18 November 2010

Don't Believe a Word

Karen von Blixen-Finecke
in Kenya, 1918
The author Karen Roberts is a friend of mine, and whenever I want to get her goat I tell her she’ll never be a patch on the other Karen, the lady we remember as Isak Dinesen. This is so obvious it doesn’t need saying—Dinesen was nominated twice for a Nobel prize—which, of course, is exactly why my lovely authoress friend hates so much to hear me say it.

Pardon the doting digression; among the old, hoary passions often make unexpected, spectral reappearances, a bit like the beans we ate for lunch, and cause us to rumble—sorry, ramble. I do not plan to bore you here with accounts of my unsuccessful mid-life amours, but rather to suggest an experiment you may find amusing, and perhaps even instructive.

Novelists are often accused of writing about their own lives and acquaintances and calling it fiction, and there have been numerous lawsuits—some successful, others less so—based on this assumption. It’s true, as I said in my review of Shehan Karunatileka’s novel Chinaman, that personal experience and insight is the raw material we shape our work out of, but the relationship is not as direct as it often seems to the reader. Such verisimilitude is a result of the author’s craft and hard work. It’s what we do, we fathers and mothers of lies; we try to fool you it’s all real. Sometimes it works too well, and then you sue us. Or worse: vide the fates of Christopher Marlowe, Nabokov père and John Lennon.

The other Karen
Enough preamble. The experiment is simply this: read the following three books in the following order. First, Out of Africa. Bear in mind that, although it is written by a novelist, it purports to be autobiography. Second, the section on the society of Kenya’s Happy Valley in Félipe Armesto-Fernandez’s amazing one-volume history of the past thousand years, Millennium. That will set you up nicely for the third book, White Mischief by Edward Fox, the fascinating tale of a murder, long unsolved, among the Happy Valley set.

By the time you’ve finished that book, you’ll have learnt that life in Happy Valley was nothing at all like it is portrayed in Out of Africa, and you will have formed your own judgements of Karen Blixen and the people she writes about. If you are a person of tender sensibilities, or a trusting disposition, you may be slightly shocked. You may never again believe a single word a novelist commits to print, and you will certainly be cured for ever of the foolish belief that what you read in novels is somehow true, no matter how many correspondences exist between the details of a story and its author’s life.

A typical evening in Happy Valley would have looked something like this.
Photo by Peter Beard, long-time resident and discoverer of Mrs. David Bowie

1 comment:

  1. Baroness Karen von Blixen Wasnt her work the inspiration for Hatari. Cant recall the book, but recall the thoughts of Ms. Blixen about the Kikuyu. Maybe I am getting the authors mixed up, but still recall the sentence Kikuyu's, short, smart and manipulative.

    It could be argued that the Belgs / French were no better colonizers than the Dutch / English. (Spain, Portugal a different kettle of fish, Ottoman empire even much more diferent) Recent History says differently. Haiti, Congo, Vietnam are examples.