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A voice of her own

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HugoHellstenPhotoOfKarenBlixen1957.jpg
Visiting the Karen Blixen Museum today in Rungstedlund, Denmark, I took advantage of the opportunity to listen to a 27-minute recording of Karen Blixen reciting her story, "A Letter from a King," in English, before an audience.

I had known, from Judith Thurman's biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, that Karen Blixen intended her stories to be read aloud and listened to.  Hearing Karen Blixen tell her own story in her creaky-resonant voice with her old-lady inflection, I understood why.  The story on the page was two dimensions to the oral form's three.

Karen Blixen had a sense of humor, but - unlike Rabelais - it wasn't primarily scatological, physical or premised on misunderstandings.  These types of humor are sturdy vehicles that can survive the abuses of time and transmutations into different formats. 

Karen Blixen's sense of humor, on the other hand, is a fragile tone, easily lost in the migration of form and context.  On the page, I could understand why Karen Blixen might be thought to have been funny.  Hearing her tell her story, it was funny.  She earned her laughs from the audience. 

Moreover, in the oral form of the story, I realized that she was poking fun at herself with her account of how her friends in Denmark thought she was a snob for sending a lion skin to King Christian X; her self-deprecation - obvious in the oral form, muted on the page - made her likable.  Listening to Karen Blixen's tale, I was transported to a younger time, when I sat at my grandmother's kitchen table, listening to her tell stories with gentle punch lines.  (For this reason, I selected a photo of Karen Blixen, above, that reminds me of my grandmother.)
  
Beyond the restored humor, however, the oral form of the story took on a completely different meaning.  "A Letter from a King" begins by recounting an event that Karen Blixen describes in Out of Africa: a New Year's Day outing that ends with Karen shooting a lion perched on the carcass of a giraffe.  When they see the lion, Denys Finch-Hatton hands Karen his rifle and tells her to shoot it.  She doesn't like to use his gun; it's too big.  But, she says, the shot is for love, so shouldn't it use the largest caliber weapon?

The anecdote is a significant one to Blixenania lore.  Karen Blixen herself repeats it in both Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass.  Errol Trzebinksi begins her biography of Denys Finch-Hatton, Silence Will Speak, with a retelling of the episode.  Judith Thurman interprets the shot of love as being for Denys Finch-Hatton. 

But when Karen Blixen tells the story, the love is unquestionably for the lion.  Hunting, she insists, is like a love affair.  Usually, she admits, the passion is one-sided.  The hunter is in love; the prey, not so much.  But with lions, she insists, it's different: they want to kill her as much as she wants to shoot them.

This meaning (and its attendant humor) were largely lost on me when I read Shadows on the Grass and Out of Africa.  I was busy focusing on where the text betrayed clues of her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton (who she refers to as her "friend" in "A Letter from a King"). 

But this subtextual obsession is exactly what Karen Blixen's oral performance obviates.  Reading from the page, I capitulated to the temptation to wander from her path, to sniff - like a pig hunting truffles - for buried treasure, to read with my own agenda.  Listening to Karen Blixen tell her tale, however, I was led where she wanted me to go, directed to the treasure before my eyes, engaged by her story in her voice.

For whatever reason - whether the clamor of her personal life has deafened readers to her literary voice, or whether English is too foreign a vehicle for her voice to carry on the page, or whether she's simply a storyteller in the ancient model of epic poet, and her tales work better orally - Karen Blixen's storytelling voice only emerged fully for me when I heard the recording.

It's a voice worth hearing.

The Karen Blixen Museum would do well to make her oeuvre available, where possible, in podcast.

(Photograph of Karen Blixen by Hugo Hellsten, taken at Rungstedlund, in 1957, on Kulturplakaten)

The accidental jester

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B_Cole_and_Cranworth.jpgStorytellers don't have to be reliable to be entertaining.  Great narrative voices can be widely off the mark - P.G. Wodehouse's marvelous Bertie Wooster is an example - and yet their own haplessness with facts and reality only deepens our delight in hearing what they have to say.

Lord Cranworth is an interesting example of an entertaining, unreliable narrative voice.  Unlike Bertie Wooster, who is fictional, Lord Cranworth was real.  And diverting further from Bertie Wooster, whose lack of reliability was the conscious intent of his creator, Cranworth didn't mean to be unreliable.

Cranworth has become unreliable in part because the passage of time has rendered so many of his opinions politically incorrect.  "I dislike making contact with a black race which emphatically dissents from the superiority I claim for my race and colour," he writes of Ethiopians.  (Lord Cranworth, Kenya Chronicles 178 (1939)).

But Cranworth has also become unreliable because his account of factual events diverges from other contemporaneous accounts.  Here, for example, is Cranworth's version of the events leading up to the deportation of Galbraith Cole:

Galbraith Cole was one of the earliest pioneers, a brother-in-law of Lord Delamere, and deservedly one of the most popular inhabitants both with black and white.  He had suffered repeatedly from thefts of cattle and sheep from his farm on Lake Elmenteita [sic], abutting the Masai Reserve.  One day he caught a party of Masai red-handed driving off his sheep, and, having a rifle, fired a shot to frighten the delinquents.  By an unfortunate mischance the shot struck one of the party, who subsequently died.  The Government were placed in a position of difficulty.  No local jury would, or indeed could, convict Cole of any major crime, and the tribe in question, with whom the punishment for cattle-stealing from time immemorial had been death, saw no justifiable grounds for complaint.  On the other hand, a considerable opinion at home said that in the interest of our own rule and good name an example must be made.  And again it is hard to dissent from that view.  The Governor decided that it was a case for deportation, unpopular though the course might be.
(Kenya Chronicles at 64).

His account omits several salient facts that Karen Blixen mentions about the event:

When Karen Blixen lectured at Lund University in 1938 she gave an example of Galbraith Cole's unswerving conviction, which a man of less fibre would have easily betrayed.  Like the Masai he had killed, he paid his price without question:

The Judge said to Galbraith, 'It's not, you know, that we don't understand that you shot only to stop the thieves.' 'No,' Galbraith said, 'I shot to kill.  I said that I would do so.'

'Think again, Mr. Cole,' said the judge.  'We are convinced that you only shot to stop them.'

'No, by God,' Galbraith said.  'I shot to kill.'  He was then sentenced to leave the country and, in a way, this really caused his death.
Errol Trzebinksi, Silence Will Speak 76 (1977) (quoting Donald Hannah, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: the mask and the reality 35-36 (1971)).

In highlighting this disparity, I am not so much interested in which version is accurate, but in the relationship between an accurate grasp on facts and the formation of opinions that endure the test of time.  My guess is that Cranworth wasn't just unlucky that public opinion shifted away from his conviction of white superiority; rather, I hazard that a certain disposition on his part to tamper with facts supported the formation of opinions that could not survive the eventual triumph of reality.  Hence, the man could write of his early years in British East Africa:

Settlers were coming in with a steadily increasing flow.  New, beautiful and undeveloped territories were being discovered and occupied.  New crops were being tried out and new possibilities became probabilities almost monthly.  Land values improved with great rapidity and the native population became more prosperous and infinitely happier and safer.  No stigma rested at that time on the white settlers for the work that they were doing.
(Kenya Chronicles at 29 (emphasis added).)

Amusing to read now, but not very credible.

(Photo of Berkeley Cole and Lord Cranworth from Kenya Chronicles)

Out of [touch in] Africa

Harry_Thuku2.jpgKaren Blixen's writing has long been recognized as being significant as much for what it omitted as for the subjects on which it dwells.  But that recognition has focused largely on Blixen's coyness about her affair with Denys Finch-Hatton.  Obfuscation seems to have been the modus operandi of their relationship.  As Errol Trzebinski recounts in Silence Will Speak:

Friends who knew Tania and Denys well - few were privileged to observe their relationship closely - concluded that they fully intended to perpetuate the aura of mystique which from the start has served to swathe and protect them in an enigmatic smoke-screen.
. . . .
"Tania and Denys were both very elusive and meant to be" . . . .
p. 150 (Denys called Karen "Tania" after "Titania," the Queen of the Faeries in A Midsummer Night's Dream).

Reading Carl G. Rosberg, Jr. and John Nottingham's The Myth of "Mau Mau": Nationalism in Kenya, I realized that omission and obfuscation characterized another relationship in Blixen's life: that of her self-touted love for her "black brother." (Karen Blixen, Letters from Africa, p. 390.)

Although Blixen's tenure in Kenya, from 1914 to 1931, spans important, early expressions of black Kenyan political agitation against the British government, she doesn't count this behavior in her inventory of Native capacities.  Her blindness is significant because Blixen was not immune to politics in Kenya: she rails about political maneuvering by the settlers ("I am so angry with the English because they want to impose higher taxes on them [the Natives]," Letters from Africa, p. 240).  But while white political activity provoked her sense of noblesse oblige, black Kenyan political activity completely escapes mention in her writing.

In March 1922, for example, the British arrested Harry Thuku (pictured), an activist who wrote a letter demanding redress of grievances from the British government.  After his arrest, Kenyans calling for his release converged on the detention center in Nairobi.  The protest ended in gunfire and between 21 and 56 deaths.

Among the many remarks of note in Karen Blixen's letters from 1922 are references her troubles with Bror, to her sister's death, to resuming painting, to her love of lilies, to her hair loss, to her brother Thomas' visit, and to books she and Thomas are reading, but the most singular political event of the year finds no mention.  (Caveat: some possibility exists that mention of Harry Thuku was not a topic the editors of her letters thought worthwhile to allow to remain in the letters, but - looking at entirety of her correspondence from Africa and her concerns during her years there - the possibility seems remote.) 

Black people - her servants being the only ones she knows - do crop up in her letters from 1922:  she bemoans her cook, Isa, being poisoned by his wife, and she celebrates her servant Juma's daughter, who "sets the table and makes toast and is full of her own importance as a houseboy."  (Letters from Africa, p. 132-133).

What explains this obliviousness by a writer who, in her own estimation and that of many critics, is incisive in her observations and humane in her depictions?  Shadows on the Grass, Blixen's superfluous follow-on to Out of Africa, provides a clue.  

Two pages into Shadows on the Grass, Blixen begins rhapsodizing about the paradigm of Master and Servant: the servant "needs a master in order to be himself."  (Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, p. 378-379.)  Her notion that blacks need a white telling them what to do in order to self-actualize is only too clear.  

The thing about servants - good servants, anyway - is that they're not disobedient.  They don't demand redress of grievances in a threatening way.  "Agitation" and "activism" are not their domain.  One the contrary, good servants have, as Karen Blixen says of black Kenyans in Out of Africa, an "immense gift for resignation" and keep "up a peculiar self-feeling in their relations to those who persecute[] them."  (Out of Africa, p. 144.) 

"Good servants" - not activists - seems to be all Karen Blixen can accept in the way of a role for black Kenyans in their relations with whites (that is, unless the black Kenyans are helpless, impoverished, ignorants in need of medical attention, in which case she is happy to help).   

In fairness, Blixen recognizes that some Africans - the Masai, for example - are warriors, not servants; but the Masai are pointedly outside the scope of white-black relations: they're isolated, on their "reserve."  And although Blixen acknowledges that Kinanjui is a Kikuyu chief - not a servant - in Kinanjui's relationship with her, his role is to provide her farm with labor: that is, servants.  When Kinanjui asks for a favor in return - to retire to her farm to die - she refuses him.  

Outside the scope of Master-Servant relations, Blixen doesn't have any capacity for interaction with black Kenyans because, ultimately, what seems to have stimulated her "love" for her "black brother" was the power she held over them.  Less educated than she wanted to be, less attractive than she'd hoped, perpetually struggling with her weight, dependent on her family for money, infected with syphilis and then abandoned by her husband, passed over for marriage by her lover, unsuccessful in her business endeavors, hopeless as a farm manager, the predominant experience of Karen Blixen's life in Kenya, as articulated in her letters, was helplessness and disempowerment.  Only in her relationship with the blacks around her was she able to fancy herself in control, although - if she recognized this fact - she wasn't able to record it in writing.  

What she does commit to paper, repeatedly, is a fixation with feudalism and the nobility of long-ago relations of power that, in the modern world, are recognized as unfair.  I don't doubt the sincerity that characterizes her status as an aristocracy groupie; but her romanticization of the past served as a convenient screen behind which to hide troubling questions about her power over the blacks on her farm.  

That Harry Thuku and black political activity don't manifest in Blixen's writing is therefore no surprise: Blixen defends herself by failing to see what she can't imagine, and her imagination was remarkably fixated by feudalism.

(Photo of Harry Thuku from Black Past)

A biography reader's lament

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Too_Close_to_the_Sun2.jpgI don't write biographies - reading them is enough of a strain on my leisure time - but even I know that, in the absence of new information, writing a biography of someone whose life has already been so documented is not advised.

So I am now doubly dumbfounded at Sara Wheeler's choice to write Too Close to the Sun.  As I noted in a previous post, Finch Hatton didn't leave enough of a record of his life - in writing or in accomplishments - to enable a biographer much scope . . . never mind leaving enough room for two biographers to maneuver.

In my prior post, I had incorrectly assumed that, prior to Too Close to the Sun, Denys Finch Hatton hadn't been subjected to the biography treatment.  I'd been wrong.  Not only was a previous biography in existence (if not in print), but Silence Will Speak, by Errol Trzebinski, covered exactly the same ground as Too Close to the Sun.
   
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Despite the paucity of the historical record, however, Wheeler had an opening to apply a critical perspective to Finch Hatton's life - an opportunity which she squandered.  Both she and Trzebinski, decades after the man's charred remains were laid to rest, appear to be enthralled to Finch Hatton's supposed charms.  Although both women duly note that Finch Hatton had a solitary streak and was subject to depression; that he left Karen Blixen notes apologizing for his foul moods; that he had earned among the Africans the nickname "Makanyaga" (which means "to tread upon" - was he, perhaps, rude to the help?); that he was dismissive of his brother Toby; and that the word "immature" seemed appropriate - both biographers pass lightly over these facts, refusing in-depth analysis and anchoring their works in the realm of hagiography. 

That they should have done so is disappointing because a reassessment of Finch Hatton casts Karen Blixen in a fresh, more sympathetic light.  Rather than being a possessive woman who ruined her relationship by smothering Finch Hatton - as Trzebinski portrays her - or as being a selfish monster living in a fantasy world of self-deceiving lies - in Wheeler's version - Blixen could, in fact, have simly been a woman passionately in love with a man who was never able deeply to commit.

While one worshipful (of Finch Hatton), bitchy (to Blixen) biography seems justifiable, two is a bit rich, even accounting for Finch Hatton's aristocratic lineage.  As much as Wheeler no doubt needed some occupation for her time, rewriting Trzebinski's biography has led to a waste of mine.

(Pictures courtesy of Shopping.com Australia and Amazon)

A different kind of inauspicious start

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Much has been written about the importance of the beginning of a novel.  Notwithstanding the volume that's been written on this topic, the essential message rarely varies: 

Undoubtedly good advice, but in this thicket of mono-messaging writers may lose sight of another risk that lurks at the opening of a novel: captivating the reader's attention with the appalling limitedness of the writer's point-of-view.

Such was my experience reading the Prologue of Errol Trzebinski's Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and his Relationship with Karen Blixen.  First sentence: "It was dawn."  Not good, but not going to make me put the book down, either.  Trzebinski's first sentence sets the scene.  It's concise.  (Personally, I wouldn't start a book with the word "it," since "it" is supposed to refer to the foregoing noun, and by definition, at the first word of the first sentence of a novel, there's no foregoing noun - but whatever.)

No, the trouble in earnest started with this sentence, on the following page:  "The African sitting in the back of the truck reached forward to the woman and lightly touched her shoulder extending his other hand to point out what he had spotted, with his inherent native instinct, more swiftly than she."  My concern was not so much the omission of the comma after "shoulder" (although that bothered me, too), but the inclusion of the phrase "inherent native instinct."  Sorry, but the book was published in 1977 by The University of Chicago Press.  Hello editor?

The issues only multiplied from there.  Although I like to think of myself as someone who reserves judgment, I was fully turned off within the next two sentences, when Trzebinski describes a lionness feeding on the rotting carcass of an "obscenely prostrate bull giraffe" as "looking up from her vile feast."  (p. 2.)  I mean, really, it's one thing to be racist (e.g., Margaret Mitchell; still imminently readable), and quite another to be critical of the diet of wild animals.  What does Trzebinski want the lioness to eat?  Linguini alfredo?

Passages like these shift the nature of reading for me; I no longer continue to turn pages to find out what happens, but to see just how demented the author is.  With 309 pages of Silence Will Speak to go, however, I'm wishing silence had less to say.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Trzebinski, Errol category.

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