline the offer.
     Old Mr. Bulpett sat and looked out over the tremendous big country below us, the green land of Ngong, and the Rift Valley to the West, as if ready to fly off over it at any moment. “I would accept,” he said, “I would certainly accept. There is nothing I should like better.” After a little time of thought he added: “I suppose that I should think it over, though, if I were a lady.”

I don’t want to write about her Africa. I’ll just note this – although she is seeing it mostly through the comparison with European civilization (her vision lightly shadowed with some biases), it is obvious she has a deep affection towards the land and its people; she’s eager to know them and understand their views and feelings, but Africans (Kikuyu and Maasai tribes, to be precise) remain mysterious, unfathomable almost as much as they were at the beginning of her life among them. Even though she managed to capture their ways of being, it still feels like she only scratched the surface.

Blixen definitely has an appeal. There’s beauty in her style and her perception is well developed, poetical and at times romantic.. But, throughout the text the reader keeps coming across the many weird, forced comparisons, which obviously serve to prepare him for passages as this one:

He walked as noiselessly as a cat. And, like a cat, he made every room that he sat in, a place of comfort, as if he had had in him a source of heat and fun. If Berkeley had come and sat with you upon the smoking ruin of your house, he would, like a cat, have made you feel that you were in a picked snug corner. When he was at his ease you expected to hear him purr, like a big cat, and when he was sick, it was more than sad and distressing, it was formidable as is the sickness of a cat. He had no principles, but a surprising stock of prejudices, as you would expect it in a cat.

I understand she wanted to underline Berkeley Cole’s resemblance to a cat, but accumulating the comparisons of the same sort in five subsequent sentences is clearly not the proper way to do it. It just sounds bad. And, can someone please point me to the person who would expect a surprising stock of prejudices in a cat? I didn’t know cats had prejudices (and I had a lot! of cats in the last fifteen years of my life) let alone so many that it could be surprising.

∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼∼

Reading an interview with Blixen for The Paris Review I felt a bit sorry that Out of Africa happened to be my introduction to her work. I have a feeling her Winter’s Tales or Seven Gothic Tales are better written and I am curious to find out what they taste like.