Excellent book of a life in Eastern Africa
Posted by Ed Gibbon www.congocookbook.com on 12/29/2000
Whoever wrote it, "West With the Night" is a lyrically beautiful story of an amazing life: Beryl Markham arrived in Africa in 1905 at the age of three, she spent her childhood on her father's farm, learning all about African people and wildlife; she became a horse-trainer (racing was surprisingly popular in colonial Kenya); she was the first woman in Africa to have a pilot's license, working as a freelance pilot in Kenya; she was the first person to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic East-to-West (hence the book's title). This book is an interesting and very readable documentation of Kenya in the era of Isak Dinesen, Bror Blixen, Denys Finch Hatton, et al (all of whom she knew). Hemingway praised this book lavishly, saying:
"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, "West with the Night"? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. .... But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant,... can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb. She omits some very fantastic stuff which I know about which would destroy much of the character of the heroine; but what is that anyhow in writing?"
As Hemingway may have suspected, Markham may not be the real author, and "West With the Night" does leave out major portions of her life; it would be a good idea to read it along with the biography of her life, "Straight On Till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham" by Mary Lovell (Lovell also wrote "A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton").
A British African Amazon.
Posted by Themis-Athena on 6/20/2008
Taken to Kenya at age three, in 1905, Beryl Markham was raised on a farm by her father and a much-hated governess - her mother soon re-abandoned pioneer life for England. And while other girls were groomed to be ladies of society, she learned to ride and train horses, played with the Nandi boys living on her father's land and went hunting with their fathers. Barely 19, she became a professional racehorse trainer; at age 24 (1926) her mare Wise Child won the prestigious St. Leger, beating the odds and the favorite, Wrack, likewise initially trained by Beryl but taken from her weeks earlier by an owner distrusting her experience. After marrying and divorcing again wealthy Mansfield Markham, whose last name she kept, she met pioneer aviator Tom Black (later pilot to the Prince of Wales), who awakened her interest in flying and soon became her instructor. Having obtained her B license - "a flyer's Magna Carta" - Markham operated a taxi and cargo service out of Nairobi and worked as a scout for professional hunters like author Karen Blixen's (Isak Dinesen's) (ex-)husband Baron Br & oring;r Blixen. After her return to England, in 1936 she became the first pilot to successfully cross the Atlantic from east to west, against the headwinds. (She didn't reach New York, as planned - technical difficulties forced her plane into a Nova Scotia bog - but her achievement created substantial headlines regardless.) After being lured to Hollywood by a film project involving her flight, and marrying and divorcing again the man who later claimed this book's authorship, writer Raoul Schumacher, Markham ultimately returned to Kenya and to racehorse training. No less than six of her horses won Kenya's East African Derby, making her a local celebrity of considerable note. She died in 1986.
"West With the Night" is a memoir of Markham's life in Kenya until her mid-1930s departure to England. In language rivaling Blixen's in poetry and Hemingway's in power and skill, it chronicles her unconventional upbringing, early 20th century colonial society, a racehorse trainer's anxieties and ambitions, a flyer's freedom and solitude, and those people who meant most to her: her father, her Nandi friends, Tom Black, and some persons also known to readers of Blixen's memoirs: Lord and Lady Delamere, Baron Blixen, and Denys Finch-Hatton, for whose attentions she competed with Blixen (who herself isn't mentioned at all, as Markham isn't mentioned, either, in "Out of Africa").
"There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa," we are introduced to the continent she considered "home:" "Being ... all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that Africa must be all things to all readers. ... It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations." And the people Markham most respected matched this environment in hardiness as much as in diversity and depth: Baron Blixen, "six feet of amiable Swede," whose "appreciation of the melodramatic [was] non-existent," and who was "never significantly silent" and "the toughest, most durable White Hunter ever ... to shoot a charging buffalo between the eyes while debating whether his sundown drink will be gin or whisky." Denys Finch-Hatton, "a great man who never achieved arrogance," whose charm was "of intellect and strength," who "would have greeted doomsday with a wink," could "tread upon inferior men with his tongue," and was "a keystone" in an arch of lives which fell at his premature death, "leaving its lesser stones heaped [and] for a while without design." And Tom Black, Beryl's messenger from Destiny, who taught her that "when you fly ... you feel that everything you see belongs to you [and you're] closer to ... something you've sensed you might be capable of, but never had the courage to imagine," but who summed up the effect of Kenya's growing attraction to amateur hunters (aided not least by his own services) with the simple words "lion, rifles - and stupidity."
Perhaps Markham's most poignant accounts are those of her interactions with the Nandi. For unlike Karen Blixen, who came to Africa as an adult and never entirely abandoned a white colonialist's attitude, Markham's upbringing enabled her to innately understand their world: "He thought war was made of spears and shields and courage, and he brought them all," we learn about young warrior Arab Maina: "But [in World War I] they gave him a gun, so he left the spear and the shield behind and took the courage, and went where they sent him. [When he was killed,] some said it was because he had forsaken his spear." And when her childhood friend Kibii returns to become her servant, now a warrior himself and renamed Arab Ruta, she realizes that what a child doesn't know "of race and colour and class, he learns soon enough as he grows to see each man flipped inexorably into some predestined groove," and while Ruta will still be her friend, "the handclasp will be shorter ... and though the path is for a while the same, he will walk behind me now, when once, in the simplicity of our nonage, we walked together."
Like most memoirs - most notably Hemingway's "Moveable Feast" and Blixen"s "Out of Africa" - "West With the Night" is a selective account; and as in those works, the omissions only enhance its power. Hemingway's much-quoted lavish praise is both deserved and all the more notable as "Papa," otherwise so thrifty in lauding contemporaries, intensely disliked Markham as a person. - Authorship of the book has been called into question by the claims of Markham's ex-husband Raoul Schumacher, and by Errol Trzebinski's biography (which relies substantially on third-party accounts and merely proves that Schumacher had time and opportunity to write the book, not that he actually did). It's a great shame that writing as lasting and beautiful as this should be marred by such a controversy. Frankly, though, I don't hear any voice but Beryl Markham's in this account; both philosophically and stylistically, I have no doubt that this is her story alone. And therefore, ultimately ... "What matter who's speaking?" (Michel Focault, "What is an Author?")
Splendid Outcast: Beryl Markham's African Stories
Straight on Till Morning: A Biography of Beryl Markham
Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass
Out of Africa
Green Hills of Africa
The Snows of Kilimanjaro
The Flame Trees of Thika
Petals of Blood
Things Fall Apart: A Novel
Wind, Sand and Stars
Wow...a beautiful heck of a book!
Posted by Elisabeth W. Movius on 9/30/2002
Mere moments have passed since I closed the back cover on "West with the Night", and already I am missing its world and its voice. It is one of those rare books that can, with the simple fluidity of its narrative, pull you in and engulf you entirely.
I am not a big fan of the memoir, but Markham's (or whoever wrote it) voice is neither bombastic nor humble; she feels less a narrator or subject than a fellow traveller, along with you for the ride. Although the life she lived was extraordinary and compelling, she refreshingly views it in clipped, casual, careful terms, as unimpressed with herself as if she'd been a midwestern housewife, not a pilot and horse trainer in Colonial Africa.
Many readers will approach "West with the Night" out of a pre-existing interest in and knowledge of its era and characters, and will no doubt experience it entirely differently than I did. While a few names rang vague bells, for the most it was an engaging introduction. But I read it as literature, not as history, and enjoyed it immensely as such. I found her small personal anecdotes far more interesting than the accounts of her grand feats. The Atlantic flight that made her famous rounds out the end of the book, but is rather dry and dull compared to her African tales. Stories such as her father's pompous parrot had me in spasms of public giggles.
It is little wonder that Hemmingway praised this book, as the sparse directness of its utilitarian prose makes even the Old Man of the Sea seem a flowery romantic. Its structure can be rather meandering, but in that regard it resembles the contours of memory, which makes me believe Markham did indeed write her own book.