Perfect Bliss and Perfect Despair

Errol Trzebinski

  • Letters from Africa 1914-1931 by Isak Dinesen, edited by Frans Lasson, translated by Anne Born
    Weidenfeld, 474 pp, £12.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 297 78000 X

In 1972 I started work on a study of Denys Finch Hatton and his relationship with Karen Blixen. The biographer’s nightmare is the knowledge that an important collection of papers pertaining to his subject is being withheld from him during research. When his subject is the more elusive half of a pair of lovers, the question immediately arises as to whether there can be a biography at all. I had to find an alternative method of research. Fortunately for me, from 1931, when Karen Blixen’s (alias Isak Dinesen’s) lover died in a flying accident, everything that she wrote, both fact and fiction, included strands of their relationship. Her love for Denys Finch Hatton had been obsessive and was to be so enduring that she wove and interwove conversations they had had, experiences they had shared, as well as many of his personal characteristics, into her writing. The obvious course was to pursue the research from her storyteller’s viewpoint instead. When the letters were published and I was asked to write about them, the irony of the situation seemed to be in the best tradition of Isak Dinesen herself – Isak, in Hebrew, means ‘one who laughs’.

Above all else, this collection of letters illuminates Karen Blixen’s skill as a writer, but unlike her earlier published work, the letters also enable us to see her as herself, for they are addressed to members of her family. Many would have been dispatched to the Nairobi post office ten miles away, if not in a cleft stick, then certainly by barefoot runner from her farm at Ngong; they could take three or four months to reach their destination. They span those 17 years she spent trying to establish a coffee farm in colonial Africa: an important gestation period for everything she wrote, but, in particular, for her pastoral classics, Out of Africa and the lesser-known pendant to it, Shadows on the Grass. She was also one of the later members of the pioneering community, and her observations are all the more fascinating because she is writing – without any thought of publication – as an aspiring coffee farmer.

What we have here is the raw material from which Out of Africa was built. The letters give a month-by-month account of the farm, from the first breaking of soil, the planting out of the tiny seedlings and the straightening of their tap-roots to financial ruin caused by locusts, poor management, the devaluation of the rupee, labour problems and squatters’ rights. Few Europeans in that decade would have worked so hard for their employees or endured such disapproval among the white community for it. In matters of race relations Karen Blixen was half a century ahead of the majority of her English contemporaries. Her willingness to understand the Africans, their varied tribal cultures and the superstitions which formed barriers between these cultures, was an object lesson to many of her neighbours, for whose unthinking brutishness towards the Africans she had a contempt which she didn’t try to disguise. She never ignores the relativity of experience. It is her grand, sometimes clinical sense of perspective which sets her apart, her courage in accepting that ‘nothing lasts, and that in that very fact lies some of its glory; the sadness ... is really not so terrible.’ Her consummate ability to entertain is displayed by the record of the pedestrian duties which occupied the lives of all pioneers in British East Africa, whether they were flax-growers, horse-dealers or lumberjacks. The conversational tone as she writes ‘home’ to Denmark may make it easier for the unconverted to understand why Out of Africa is accepted as her greatest achievement.

Devotees of Karen Blixen have often sought between the lines of her African books and found nothing personal enough to satisfy their curiosity: a sense of mystery pervades all her work. In the letters we discover her self-confessed longing for greatness – a yearning which could not be quelled, to the extent that she considered it her ‘demon’. We note a weakness for titles amounting to snobbery – her enjoyment of the aristocratic set and her pleasure at being addressed as ‘Baroness’ by those outside it – and, in contrast to these peccadilloes, her abundance of courage: the physical nerve to defy encroaching lions with nothing but a whip with which to defend her oxen. Then there is her spiritual fortitude. At the end of it all, if the iron had entered her soul, it also enabled her, three years after her bleak departure from the ashes of her life in Africa, to reappear in the guise of Isak Dinesen in America. Robert Haas, after a year’s deliberation, decided to go ahead with the publication, in New York, of Seven Gothic Tales. Putnam, the English publishers, had rejected the manuscript without even reading it. Haas had taken a gamble. In the event, Seven Gothic Tales was chosen as a ‘Book of the Month’ in the USA before publication. One cannot help feeling, however, that Letters from Africa should have been attributed to the woman who wrote them – Karen Blixen.

Her desolation when she left Africa in July 1931 was complete. She was observed by a friend at Nairobi station:

Baroness Blixen ... is having to leave that lovely place and go home to Denmark. Her health is fearfully undermined by low fever and Denys Finch Hatton’s death has been the last straw. It is so like Africa to go smashing things down one after another like that or perhaps in Africa one sees things more starkly. On Sunday we saw the poor little broken Baroness away for good and so pathetic ... we were very glad we went. Lady Delamere was crying afterwards.

Long before her ‘frightful trial’ with words began, Karen Blixen had endured so much pain, indignity and disappointment that by the age of 46, she had become impervious to the dictates of fate. The claim that ‘no one came into literature more bloody than I’ was not an understatement. But perhaps she was one of those writers for whom the necessity of struggle was vital for development. Certainly these letters confirm that the key to the release of her storytelling gift was her lover’s death when his Gypsy Moth crashed in flames at Voi (in Kenya, not in Tanganyika, as stated in the Foreword) on 14 May 1931.

The sale of the farm preceded Finch Hatton’s death, and the idea that she must return to Denmark as a failure, burdened with regret and contrition, was so repugnant to her that she wrote to her brother, Thomas Dinesen, in April 1931, that death was preferable to a bourgeois life, for ‘in death I shall declare my faith in freedom ... Die happy; I can do that, and if you doubt it, then let me do it. Let me take Ngong together with everything it has meant into my arms and sink with it and it will be without complaint, indeed in great gratitude towards life.’ Frans Lasson, the editor of the letters, remarks, in his Foreword, that ‘no letters from Karen Blixen to her brother for the period between November 1928 and April 1931 have survived; it will always be difficult to determine, from a distance of many years, whether she did write any or not.’ Karen Blixen burned all the letters pertaining to this period in her life, and those which she did not dispose of herself were probably’destroyed by her brother out of loyalty’. Between them, Thomas and his sister ensured silence, and it is only within the last four years that intimacies have been revealed. She had warned her readers: ‘It is not a bad thing that you only know half the story.’ The missing half will not be found in the letters.

In Africa, Karen Blixen escaped the restrictions of convention. ‘I have always rather enjoyed being with mad or slightly dotty people,’ she wrote, ‘there is something liberating about being able sometimes to get away from the unspeakably worn-down, conventional paths, for the mind as well.’ In 1914, when she married Baron Bror von Blixen Finecke, her second cousin, at Mombasa, she did so in order to emigrate: it was his twin brother, Hans, whom she had really hoped would become her husband. The marriage was to be as conventional as its outcome, given Bror’s incorrigible nature, was predictable. He was a philanderer; he drank heavily and was hopeless with money; he lost his job on their farm through mismanagement and left her for another woman. In the letters we see the desolation, degradation, excitement and sense of liberation she experienced at Ngong. They show us the innermost thoughts, hopes and fears of Karen Blixen, the emigrant daughter and bride who paid for her title with syphilis; the struggling coffee farmer; the ailing and thoroughly disillusioned, yet uncritical wife who is faced with the sickening fact that her ‘devoted’ husband has given her venereal disease within the first year of wedlock – the result was a painful, though limited, infection of her spine. Her response when she finds that she has fallen in love with a very different sort of man, and that her love is returned, is not surprising, though it may have been excessive.

Denys was the second son of the Earl of Winchilsea, a contemporary of Julian Grenfell and Julian Huxley’s at Oxford, and two years younger than Karen Blixen. He was equally at ease with books, at the ballet in Paris or in the African bush, where he, too, found pleasure in the freedom from convention. He farmed, traded with the Masai and became a white hunter, taking the Prince of Wales out twice on safari. Karen Blixen writes to her mother that ‘he has a magical effect on me; never have I ever known such a feeling of happiness as I have in his company, it is as if I get light and air after having been confined in a room.’ He seemed to have that effect on all those with whom he came into contact, inciting adoration unreasonably, as if he had cast a spell. Throughout her involvement with him she communicates in her letters only what is suitable for her mother’s eyes and her aunt’s moral sensibilities, withholding anything about herself – such as the fact that they lived together (albeit intermittently) – which might offend their old-fashioned sense of propriety. The testing time, when her mother is arriving to stay on the farm and Denys will also be there, causes anxiety but is followed by relief: the anxiety was unfounded.

In 1918, when Finch Hatton came into her life, the letters change. Her intellectual potential is stretched; she applies her mind to all the subjects which the two of them have discussed, from birth control to the Muslim religion, the culture of the Masai and Somali tribes, the Bible and literature. In 1939, eight years after Denys’s death, she remarked to a close relative: ‘When I came back from Africa, I said to mother that she was not to expect much from me, for half of me was lying in the Ngong Hills.’ Would she have become a writer had he not died? Or would she have continued to wait for the crumbs of Denys’s love? She confided to Thomas her inability to come to terms with her dependence on Finch Hatton – a difficulty which is at the origin of many passages in her tales of fantasy. In 1926, before she had put up the impervious Isak Dinesen mask, she wrote to Thomas:

Denys has been here for a fortnight and is now going home to Europe ... I have, as on similar occasions previously, been in a state of quite perfect bliss, mixed with a state of quite perfect despair at the thought that he is leaving again so soon and that I may possibly never see him again. The result of these varying states of mind is complete awareness that he is the only person who means anything to me in life and that my whole existence revolves around this relationship as around an axis, which means that it offers the possibilities of what is called heaven or hell, with very abrupt transitions. But I will not and cannot continue to go on living this way, with this single element in my life; it is an intolerable situation and I find it impossible to allow my immediate future to take the form of six months of utter desolation, emptiness and darkness, with the hope of seeing him again in the autumn, and being lifted up to the same unqualified happiness, only to be cast back into desolation and darkness and so forth for infinity ... If this relationship should come to be my only possession in life; if I should come to it completely empty-handed, without any other interests, experiences, new ideas or impressions, then it would change from being the most joyful friendship, the loveliest sympathy and understanding I can imagine, into purely physical hunger and its satisfaction and I will not allow that to happen; and anyway it would never last in that manner, it would burn out in no time. No you see I must BE MYSELF ... achieve something that is mine, in order to be able to live at all.

In a passage from the story ‘Peter and Rosa’ in Winter’s Tales, published in 1942, the fear is still as real as it had been in 1926 (one cannot be certain when the story was written):

Yes he was running away, that was his thanks to her for letting him come into her bed, and for liking him...she went through their night talk sentence by sentence...But he was going away all the same, to far places, where she could not follow him. He did not mind what became of her, but left her here forlorn as in a dream. In two or three days he would be gone.

Isak Dinesen addressed the Academy of Arts and Letters in America in 1959 and her entire speech, entitled ‘Mottoes of my Life’, was woven round Denys’s existence, though too obliquely for the audience to detect it. It was under Finch Hatton’s influence, and as a tribute to him, that she had begun to write in English. Perhaps, as with Conrad, writing in English freed her from limitations her native language would have imposed. And perhaps it was his death that enabled her to commit herself to her writing.