After seeing the movie Out of Africa, I found my copy of Isak Dinesen's book on a high shelf. The book had been sitting there for some years. It contained a clipping from Time. I once lavished considerable effort on cutting up Time and filing away reviews or squibs, a habit which I do not propose that anyone else imitate. However, it was a useful custom in its way. There are bits of the late 1950s and early Sixties hidden all through my library. They function like Baroque still-lives with skulls and burning candles, emblems of mortal vanity.
This particular clipping was a fine example. An anonymous reviewer—Time was then anonymous—chose the publication of Dinesen's Shadows in the Grass, her second Africa memoir (published in 1961 but written decades earlier) as an occasion to sketch the author's character. "Mau-Mauism is a tragedy that grieves and baffles Isak Dinesen, but belief in the noble savage is something of a family heritage." "Apart from fruit, her only nourishment is oysters and champagne." "Dinesen, 75, has spent the 27 years of her writing life routing the brute realities of the 20th century from her prose."
Each of these sentences deserves its own essay-length commentary, which I will refrain from giving. Taken together they suggest why Isak Dinesen was able to sell her books through the Book-of-the-Month club, to attract photographers and reporters, and finally to become an American celebrity.
We should remember that one other career along these lines was being made in the same years. As William Pritchard has recently pointed out, Robert Frost published his last substantial book of verse in 1942. Frost spent the rest of his life cultivating his image as an icon of New England folksiness. He got his picture taken, consulted with Khrushchev about peace, etc. Aside from occasional appalling efforts or appalling occasional efforts (e.g. the piece for Kennedy's inauguration) he did not write much poetry.
Dinesen pulled off an equivalent stunt; where Frost played Canny Yankee, she played Old World Aristocrat. Others have since attempted this role but no one has matched Dinesen's splendid effort. Bring out the oysters and champagne! Here comes the withered grande dame banishing brute realities from her prose, longing still for feudal Kenya where exiled aristocrats and noble savages once played together—before the vulgar middle classes arrived, causing the noble savages to become Mau-Maus. The vulgar middle classes loved Dinesen's act. No less than Frost, she performed a crucial cultural task, embodying an ethos which no one was about to embrace but which made, nonetheless, a compelling fantasy.
This fantasy—for which, I regret to say, we must hold Dinesen as well as Time responsible—can easily poison a reading of her works. The difference between the caricature and Dinesen's best writing can be suggested by an anecdote, a sort of fable, that occurs towards the end of Out of Africa. After a long stay in Kenya, Dinesen (then Karen Blixen) was on the point of losing her coffee farm. While she was facing this crisis, her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton, died in a plane crash. A week after his death, she "came out of the house looking for a sign" and witnessed (she says) an extraordinary incident. A white cock appeared from one side of the path, a chameleon from the other. The chameleon "was frightened, but he was at the same time very brave"; he "shot out his tongue at the cock," the most formidable thing he could do, whereupon the cock plucked his tongue out whole. Subsequently Dinesen killed the chameleon, which could not of course have survived.
Robert Langbaum, author of a good book on Dinesen, compares this story to the Book of Job; the sufferer asks for an explanation of suffering and gets (instead) a demonstration of sublimity. Like Job, Dinesen is reminded that she does not live in a comfortable universe. One might add, she is afforded a mordant consolation, a reminder that God has at least not torn out her tongue. (She will need it when she tells her tales; tale-telling is to be her vocation, so long as the cock forbears.) The story is thus horrible and also a little bit funny; it suggests that Divinity has a peculiar sense of humor, at least from a human viewpoint.
Dinesen's tales are effective because they communicate such perceptions in an unfailingly vivid manner. At her best she is implacable, detached, ironic, and passionate, a rare combination. Perhaps we could speak of her temperament as aristocratic but only if the sort of aristocrat we have in mind is Hamlet. Oysters and champagne are beside the point, as is the drivel about banishing "brute realities."
Now the dilemma. What is the cinematic biographer to do? He does not want to get involved with Dinesen the poseur, the pseudo-aristocrat—but neither, if he is making a big, middlebrow movie, can he dwell too long with Dinesen the tragicomic fabulist. There is a third alternative which I have thus far ignored, which might seem the obvious solution. However, I think I would reject out of hand the proposal that our biographer focus on the "historical" Isak Dinesen. The facts of the case are elusive enough even to determined pursuers like Hannah Arendt (see her Men in Dark Times for a shrewd but finally puzzled essay on Dinesen's extraordinary life in Africa and after: Arendt points out, for example, that Dinesen's relatives in Denmark supported for many years the folly of her Kenyan coffee farm—then leaves us to puzzle over how we should understand such a subsidy.)
This appears to take care of all the options; fortunately it turns out that there is one other. Working from hints in the book Out of Africa and from biographical material that has appeared since Dinesen's death, Sydney Pollack neither perpetuates an infatuation with celebrity, nor tries to make Dinesen into one of her own characters, nor becomes too obsessed with chasing history. Out of Africa has the magic of a guess: that is, of an hypothesis that is quite intent on remaining hypothetical.
In its bare outlines, the story told by the film goes like this: young Karen Dinesen marries Baron Blixen, the twin brother of a man with whom she has had a disastrous affair; they go to Kenya a few years before World War I; they run a coffee plantation but the plantation is too high for the coffee to grow well and Karen does all the work while her husband philanders or (come the war) fights; Karen contracts syphilis from Baron Blixen and goes back to Europe to be treated; on her return she has her affair with Finch-Hatton; after an idyllic period, the plantation finally fails; Finch-Hatton dies when his beloved plane crashes; Karen arranges for the local tribe (the Kikuyu) to remain on their land; Karen leaves Africa forever; returning to Europe, she becomes Isak Dinesen the author.
This plot, if it is one, is not replete with elegant structural devices. There is one small effort at framing the story: when Karen first comes to Kenya, she wanders into a male-only bar at a British club and is expelled; when she leaves, she is invited into the club for a drink. For the most part, however, events tend to wander. Characters are introduced with fanfares, then fail to be developed or used. Events are (apparently) foreshadowed, then never come to pass. I have seldom seen a film so full of minor deadends. Nothing could be further from the cruel and seductive recursiveness of Dinesen's own stories within stories.
At one point, Karen entertains Finch-Hatton and his friend Berkeley Cole with a long, Scheherezade-style tale built up from random bits suggested by her auditors. We hear the very beginning of the tale and the last sentence. The filmmakers do not even pretend to imagine what came between. Their own narrative ambitions are drastically different from Karen's, a fact which is signaled here and throughout.
If there is a structural center to the movie Out of Africa it would have to be Karen Blixen's affair with Denys Finch-Hatton. Pollack and his associates devote more attention to this episode than to any other. Their treatment of it is curious and affecting. In the book we are left to infer that an affair is going on; a major Hollywood film has no such choice.
Pollack takes a chance by casting Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen against Robert Redford as Denys Finch-Hatton. We know what is going to happen. Streep will do a pretty good Danish accent. She will be generally convincing as an early-twentieth-century European. Redford will be Redford. There are reviewer's jokes about Robert Redford's limited acting powers going back to the very beginning of his career. Gene Siskel, among others, has kept the tradition up: he recently announced that Redford's presence spoiled Out of Africa.
However, Siskel should consider the options. Suppose that Streep was cast against the perfect British upper-class twit: Jeremy Irons, let us say. Out of Africa then becomes one more exercise in the silliest variety of Anglophilia. Is Siskel willing to face the horrible prospect of Jeremy Irons in Kenya, keeping a stiff upper lip? And accompanied by a faithful native companion? And courting Meryl Streep? And taking her on lion hunts? Surely these questions answer themselves. We can get enough of the British Empire by watching PBS.
Moreover, Redford doesn't need to do much. There is a kind of eerie magnificence in his not even trying for a British accent. He just stands there, smiles, exhibits his well-preserved or perhaps well-reconstructed visage. He is an icon. He glows a little, an inexplicable freak in this historical-cultural context. And the movie is thus able to take brilliant advantage of him.
So accidental does Redford seem, he never loses his mystery. We think a little about the wonders of Hollywood casting. We think a little more about the wonders of Denys Finch-Hatton, who becomes an appropriate figure of love, compelling because impossible. Planned or not, the disparity of style between Streep and Redford is one of Out of Africa's great successes.
There are others. Klaus Brandauer, this decade's best sleek villain, makes much of his small role as Baron Blixen; Dinesen's memoirs say little about the erring husband, but once her love affair is made central we need someone like Brandauer on hand: someone, that is, as smart and sexy as Redford but fickle by his very nature. Brandauer fulfills this function admirably, without—a real danger—taking over the film and reducing it to the story of a nasty little triangle.
The relations between Karen Blixen and the Kikuyu are also well-handled, largely because Pollack doesn't try to do too much with them. Arendt has pointed out the elaborate methods of self-deception on which Dinesen relied during her African sojourn, and by which she established her (supposedly) lordly relation to all around her. Pollack's film steps back from these fables, neither denying nor affirming them: the Kikuyu are presented as people living apart, friendly to Dinesen, sometimes (as she admits) condescending, in several cases loyal servants—for the most part, however, just different. And here Pollack leaves the matter.
The landscapes of Out of Africa are treated with something of this same tact. It is usually considered a put-down to praise photographed scenery in narrative film (as though there weren't anything else to praise), but the scenery is essential here and it could have been a difficulty. A character of the poet Stevie Smith responds to a marriage proposal with the words, "I am not a cold woman, Henry/But I do not feel for you,/What I feel for the elephants and miasmas/And the general view." The general view can dwarf a love story—or worse yet, become the clichéd back-drop to human passions.
Neither fate befalls the sequence in Out of Africa where Streep and Redford fly over the Kenyan landscape. Dinesen writes that flying "opens up a world": more precisely a third dimension of movement. She praises the spectacles she saw from the air, "the rainbow on the green sunlit land, the gigantic upright clouds and big wild black storms, [which] all swing around you in a race and a dance," but she praises more the flier's relation to these things. The movie manages to photograph this relation.
There is a particularly fine moment when the camera passes over a flock of flamingoes and they scatter—a motif familiar from several thousand African documentaries, but we are allowed to feel the tension suggested by Dinesen's words: "At our approach they spread out in large circles and fans, like the rays of a setting sun, like an artful Chinese pattern on silk or porcelain, forming itself and changing, as we looked at it." The plane both reveals and causes the pattern. The beauty is in the disruption but then the disruption passes too. Here, as perhaps nowhere else in this film, photography can do something to match Dinesen's words—and the opportunity is taken.
I have tried to note the danger spots. If Out of Africa were going to lurch towards celebrity-adoration, fake artiness, or the biographer's losing struggle with facts, it would be in one of these places: the plotting, the portrayal of Finch-Hatton, the stunt of hiring Brandauer, the depiction of the Kikuyu, or the nature-worship. In practice, we get past all these facets without feeling either manipulated or let down. The movie even lays claim to its own cockeyed, blundering romanticism—quite different from the romanticism Arendt found in Karen Blixen's life, from anything in the art of Isak Dinesen (stoicism, elegance, egocentricity mocking itself), or from anything, thank heaven, in her celebrity.
More power to Sydney Pollack. His modesty is quite different from mediocrity. Out of Africa strikes me, finally, as a good deal like a preface. By its nature it must remain a subordinate work. Far from attempting to disguise this status, it tries to be the best preface it can be: an evocation at a distance on a crucial period in the life of a great writer. The moviegoer who has never read Dinesen might next turn to the book Out of Africa—or better yet, to Seven Gothic Tales, whose introductory story, "The Deluge at Norderney," is almost a microcosm of her artistic accomplishment. If we think of the central character in Pollack's Out of Africa as having written "The Deluge at Norderney," we will understand it a little better—and we will also see that our work is just beginning.
The movie, then, has done us a considerable service, but has not pretended to accomplish more than it can. In her better moods, anyway, Dinesen would have appreciated such detachment in the midst of such lavishness.