Karen Blixen | Critical Review by Anthony Burgess

This literature criticism consists of approximately 22 pages of analysis & critique of Karen Blixen.
This section contains 1,091 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Anthony Burgess

SOURCE: "A Saga of Africa," in The Observer Review, September 6, 1981, p. 29.

Burgess was an esteemed English novelist, essayist, playwright, and short story writer best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange (1962). In the following review of Letters from Africa: 1914–1931, he favorably assesses Dinesen's writing style, contending that she "never fails in grace, sharpness, and humanity."

At the end of 1913, Karen Dinesen left Denmark and sailed to Mombasa. She disembarked to marry immediately Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke of Näsbyholm, to whom she had been engaged for a year. Baroness Karen Blixen and her husband then went to Nairobi to manage a Swedish-owned coffee plantation called MBagathi.

They were not the only Scandinavians in East Africa, and the tradition of sending the skills of the Northmen, and their Lutheran conscientiousness, to Kenya continues: at a dinner table last night in Oslo I heard good Swahili spoken. But only Karen Blixen, under the name of Isak Dinesen, has enriched Scandinavian literature with a classic book made out of the impact of Africa on a complex Nordic sensibility. As she wrote an English as well as a Danish version of Out of Africa (in Denmark 'The African Farm'), she may also be said to have enriched Anglo-American literature. These letters [in Letters from Africa, 1914–1931] are the immediate record of the African life she not only enjoyed but endured. The book is mostly lyrical; the letters are both lyrical and sombre.

Shortly after her marriage to Blixen-Finecke, the 29-year-old Karen discovered that he had infected her with syphilis. Mercury treatment proved ineffectual. The First World War began, and she and her husband, despite their work for the Allied effort, were accused of pro-German sympathies. The Baron was inefficient as an estate manager and unreliable over money. The marriage broke up but the legacy of disease continued. Karen struggled, with little success, to become a published writer. She took an English lover, Denys Finch Hatton, and this relationship engendered fresh agonies as well as social problems, especially when the Baron reappeared in the tight gossipy English colony with a new Baroness.

Hatton was killed in an air crash in Tanganyika. Karen wound up the coffee enterprise, which was in financial chaos, and went back to Denmark to live in poverty with her mother. In 1934 she published Seven Gothic Tales under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. It was a Book of the Month Club choice in America, and her position as a major writer was established. In 1954 Ernest Hemingway named her as the most suitable candidate for the Nobel Prize: she did not get it, though, of course, he did. How much she is now read in Britain I do not know; in the rest of the world, meaning mostly America, she is considered a major voice of the century.

These are mostly family letters, long and lucid, full of information and atmosphere. Anne Born has translated them from the Danish, underlining the many English phrases and thus giving a typographical impression of emphasis alien to the unemphatic style. Young Karen, not yet a writer, has the unifying gift of the writer, finding something of the Danish landscape in Kenya and hearing in remembered Danish folksongs a lyricism appropriate to the African scene.

In 1928 she is writing to her mother about the 'concept of Angst … with due respect to Kierkegaard,' and proclaiming (in English) that there is nothing to be afraid of, not even the belligerent natives who could enter the house and kill her with the indifference proper to the killing of a deer. 'All terror is more or less terror of the dark: bring light, and it must of necessity pass.' But there was plenty to fear—disease, the failure of an estate, the collapse of love, loneliness. In 1931, when the letters come to an end, aware of near-total defeat, she is still able to write:—

Of all the idiots I have met in my life—and the Lord knows that they have not been few or little—I think that I have been the biggest. But a certain love of greatness, which could not be quelled, has kept a hold on me, has been 'my daimon.' And I have had so infinitely much that was wonderful. She may be more gentle to others, but I hold to the belief that I am one of Africa's favourite children. A great world of poetry has revealed itself to me and taken me to itself here, and I have loved it. I have looked into the eyes of lions and slept under the Southern Cross, I have seen the grass of the great plains ablaze and covered with delicate green after the rains, I have been the friend of Somali, Kikuyu and Masai, I have flown over the Ngong Hills—'I plucked the best rose of life, and Freja be praised.'

Not God but a Northern goddess. This is the lyricism of the great memoir written five years later.

Hemingway had the effrontery to consider himself a fellow-African, but for him Kenya was only a safari park, with twilight opportunities for 'feeling good' after the day's slaughter and contemplating patches of false lyricism for a book inferior to hers. Karen Dinesen was no mere tourist with a gun. She had a stake in Kenya, though she knew from the start it was a false one. In 1914, a few months after her arrival, she saw the 'end approaching—chiefly through the influence of Christianity.' The mission schools turn out thieves and liars, she says, but Islam instils a stoic fatalism which denies the need for fear.

A few days ago when a man at Swedo fell ill and died, of plague it was thought, all except the Somalis ran away. I asked Fara if they were not afraid of infection; he shrugged his shoulders and replied that they knew better; if God decided they were to die, they would die—if they were to live, they would live….

The English, as one expected, do not come out well; they evince less intelligence than the natives. They cannot distinguish between the tribes, they don't trouble to learn Swahili. At the Oslo dinner party the other evening my blonde companion went into great philological detail about the language, a thing I have never heard an English Kenyan do. The English have never, I suppose, been sufficiently serious. The seriousness of this young Danish woman in Africa is undoubted, but it is not stodgy. How beautiful she was, before disease gnawed at her…. The letters themselves never fail in grace, sharpness and humanity

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This section contains 1,091 words
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Buy the Critical Essay by Sara Stambaugh
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