Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (1937)
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Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen is her 1937 memoir of her years in Africa, from 1914 to 1931, on a four-thousand acre coffee plantation in the hills of Nairobi. She had come to Kenya from Denmark with her husband, and when they separated she stayed on to manage the farm herself, visited frequently by her lover, the big-game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton.
For him, she would make up stories “like Scheherazade,” In Africa, “I learned how to tell tales,” she recalled many years later. “The natives have an ear still. I told stories constantly to them, all kinds.”
Her account of her African adventures, written after she had lost her beloved farm and returned to Denmark, is that of a master storyteller, a woman whom John Updike called “one of the most picturesque and flamboyant literary personalities of the century.” (— From the 1992 Modern Library edition of Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen)
A 1938 review of Out of Africa
From the review in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 5, 1938, of Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen: Africa, the dark continent holding more secrets than all the rest of the world, still awaits the unrequited soul seeking adventure and lifts its voice thtough the dense jungle, the veldt, and upward to the mountain tops, where volcanic ash mixes with stardust and smolders like incense on an altar.
Baroness Blixen — she is indeed none other than the author, Isak Dinesen — takes you to Africa, to her 4,000-acre coffee farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills in Kenya, where she entertains extravagantly with her knowledge of the surrounding countryside, a panorama of Eastern Equatorial Africa, unsurpassed in beauty, charm, and interest.
She uncovers the secrets of the vast continent with a prolonged visit with the natives in their shambas, into the fields of the squatters; the Masai reserve, among savages who resent their superimposed civilization, yet endured it since there is no other recourse.
The reader is taken on safaris, trips to Nairobi and Mombasa and along the high road, where lions and other wild animals are frequently encountered. While Karen Blixen’s life in Africa is fundamentally hard it is made easier by an ample supply of servants, some of whom are from the area while others come from distant Somaliland, even India, to serve their masters humbly. It is their lives that endears the story to you. On the surface they may seem innocent as children, but underneath they are wise and intelligent. Their conventions and habits are colorful, like the wild terrain of which they are a part.
Their methods of dealing with crime, making contracts, and building their homes — a husband may have as many wives as he has goats with which to purchase them — are reminiscent of times before written history. Time has stopped with them and refuses the command to march on.
The author has told what it means to be lonely in a region where the white man — or woman — is still a babe in swaddling clothes, although she had numerous friends of every nationality. In one chapter are snatches of her thoughts of friends who have come and gone; incidents that could happen only in her tropic circles and to a woman with that soul of an artist; a true lover of nature.
Africa, wild and mysterious, vibrant with the echoes of antiquity; restless with the novelties of a new age; tireless in its changing moods since time immemorial, now and throughout all eternity. Africa, the birth of civilization, the asylum and grave of the adventurer. Africa speaks and her voice is like the roar of a lion, the stampede of an elephant herd, or the mellow song of a bird. And she is heard and felt through the splendid writing of Isak Dinesen, who knows her subject and better still, knows how to express herself.
Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) in Kenya, 1918
Great Quotes from Out of Africa
“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”
“Men go off to be tested for courage and if we’re tested at all, it’s for patience, for doing without, for how well we can endure loneliness.”
“Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.”
“I am for all time and eternity 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.”
“People who dream when they sleep at night know of a special kind of happiness which the world of the day holds not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom. It is not the freedom of the dictator, who enforces his own will on the world, but the freedom of the artist, who has no will, who is free of will.”
“It is more than their land that you take away from the people whose native land you take. It is their past as well, their roots and their identity. If you take away the things that they have been used to see, and will be expecting to see, you may, in a way, as well take out their eyes.”
“Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.”
“When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself.”
More about Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
- Reader discussion of Out of Africa on Goodreads
- Out of Africa Revisited: The Karen Blixen Museum in Kenya
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