Walking and Not Reading Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa”

Where are the benches in this cute gazebo?

We’ve had such lovely weather that I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors.  Nothing is more charming than sauntering on cobblestone sidewalks past lilac bushes and blooming fruit trees in the wild yards of old hippies.  White blossoms covered one brick sidewalk like snow.  I walked under blossoms across blossoms.

I also walked up and down hills, and my hips feel creaky as a result. I ambled around a scenic cemetery, green and leafy, very hilly, and looked at gravestones–the dates give you a perspective–other people have done this life thing before–and you’ll be in a grave one day .

The new gazebo in the cemetery had no benches.  I had planned to sit  there and read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, her exquisite memoir about life on a coffee plantation in Africa.  But I couldn’t sit on a stone slab! A pity, because Dinesen is ideal outdoor reading.  Her memoir is not precisely linear, but the language washes over you as her vivid vignettes unfold.

I wondered as I walked around the cemetery if Out of Africa, published in 1937, is still appreciated, or if it is dismissed as racist because she sometimes calls Africans “natives”?  And can the fussy readers of today imagine a Danish woman in 1912 moving to Kenya to run a coffee plantation with her syphilitic husband, and, after seeking medical treatment in Denmark for syphilis herself, returning to the man who infected her? After Dinesen’s husband left her in 1921,  she ran the plantation alone until 1931.  Her experiences are touching and vividly detailed: she gives medical treatment to the Africans, adopts an antelope, Lulu, and saves the life of Kamante, a young boy who becomes her chef and medical assistant.   No matter that she knows all about the cultures of the Kikuyu and the Masai: I can imagine the Millennials slamming the book shut.

I have not observed this readerly intolerance myself.  I worry about this only because professors and journalists rant about the younger generation’s rejection of classics.   If Millennials and Gen Z think something is sexist or racist, they’re done with it, according to several writers of articles.  I do hope they’re exaggerating.  I’m praying that the end of the world won’t go down in iPhones and intolerance.

I do love Out of Africa, and recently found a new Modern Library hardback with a pretty cover.  In my favorite part of Out of Africa, Dinesen decides to write a book.  The Africans who work for her gather in the dining room and watch her.  Kamante   asks if she really thinks she can write a book.  He picks up her copy of The Odyssey and points out that it is hard and the pages stay together, while hers are loose and all over the dining room table.  She explains that in Denmark they can put it together. But he doubts that anyone can make it blue.

And I love this bit about reading in a drought.

So I went to bed, taking a book with me, and leaving the lamp to burn.  In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun.  Your mind runs, transported, along a fresh deep green track.

13 thoughts on “Walking and Not Reading Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa””

  1. I love Out of Africa, although it’s been decades since I read it. I also love Dinesen’s jewel-like short stories. And I very much dislike people who think they’re so PC being horrified by the reality of the past as depicted in books. Yes, let’s erase all our sins and pretend they never happened. Idiots!

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    1. It’s such a stunning book! And I do hope the PC stuff is exaggerated. Everybody should have a chance to read this. The stories ARE great.

      On Tue, May 14, 2019 at 7:06 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

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  2. //I’m praying that the end of the world won’t go down in iPhones and intolerance//

    I pray not too, although it seems as if we are headed that way. This book (and the film) are so special to me, I was going to write about it but found myself crying, so must put that off. A weeping woman in a cubicle is a strange and frightening sight! I first came to the book in the early 80s when still in college. It led me to Dinesen’s other books, Seven Gothic Tales, Winter’s Tales, and the Judith Thurman biography. I think its time for a revisit.

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    1. Oh my goodness! I didn’t know about Judith Thurman’s biography. Out of Africa is brilliant but it is often tragic, and, yes, I suppose crying in one’s cublcle breaks protocol! I had completely forgotten how lovely this book is until I picked it up.

      On Tue, May 14, 2019 at 9:14 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

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  3. Kat, I love Dinesen’s books. And the film was wonderful too. Sadly, I feel that the PC world we live in will not understand or appreciate anything other than their own narrow points of view.

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    1. What I find really sad is that I’d even think of this when I’m reading this beautiful book! I do hope this isn’t how people read, but I’ve read plenty of articles about the censorship, i.e., ignoring, of older books.

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  4. I read Out of Africa last summer after reading Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Both books are excellent reading.

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  5. Whether I knew of Isak Dinesen before watching the film of Out of Africa, I’m not sure. I think the books were already on a household bookshelf but that it was the film that made me think I wanted to read them. However, it took me years to actually get around to Out of Africa, and that was after having enjoyed her short fiction.

    For those of us who do find meaning and resonance in the works of the past that were trying, in their own way, to make change in the world, to acknowledge and embrace different cultures and perspectives, it’s often frustrating to see how quickly the works we value are dismissed by younger readers and writers. But, then, don’t we have to ask ourselves if we are taking time to understand the works they value more, the ones they see as addressing injustices as well?

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    1. Isak Dinesen fans, unite! Well, we all go through phases. After reading Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, a book of literary criticism, I felt that it was wrong for me to love D. H. Lawrence. Fortunately, I took a Women’s Studies class where the prof took a different view, and realized these things were case-by-case and person-by-person.

      And there is a chance that the PC thing is wildly exaggerated! I hope it doesn’t apply to Isak Dinesen.

      On Wed, May 15, 2019 at 8:41 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

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      1. PC feels like a phrase that a lot of people use differently: I’m never entirely sure what it means when I don’t know the speaker. When did it become problematic to aim to be “correct” about inclusion, for instance. As a colonial writer, I can see where Dinesen would be dismissed by a lot of younger readers and writers who are concerned about representation and who would rather read other – more recently published – books. And I can see that argument. But I still appreciate Dinesen’s work too.

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      2. Yes, PC is a dreadful phrase. And certainly I have been accused of it, and laughed it off (until recently, when I, alas, am startled by some of the oversimplifications ). The difference for previous radicals, whether GEn X, Boomers, or the Greatest Gen, was that we valued history, language, literature, philosophy,of other times, while at the same time working against war, for the environment, etc.. The latest period in history is not necessarily the smartest. And there is so much to value in literature of earlier times.

        But I don’t want to offend you, Marcie, because it was just a passing thought during a walk. No one has complained to me here about Out of Africa–the reverse!–so perhaps the sensitive Dinesen is spared the unsparing rod. I do hope so. What a great writer.

        The movie didn’t make much impression on me, perhaps because I’d already read the book, so I’ll have to see what THAT’S like!

        On Thu, May 16, 2019 at 10:26 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

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