Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time In this book, the author of Seven Gothic Tales gives a true account of her life on her plantation in Kenya. She tells with classic simplicity of the ways of the country and the natives: of the beauty of the Ngong Hills and coffee trees in blossom: of her guests, from the Prince of Wales to Knudsen, the old charcoal burner, who visited her: of primitive festivals: of big game that were her near neighbors--lions, rhinos, elephants, zebras, buffaloes--and of Lulu, the little gazelle who came to live with her, unbelievably ladylike and beautiful. The Random House colophon made its debut in February 1927 on the cover of a little pamphlet called "Announcement Number One." Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, the company's founders, had acquired the Modern Library from publishers Boni and Liveright two years earlier. One day, their friend the illustrator Rockwell Kent stopped by their office. Cerf later recalled, "Rockwell was sitting at my desk facing Donald, and we were talking about doing a few books on the side, when suddenly I got an inspiration and said, 'I've got the name for our publishing house. We just said we were go-ing to publish a few books on the side at random. Let's call it Random House.' Donald liked the idea, and Rockwell Kent said, 'That's a great name. I'll draw your trademark.' So, sitting at my desk, he took a piece of paper and in five minutes drew Random House, which has been our colophon ever since." Throughout the years, the mission of Random House has remained consistent: to publish books of the highest quality, at random. We are proud to continue this tradition today. This edition is set from the first American edition of 1937 and commemorates the seventy-fifth anniversary of Random House.
What you get is an account of a long lost era, a world that is no more, having been swept away by the tides of time, capitalist modes of living and trends towards global uniformity. A whole era of ideas and lifestyles, both indigenous and western, that was already disappearing in the years that Karen Blixen lived on her African farm, is now completely gone, but somehow survives on the pages of this book. And while Blixen herself is conscious of this change, regrets the destruction, and is unable to resist moods of melancholy all the time, she doesn’t fall in the trap of easy sentimentality. On the contrary, she is a sharp observer and a true positivist, who combines the social eye of the anthropologist and the efficient, beautiful writing of the novelist.
For the modern reader who has become used to the simplistic, self-centred rhetoric of commentators, politicians, and experts, it is refreshing to read about colonialist procedures, the confrontation between cultures, religious strive, where in the analysis there is still room for subtlety, amazement, understanding, and acceptance of difference. For example, one is likely to learn more about the peculiar complexity of moslim gender roles in Africa by reading Karen Blixen’s portrayal of Somali women than one would from the prejudiced and angry stereotyping that comes with contemporary ‘pamphleteers’ such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
But what makes the book outstanding, beyond its many and accurate social commentaries, is the emotion that drives it. The story is inhabited by a song, a dance of characters –one of it is nature, the landscape – and each and every one of them finds a place in the heart of the reader. When at last Karen Blixen has to leave her farm and Africa, one has the feeling that the loss is not just hers, but of everyone – European and African – who for a time lived on that farm near the Ngong Hills.
Because the story ends badly, the end of the book is heartbreaking. But Karen Blixen is too good a writer to pass up the opportunity for creating one lasting image. When being forced to accept the depressing state of her affairs, with the implication of an inevitable departure back to Denmark, she is able to turn this unwanted destiny into something more deep and reassuring: “It was not I who was going away. I did not have it in my power to leave Africa, but it was the country that was slowly and gravely withdrawing from me, like the sea in ebb-tide.”
All this reader can think of is that without such a pitiful withdrawal, perhaps this beautiful book would never have seen the light.
I felt more mixed on her depictions of the "Natives." She had some keen observations of customs and behaviors, but she made my inner PC squirm a bit, and continually wonder what the Kikuyu, Somali and Masai would have had to say about her interpretations. Every once in a while, some of the oppressiveness of the colonial system comes through in her tales, as when some of her workers are jailed for performing traditional dances, or her cook flees because his former employer threatens to have him conscripted if he doesn't come back, or a young boy is flogged to death for a minor infraction and the colonist gets off lightly. Dinesen does speak of how the natives were robbed of their lands, and how they can't even legally buy land under the colonial system. I didn't get much of a sense of outrage from Dinesen, but she comes across as far from callous. In fact I think a lot of mutual respect and love between her and the people around her comes through. Remember, this was published in 1937. It was a very different time and Dinesen sees things from a very different lens than we would in post-colonial times. I don't think you can just dismiss her as racist; it's more complicated than that. To enjoy the book, you have to see her view of things as all part of the ride.
I think what I found most wanting though, in what is supposed to be a memoir, is any sense of her inner self beyond her response to Africa. A brief note about Dinesen heading the text hinted at a very interesting life. She had a troubled marriage, an intense love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, that's pretty much absent from the memoir. Her husband is barely mentioned. The book's brief biographical note says he infected her with syphilis. Ibsen's Ghosts, which deals with that subject, is actually mentioned in the memoir, but Dinesen never alluded to the connection. And while Finch-Hatton is featured in two of the chapters, "Wings" and "A Grave in the Hills" she never hints they were lovers. The book probably should be subtitled "notes about a Kenyan coffee plantation" because what she relates felt very fragmentary, not pulled together into a unified story, and strangely impersonal. I don't think that's a flaw per se, but very much part of her design. But it left me frustrated at times, leaving me wishing I could read some commentator or companion book that would let me know all about what Dinesen leaves obscured.
It has been a remarkable journey reading Out of Africa. The film takes great latitude with Karen Blixen's autobiographical account of her farming days in Africa. The autobiography itself is fascinating. Through her writing Blixen reveals her deep love of Kenya, of the people, and of the wildlife within it. Revealing and heartbreaking, her story unfolds in an honest, yearning narrative about her experiences, her dismay at the changing social and ecological landscape, and her deep regret when, broke, she must return to Denmark. There are moments when her optimism and naivete betray her writing, and other moments when she writes with considerable restraint given the sociological and financial burdens she carried.
I daresay Out of Africa the book will remain, for me, every bit as memorable as Out of Africa the film. Recommended.
Karen Blixen according to the book, 1001 Books You Must Read, only narrowly missed the Nobel Prize for Literature. It calls this a novel about the death of imperialism in Africa and hailed as the greatest pastoral elegy of modernism. It is a book about Africa and the language is beautiful.
Sadly for me the book is marred by a certain moroseness, an emphasis on death and dieing. Every chapter and incident seems to be focused on someone or something - tribe, culture, way of life - that is dead or dieing. Her coldness comes through in the end when she (almost) shoots her pets and animals. And we learn she later in life committed suicide. All this cast a pale of darkness over the beautiful atmosphere she describes to render it a deeply sad and ultimately tragic story. Yet the power of it is real, and for that it is and will remain a classic.
A most unexpected book. I bought it in January 1999 and I'm regretting the fact that it took over four years for me to get round to reading it. I was expecting a standard autobiography, of the colonial memoir variety, whereas it isn't actually an autobiography at all. There is no ongoing narrative no attempt at putting it in chronological order, except in the final section "Farewell to the Farm". It's page 228 before she mentions her husband at all and even then only in passing; the reader doesn't find out anything about him and she never mentions the fact that they got a divorce. It's more of a 'Pillow Book', a selection of the sights and happenings that caught her fancy enough to be written down. It is her poetic descriptions of the sights and sounds of Africa, that really draw you into this book. You feel her involvement with and love of the land, people and animals of her farm and the reserve bordering it, and her sorrow that she eventually had to sell up her farm and go into exile.
"Out on the safaris, I had seen a herd of buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished."
Books in a colony play a different part in your existence from what they do in Europe; there is a whole side of your life which they alone take charge of ... you feel more grateful to them, or more indignant with them, than you will ever do in civilized countries.
Blixen's memoir of this "uncivilised" land is both memorable and effective in sweeping the reader away into a very different world. Definitely a worthwhile read.
"I will not let thee go except thou bless me." (283)
This was released under another label 1982 that went under and was among the first audiobooks made that I knew of commercially.
Also the first audiobook experience for me and Julie Harris narration I thought quite good.
- from Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa
Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa was not exactly what I expected. I went into reading it thinking that it was a traditional memoir, but it is actually a series of lyrical vignettes describing the life of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen in Africa. Written sometime after she left Africa, the stories contained in Out of Africa reflect the distance Dinesen was able to put between herself and much of the hardship she suffered as a first-time coffee farmer in Kenya.
Among my favorite of her stories were the accounts of "Kamanate and Lulu." In the four stories included in this first part of Out of Africa, Dinesen describes her efforts to cure a young native boy who has a debilitating illness, and to adopt an orphaned bushbuck fawn, probably destined for someone's dinner table.
From the beginning, it is clear that Dinesen has a sense of humility where the native Africans were concerned, that is practically unheard of in other white colonists of her time. Her strong feelings for the native people and the harsh beauty of the land surrounding her farm is obvious to the reader. As she struggles to better understand the Kikuyu, Masai and Somali people, she comes to the realization that despite being dependent on them, she will never truly "know" them. This notwithstanding, she never stops admiring them, and learns a great deal from them in her time.
Isak Dinesen wrote beautifully of her love for Africa and it's people. Her stories are delicate and enthralling, and sweep you up in the words and imagery they contain. The language she uses is luminous, and her descriptions of the people and animals of East Africa are simply magical. Out of Africa is exquisitely written and will keep you turning pages late into the night.
Karen Blixen published Out of Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen in 1937 (Dinesen was her maiden name, though I have yet to figure out where the Isak came from). The events in the book take place over seventeen years -- from her arrival in Africa (to marry her second cousin, the Swedish Baron Bror Von Blixen-Finecke) in 1913 to her departure following the failure of her coffee plantation in 1931. If you finish reading Out of Africa and then read the Wikipedia blurb on Karen Blixen's life, you'll get a little angry. Why? Well, to start with, the Wikipedia blurb shows that Blixen actually had an interesting life, she just chose not to write about any of those bits. (Syphilis! Engaged to her second-cousin after failing to win his brother! Unfaithful husband! Divorce and retaining control of the plantation! Affair with Denys Finch-Hatton! Creating a personal legend of her own life!) In any case, it's a bit frustrating to read a "memoir" when very little of that comes into play. She focuses entirely on her relationship with Africa... so you'd think you might get a little of the husband or the lover, but no -- she barely mentions her husband at all and Denys is simply depicted as a friend.
The book doesn't follow much linear style, except in the fifth and final part where the coffee plantation fails and so Blixen sells it off and leaves Africa. Instead, it's comprised of a number of anecdotes about her life, the farm, and the people and animals on it. With just the hint of the title, the reader knows that everything cannot end well and that the author will be leaving Africa, but that might not be enough to hint at the elegiac tone which suffuses the entire work. It's melancholy and full of longing, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere. Blixen is writing about an Africa that no longer exists, a colonialist occupation on its last legs that is still struggling for elegance and grandeur in a land where grandeur is not high on the priority list (and, thankfully, not high on Blixen's). The Natives that populate the country aren't slaves and Blixen is quite kind to them, but the amount of condescension that radiates from her work is a bit mind-boggling. There are many ways to justify this and soften the blow, but the racism is inescapable. Clearly, Blixen wouldn't call herself a racist and she repeatedly calls many Natives her "friends," but that really isn't the relationship that's described Given the time period and the environment, it's not terribly surprising and her attitude might even have been seen as a bit progressive in comparison to others, but it's still there. It's the idea of looking upon the Natives as lesser creatures who need to be educated, adjusted, and changed. She might have some form of nostalgia for their way of life (and even tries to help it struggle on at times), but her perspective is the vision of someone who knows it will not last and it's probably for their own good that it not. Entire groups of people are lumped together in her descriptions of their temperament and outlook as she tries to explain to a European (or Western) audience exactly what these people are like and it's the rare individual that is singled out for any defining characteristics. There were animals that were described with greater detail than any human individuals. In general, her European focus on work, schedule, and order causes her to paint the Natives as lazy and ignorant, with the occasional admission some of them are clever and that the general populace might have something going for them that the average European has lost. There are a few instances where the activities of the Natives versus those of the Europeans are drawn into stark contrast -- particularly as it concerns justice, penance, and, apparently, logic. There's even the occasional time that she sides with the Native's perspective (though more often than not, she presents it to the reader as an oddity to puzzle or chuckle over). It isn't that she believes them incapable of learning how to do things... but again, here comes the paternalistic attitude. At one point, she even suggests that they might never develop the same attitude towards technology (her examples of this are airplanes and automobiles, for perspective) because they themselves never developed these things. They went from zero to sixty and as a result will never feel the way that others do whose civilizations developed these wonders. The issue I have here is not that they will have different ideas, but that her focus is on how they will never develop a specific attitude, as though there's only one good viewpoint here to which one can aspire. It's all so unfortunate, as Blixen clearly loves the land and the people, but I fear that her love is grounded in a system that could not endure, and therefore is easy to embrace for those who relish a tragic and doomed love.
Given the fact that the book is comprised of incidents and jumps around a bit, I found this terribly easy to set down after reading a few pages and rather hard to pick up again. Perhaps, too, I might have been more inclined to read things if I felt that Blixen weren't deliberately leaving out elements of her daily life. The complete absence of her husband is a gaping hole and while it does lend her the image of doing everything on her own, she doesn't go into enough detail about her own life to justify the responsibility. One also feels that Blixen's narrative is set up so she can pick and choose stories based on what she wishes to convey about this lost time and place... and there's the distinct sense that she isn't always being entirely honest. I don't even necessarily mean her real relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton (because if one wishes to conceal a relationship, that's one's own business)... but the way her narrative gravitated towards him and his death would allow even a child in school to believe that all Blixen's cards weren't on the table. Whether it was that some things were too painful to dwell on or that they didn't fit into her particular image of her time there, it's enough to drive one to Wikipedia to fill in the gaps.
I wouldn't like to give the impression that my entire experience with Out of Africa was totally negative. Her writing style is quite interesting (though Danish, Blixen wrote in English) and I'm not sure if it's the fact that English isn't her native language which gives everything a detached, matter-of-fact tone to it, or if she's adopting it to seem like a more justified observer of human nature. When I looked up discussion questions for the book, many focused on the idea of finding one's self, but no one in my book club actually thought the book was terribly concerned about Blixen "finding" herself. Yes, she was changed by her experiences in Africa, but without seeing any trajectory of self, it was hard to tell just how changed she ultimately had been. It is, however, really quite fascinating to read the account of this time period, if only because there's always some strange nostalgia for bygone days that feature this twisted mix of disparate wealth and social classes. I wouldn't necessarily say that Blixen was whole-heartedly in favor of colonialism, but given the choice between the way things were and the way things became, she'd have preserved the system just as it was. There's never really a thought to whether the Natives would be better off without the Europeans' interference. Everything about the work seems to be looking back without any desire to look forward, which is really quite a shame.
So I am pleased that I slogged my way through and I do recognize that Africa meant something special to Karen Blixen, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be endorsing this for school reading and discussion unless the kids are old enough to understand that these opinions about Native peoples aren't quite ideal. Some of the prose is lovely indeed and once in a while, Blixen succeeded in making me long for to sit on a veranda, surrounded by African scenery, but it was really only the landscape that inspired longing... and perhaps the wish that the Europeans hadn't been quite so hasty to claim the world as their own and displace the original inhabitants for their selfish gain. Better a memoir of the time be preserved than the system it discusses, and at least it's an account to remind us of the many mistakes in our world's history. If you're reading this to discuss with others, it could be quite worth it, but I'll not recommend that anyone trudge through this on their own. I feel a bit terrible for saying so when the book in question is often called a classic, but so it goes.
Blixen's writing is nostalgic and poetic as she paints a picture of colonial Africa from the perspective of a colonizer. I loved her descriptions (beautifully written), but the stories in the book are more or less vignettes, so don't expect a typical novel if you pick up this book: it's not written chronologically. The fragments of her memories she shares are selective but give insight to a different time and place. Karen Blixen loved Africa and the people she met there. This book is a testament to that love.