Recently in Shadows on the Grass Category

A voice of her own

| No Comments
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)

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)

Note to self

| No Comments
If ever I find myself graced with the good luck to enjoy an international bestselling memoir, let me not tarnish that work with a redundant, dated, cash-pandering follow up.  

Because, while in 1937, the observation that, "[i]n some respects, although not in all, the white men fill in the mind of the Natives the place that is, in the mind of the white men, filled by the idea of God" (Out of Africa, p. 358), might be thought-provoking, in 1960, the assertion that

The dark nations of Africa, strikingly precocious as young children, seemed to come to a standstill in their mental growth at different ages.  The Kikuyu, Kawirondo and Wakamba, the people who worked for me on the farm, in early childhood were far ahead of the white children of the same age, but the stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to that of a European child of nine.
(Shadows on the Grass, p. 382), is simply racist.

Because, if I'm going to pander for cash, let me do so whole-heartedly and write - not another allegedly quaintly charming book about my servants, about whom no one cared the first time - but about the lover to whom I referred with the exact mix of obliqueness and explicitness sufficient to pique a world-wide appetite lasting more than seventy years.

Someone should cash in on that appetite.  Why not me?

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Shadows on the Grass category.

Out of Africa is the previous category.

Warriors is the next category.

Categories

Archives

OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04