Saturday 8 April 2017

Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

Out of Africa by Karen Blixen has been my nemesis for quite a long time now. I've tried to read it several times after seeing and enjoying the movie back in 1985, but it baulked me at every attempt. I found the language stilted and dry and too descriptive.

Thirty years later it finally proved different. I wasn't put off by the old-fashioned language or writing style.

Occasionally the language still jarred my modern ears and eyes, but Blixen was obviously in sympathy with and empathetic towards the local people of Kenya.
The discovery of the dark races was to me a magnificent enlargement of all my world.

We ourselves, in boots, and in our constant great hurry, often jar with the landscape. The Natives are in accordance with it.

Certain stories and sections were beautifully wrought with Blixen bringing the reader right into her world. The first three sections were full of interesting and unique stories. Lulu the gazelle, local customs, tribal justice and tales about many of her servants provided the reader with an insider's view of a world that most of us will never be able to experience. Not only because that time in history has now passed but simply because most of us live out our lives not far from the place or culture of our birth.

An African forest is a mysterious region. You ride into the depths of an old tapestry, in places faded and in others darkened with age, but marvellously rich in green shades. You cannot see the sky at all in there, but the sunlight plays in many strange ways, falling through the foliage. The grey fungus, like long drooping beards, on the trees, and the creepers hanging down everywhere, give a secretive, recondite air to the native forest. I used to ride here with Farah on Sundays, when there was nothing to do on the farm.

The sense of adventure, curiosity and drive that makes someone leave their home, to explore another country completely different to their own and to embrace what they find there is not something that many people do voluntarily. Blixen was obviously an unconventional woman. Her independence and pioneering spirit would have been unusual in her time. She must have faced censure and disapproval at every step.

In Donald Hannah's biography, The Mask and the Reality (1971), she is quoted as saying,
Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams!
Yet none of this is evident in her book.

All the emotion is sucked right out of it.
We don't get to know Blixen - what makes her tick, why she embarked on this adventure in the first place, what obstacles she faced, how she felt about anything. We also don't get to know Denys at all. He is just this guy who flies in and out at times. When he dies, you feel nothing. You have no sense of who he was or why he was important to Blixen.

Thanks to wikipedia I found out that she wrote a letter to her brother Thomas in 1924, where she said,
I believe that for all time and eternity I am bound to Denys, to love the ground he walks upon, to be happy beyond words when he is here, and to suffer worse than death many times when he leaves...

None of that feeling is portrayed in the book.

Perhaps my problem with Out of Africa was expectation.

I was expecting a cohesive story about her life and times in Kenya, instead it was simply a collection of anecdotes, observations and character sketches, strung together by Blixen at a later date. One whole section, called From an Immigrant's Notebook, was purely snippets of information loosely collected from a journal or letters - all the bits she didn't have the time or inclination to flesh out into longer stories perhaps.

Thanks to the 1985 movie, I was also expecting to get a sense of Karen and Denys' turbulent relationship. Obviously the movie combined various sources of information to round out the anecdotes from Out of Africa, as none of this was revealed in the book.

The insights into Kenyan life and culture were fascinating but Out of Africa is not a memoir or an autobiography. For me, this was disappointing and ultimately unsatisfying.

There is now a museum in Blixen's old home in Kenya.

Out of Africa fulfils several bookish challenges. It is


  1. This book has been sitting on my shelves for ages....the nemisis as you say.
    I had the same feeling about Moby Dick.
    Good news: I enjoyed Melville's classic
    Good news: thanks to your review...I can just leave Blixen's book in the bookcase and watch the movie for th zillionth time!
    There has to be some bad news: it's raining on the otherside of the world!
    Great review. I keep reading your thoughts...but haven't very much to contribute about children's books just like the illustrations!
    Time for coffee and my next Margurite Duras book. She was quiet a woman!

  2. I think I saw the film once, but it isn't a book I will seek out. Thank you for your review.

  3. I've had this book for a while - it's one I've been meaning to read for ages. I too enjoyed the movie. I have started it a few times and put it back on the shelf. Maybe I'll give it one more go - and not expect it to be like the movie.

    1. I'd love to know what you thought of the book after trying to get into so many times, just like me.

      Perhaps if you went into it knowing that it was nothing like the movie and was mostly stories and anecdotes and character studies, then you'd be better prepared than I was.

  4. I loved Out of Africa, but I do know what you mean in that we don't really get a portrait of Blixen. It took me aback at the start but then I realized that if she didn't want to share, I would have to be okay with that. If I didn't get personal details about someone I never knew, I would accept her reticence and instead enjoy the wonderful portrait of Africa that she shared. I have her Seven Gothic Tales and I'm so curious as to what I'll discover with it. So enjoyable to share your insights, Brona. I always love that you share your opinions about books as sometimes even an opposite view makes one appreciate the book even more. Please keep it up! :-)

    1. Thanks Cleo. I started off really enjoying the book. The descriptions of the countryside were breath-taking at times. And her anthropological ability was pretty impressive too - documenting a time and place that is long gone was fascinating.

      I could handle the superior white European tone that often crept in to her descriptions of the locals and how they lived as being of her time. In fact, I think she was far more advanced in her ideas about indigenous populations than most people of her times. Although it was curious to see how someone with a lot of sympathy and empathy for the locals could still be so blind to the 'superior' position that she still took with them - often treating them all like children and expecting that they would want to attain the same level of 'civilisation' as she had.

      I could even cope with all the animal killing and safari stories, again, she was of her time. So many Europeans of that time treated the rest of the world like one big playground designed for their own amusement. It's impossible to imagine how future generations will judge the way you do things, the choices you have made or what the long term effects may be of something you think is harmless or fun at the time.

      It really was the expectations that got in the way of me enjoying it all the way to the end. I kept waiting for the proper story to start. I was expecting a narrative, not anecdotes - a memoir, not an armchair travel book.

      When I googled her life, I realised that she was quite a private person as well as being full of contradictions and complexities. I'd be interested in reading a good bio about her. Have you come across one?

      Goodreads also revealed that people either loved her book or hated it, so I'm the contrary one being being somewhere in the middle. I appreciated parts of it & it certainly piqued my curiosity to know more about Karen Blixen herself.

      It was a worthwhile reading experience, just not in the way I had first thought.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me :-)

    2. I so understand! My biography project that I did, helped me to adjust my expectations, as when you read biographies concurrently you realize that the form can be very different from one to another. Descartes' Meditations did not seem very biography-ish to me, nor did Nietzsche's Ecce Homo.

      Yes, I think the way you saw it could be a lesson for our times. Blixen and others probably had no idea of the appearance of condescension and elitism her actions would communicate to people reading about them nearly 100 years later. And as you said, neither did the Africans seem to notice it. I wonder if we have the same good intentions or points of view in certain areas nowadays, thinking that we're doing good, but in another 100 years someone else will see these same actions as contemptuous and arrogant ......???

      There are a few more personal books written about Blixen, one by her former secretary Clara Svendsen called Notes about Karen Blixen and two by her great nephew, Anders Westenholtz, The Power of Aries: myth and reality in Karen Blixen's life and The Forgotten Ape: man and woman in Karen Blixen. I haven't read them, but they sound interesting. Please let me know read any of them and what you think. She certainly seems like an interesting and complex woman!

    3. I've also been reading a book about our refugee offshore processing system that has been in place for about 4 yrs now. I'm not sure that anyone in any era could ever claim that it was the good or right thing to do. The trouble is I have no other solution to offer that addresses all the areas of concern.

      And reading OOA just reminded me that no matter what we do, it will have long-term long lasting effects that we cannot foresee right now.

      *Big sigh*

    4. Although "Out of Africa" is supposed to be autobiographical, I think there is some fictional writing in it. I have also read Karen Blixen, Letters from Africa 1914-1931 which in a way is more interesting. I love the quote in the beginning of the book, which is from a letter to her mother, 26 February 1919: "I have a feeling that wherever I may be in the future, I will be wondering whether there is rain at Ngong."

  5. I read Out of Africa last year and had similar thoughts that you had to it. The first part was pretty good, and the last bits were fine, but the middle part of the book was just painfully tedious. I, too, was disappointed that we didn't gain any insights into her relationship with Denys. After loving the movie for so many years, I was very disappointed in the book. I loved, however, West With by Night by Beryl Markham. Markham was a contemporary of Blixen and alos had a relationship with Denys. If you haven't read it, I recommend it!

    1. Thanks for the tip about Beryl Markham, I'd forgotten about that common link.

      It seems that the Blixen bio's are out of print. It would seem that she's overdue for a new one!

  6. I picked up this book secondhand about 6 months ago but haven't read it yet. I haven't seen the movie but I've read mixed reviews about the book that didn't divulge much, fortunately. It's always intriguing to read opposite viewpoints, especially when they're from people like yourself & Cleopatra.

    1. I'd love to have another opinion on this. There's lots to admire or to be of interest in Blixen's story, sociologically & anthropologically speaking, but it was missing heart.

  7. I completely loved Out of Africa, but I haven't read it since 2010, so I can't remember why! I think it was the poetry in the way she write. Some of the passages are just exquisite. x

    1. Yes some of the passages are exquisite but some aren't!
      In the end it was the lack of narrative that worked against this book for me the most.

  8. Anonymous3/5/17

    I've tried to read Out of Africa a few times too already, but like you, my expectations are getting in the way. I think the movie spoiled the book for me, although I am not a fan of loosely collected material to begin with. I much prefer a cohesive story.

    1. If I had realised it wasn't going to be a narrative I may have just read this book bits at a time. Dipping in and out of the various anecdotes may work better rather than trying to read it through as a novel.

      I don't feel the need to try this book again, although I am intrigued by Blixen's life & im keen to read a bio about her.

      I haven't watched the the movie since the late 80's either, so I'd be curious to see how it holds up too.

  9. Anonymous5/5/17

    My problem with Out of Africa is I read it right after the movie came out, and that was so lush and atmospheric, but it was really based more on Dinesen's life than on her book.


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