Talbot County Free Library




Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > A Gift from the Past at the Talbot County Free Library

A Gift from the Past at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

From time to time I like to touch base with an old friend, someone whose influence has shaped, and continues to shape, my life. There's a buddy of mine from high school that I haven't seen in years, but I still call him every now and then, still email him. Then there's my college roommate, whom I also haven't seen in some time, yet the sound of his voice, a message from him in my in-box, always lightens my heart. And there are others, a couple of former bosses, a writer who worked with me in Washington, men and women whose examples I recall when momentarily perplexed or unsure, uncertain of the direction I should take. Somehow, talking with them, I'm reminded of who I am, where I've been, which, in turn, always makes me feel better about where I'm going.

There are books—not many, but some—that serve a similar purpose, touchstones that I return to as to a warm and safe place, a place I know as I know my home country. Remember how, as children, we used to thrill to hear our favorite story read to us again and again, how we looked forward to and savored the lines we could not ourselves read yet, but leaned toward, anticipated, as our mother's or father's voice approached them? I guess there will always be a bit of the child in me, a child who likes to hear the changes rung again as they were rung before.

One such book is Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa. I must have read the thing twenty times by now. My old paperback copy, published by Vintage in 1989, has long since had to have its spine reinforced with packing tape, the cover itself tattered, the book's pages browning now at the edges. That publication date makes me wonder if I first read the book after seeing the movie. If I did, I was in for a surprise. The movie was based more on Judith Thurman's biography of Dinesen than it was on the author's memoir of Africa. And while Thurman's work is revealing, Dinesen's is so much more.

At the beginning of her book Dinesen writes, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…. The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere: it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.” Dinesen's book gives us Africa distilled up through time and the memories of a brilliant, unsentimental, polyglot—a woman who could turn what many would have called the failure of her African sojourn into art of the first order.

Reading the book, one must always bear in mind that Dinesen was writing in what was, for her, a foreign language: English. And one of the works many charms is the unusual twist this can sometimes give to the structure of her sentences, the syntax and rhythms of her native Danish taking Dinesen's pen and our minds on an unexpected carousel ride. Open the book to any page at random and I guarantee you will find an exquisite and fragile beauty unlike anything you have read before. I would give my left arm to write English as evocative as Dinesen's.

Like all of us, the author was a creature of her time and class, but she was also a very wise woman. Though she may have picked up, along with its English, the biased language of her colonial world, she never acquired its deep prejudices. She may refer to her servants as “her boys” and the Kikuyu who live on her land as “squatters,” but it is to these same servants and neighbors that she turns for consolation and understanding as her African enterprise begins to unravel. They know how she feels about the home she must lose, and she goes to great lengths—against the bigotry and self-interest of her time—to assure them the permanence of theirs.

In a sort of postscript to Out of Africa that she called Shadows on the Grass, Dinesen wrote of the Kikuyu, Masai, and Somali she lived among in Kenya, “The introduction into my life of another race, essentially different from mine … became to me a mysterious expansion of my world. My own voice and song in life there had a second set to it and grew richer and fuller in the duet.“

I hope the world in its rush toward modernity never turns its back on Dinesen. Someday our language and our ways will appear as outdated and old-fashioned as hers, yet those who will dismiss us as old fogies will almost certainly still have much to learn from her.

© Talbot County Free Library