Friday, May 25, 2007

Memorial Day Pre-ramble

I’m going to try to write a full post while I am at work. I work at the reference desk at my college’s library and the mornings, lately, have been woefully slow. I may help a student add a printer to his profile or something, but there is plenty of time to navel-gaze (I finally get to use that term, probably because I finally understand what it means).

Today is the Friday before Memorial Day weekend which should make today even less hectic, and I want to add a post to my blog if nothing else comes up. I’m not quite used to having a job where the responsibility lies in waiting for things to happen, and I feel that maybe I should be taking the initiative somewhere. But my main duty is to be present in case someone has a question, so I will fulfill my role and try to be of service until larger responsibilities develop.

Its interesting watching people come and go from this library. Some people hurry in with looks of determined purpose on their faces, and rarely do these people walk up to my desk. I’m quite surprised at how much traffic we are getting today already, so maybe my theory is wrong. Sometimes someone will meander in and look at the art work—the library doubles as the school’s art gallery—and then saunter up to the desk and ask a question. These are usually question about how to get somewhere and are easily answered. Another type of question-asker is the frantic, “I’ve got a paper due in half-an- hour and I’m having trouble with Word and I need to find a research topic and I’ve never used the library computers before” type.

I have become a little sidetracked from Out of Africa because I am taking an independent study about Europe between the wars, and it requires a great deal of reading. I managed to read about 200 pages of a European survey focusing on the topic. I found it interesting but dense, although for a scholarly survey it was very well written. I’ve been in classes where the professor made an unfortunate choice for the main survey reading, and it was brutally tedious to read these works. But this book, The End of the European Era by Gilbert and Large, while meticulously leaving no stone unturned, compelled my interest in this complicated, reeling period of history.

In the reference department we keep a collection called Dictionary of Literary Biography. One of the volumes is completely dedicated to A Farewell to Arms which I just read for the first time. The volume is filled with reproductions of original drafts and letters by Hemingway (many which are housed in the Kennedy Library in Boston) and rare photographs of the author around the time of publication in addition to photos from his time as an ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War. We rely so much on the internet these days that finding such an interesting source, not only for a paper but because it is interesting in and of itself, makes me wonder what will become of these vital tomes. It is hard to imagine a richer source than this online. The shame is that as I opened it, the binding cracked, which told me that it had been opened rarely—if ever.

But more than anything, Out of Africa has really drawn me in. It has made me think hard about colonialism in Africa, and colonialism in general, and how I should approach a work that seems to justify Europe’s claim on Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Blixen refers to her African neighbors as “squatters”, but it can be viewed, now, that it was Blixen who might be regarded as a squatter. Her coffee plantation in Kenya was expansive, resting on the grazing lands of a number of indigenous peoples, but she arbitrated during local squabbles carefully and with much compassion for the Africans. It is very difficult to judge the language she uses in context with the times, but occasionally she uses animal analogies a bit too frequently, describing Africans as ants or badgers which to her, I suppose, seemed innocent but to this modern reader seems slightly degrading.

Of course who am I to judge? Did I own a farm in Africa? No. And two things are certain, Blixen was an astonishingly vivid and descriptive narrativist (I made that word up), and she loved her African neighbors deeply. Her involvement and interest in the cultures of the people in which she dealt with daily is written about with spiritual grace and can be very transformative to the reader. A more European account of life in Africa may have focused on the officer’s club in Nairobi, but Blixen draws on the element of the real Africa by knowing her African friends with the compassion of a mother and the curiosity of an attentive student.

As for the 1985 movie, I am over half way through the book and I have yet, thankfully, to run into a character even half resembling Robert Redford wearing Abercrombie and Fitch. This is certainly a case of being happy to have seen the movie before reading the book, and if the character that Redford played ever shows up I will try to draw a better image of the character in my mind than the film gives. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I don’t remember there being even an ounce of the amount of regard for Africans than in Blixen’s book. A melodrama in soft filters about Africa, to me, is more patronizing than Blixen’s occasional use of antiquated language to describe her life in Africa.

I would like to add more on the subject, and I hope there will be a part two to this post because I have yet to finish the book. There are so many breathtaking quotes that it is all I can do not to grab a pencil and start marking up the library book I am reading her work from. (I also have my own copy, which was my grandmother’s, but it is old and fallin apart—it has to be held together with a rubber band.) A few more quotes from her might show up in the next couple of days on this sight. Enjoy the weekend!


Danny said...

This has made me want to read "Out of Africa." I'm not surprised that there's no trace of Robert Redford in the character of Denys Finch Hatton. For some reason that made me think of short, dumpy, Jewish Nicky Arnstein being played by tall, handsome, Egyptian Omar Sharif in "Funny Girl." Not as literary a reference, to be sure. Still, Meryl Streep can do no wrong and that movie is worth watching just to hear her say, "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills" in her perfect Danish accent.

Emily Barton said...

Well, now I have to read Out of Africa. Did we see the movie together? I remember I went to see it with a crowd (Susan was there), but I don't remember if you were part of that crowd. Afterwards, we were all dying for a cigarette after watching the way they all so elogantly smoked throughout the whole movie.

imichie said...

We went with a group right before I left for Africa in '86. That world and the world I found were quite different.

Emily Barton said...

I meant "elegantly," not "elogantly."