“Life is life and fun is fun, but it’s all so quiet when the goldfish die.”*
I’ve just finished reading Beryl Markham’s remarkable autobiography, West with the Night. My dual personality recommended it to me eons ago and, as you know, her taste in reading material is impeccable. I should have followed her advice immediately because it’s a great book.
Beryl Markham was one of the “Happy Valley set” of smart, clever and enterprising people like Denys Finch Hatton, Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), and Tom Campbell Black, who lived in British East Africa (Kenya), where they had marvelous adventures, wild affairs and lived witty and intelligent lives. Tra la. Reading about these people in a potted biography on Wikipedia or some other site makes them seem unlikable — the too clever by far cocktail party set, who think they can do anything and don’t really care for anyone but themselves. You know the type.
But that’s all brittle, shiny exterior and expat cool. The inner life is something altogether different. What particularly impresses me about West with the Night, aside from the lovely prose, is how little there is about the author herself. On the contrary, the book is about everything and everyone she loves — native friends, dogs, horses and, yes, Finch Hatton, Campbell Black and Baron von Blixen — yet, it includes nothing about her private life: none of her three marriages; nothing about her many affairs, and no mention of her child. And it is better for its reticence.
Take, for example, the wonderful story about how Beryl got mauled by a lion as a child. She crafts it perfectly, but it ends with a glib statement about how she still has the scars, but they’ve faded. The story is about the lion, the African worker who saved her, and the owner of the farm. She is just the catalyst. She tells us nothing about her physical (or mental) recovery. Imagine how you’d have reacted to being attacked by a lion! In short, the book is full of love and mostly devoid of the pain that it sometimes implies, as when she leaves her beloved family farm for the last time.
“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.”
She doesn’t have to come right out and tell you that she is heart-broken; the message comes through. Restraint and subtlety in storytelling is something our current lot of writers would do well to learn, don’t you think?
Beryl Markham was a fascinating woman: a pioneer aviatrix, who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west; an accomplished horse-trainer, and equally capable of wielding a spear or a knife.
And here’s one for everyone: “…work and hope. But never hope more than you work.” Good advice.
Now to work. I’ll leave the hope for later. Have an adventurous weekend!
*Beryl Markham quoting Bror von Blixen in West with the Night