Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The giver and the receiver

Four stories by Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen

The book is called Shadows on the Grass, published in the 60s by Penguin.  The cover illustration is a lovely oil painting  of a Somali child , one of her servants, which  Blixen painted herself.

The child was a mathematical genius and he asked her repeatedly to send him to school, which she ended up doing though she had to 'scrape the money together'. She bought him a typewriter when he asked for one and in a letter he wrote many years later, he thanks her and says that  her typewriter gave him a significant advantage when he applied for jobs. He became a judge.

She wrote in English,  for her a foreign language. I do wonder whether writers whose English is not their mother tongue are more free to write in unusual ways, influenced by their mother tongue while still obedient to the rules of English grammar and syntax.

Here are two of my favourite sentences. I am not sure why:

"On a day in the beginning of the long rains Berkeley Cole came round the farm from up-country, on his way to Nairobi." (p. 69, The Great Gesture)

I suppose that the length of the sentence and its everyday words with Berkeley's name at the  centre illustrate the length of his journey and show that his visit to the farm is a welcome pause. Season and place are given, Berkeley Cole at the centre, the focus of her attention when a Masai chief comes by asking for help for his sick son. Berkeley is a lovely story-teller and she lets her most trusted servant give the chief the medication he requires. This is her mistake.

And another sentence which struck me because of the thought it expresses:

"A gift may be named after both the giver and the receiver, and in this way my inspiration is my own, more even than anything else I possess, and is still the gift of God." (p. 96, Echoes from the Hills).
I shall look up what I can to find out more about her. All along the reading of this book, I heard in my mind the deep longing in Meryl Streep's voice at the start of the film  Out of Africa, saying: "I had a farm in Africa."

All along, one is struck by the nature of the interactions between Blixen and the Africans around her,  genuine and respectful.

The other book I have just read is by Penelope Lively How it all started, about the way a person's action can affect multiple other people in unexpected ways. Clumsy and uncharming in comparison. But Blixen does set the bar rather high.

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