Lines & Literature | West With the Night

1/8/14

What I've been reading (off-line, that is):

"How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start; there can be no other'" (3).

I suppose it is only a matter of fact that one cannot recommend all books equally.

I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon reading this book cover to cover. I lay on the couch, recovering from the extraction of all four of my wisdom teeth, and picked up Beryl Markham's memoir West With the Night, a novel that has been lingering on top of my stack of "borrowed books to read" for far longer than is polite to mention.

I say one cannot recommend all book equally because, I am uncertain how anyone who has never been to Africa will appreciate Markham's words. Her prose is stunning. Even Ernest Hemingway admitted it, saying in a letter to a friend, "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. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers."

Markham chronicles pieces of life in pre-World War I Africa: growing up on a farm, raising Thoroughbred horses, chasing lions and herding zebras, before embracing life as pilot. I hesitate in a full-bodied recommendation only because I know that once you have tasted Africa, anything that reminds you of that flavor will ring true in your mind and cast beautiful shadows on your memory. But if you haven't? Well, perhaps Markham's memoir won't taste as sweet.
I'm not certain.

"There is no twilight in East Africa. Night tramps on the heels of Day with little gallantry and takes the place she lately held, in severe and humorless silence. Sounds of things that live in the sun are quickly gone--and with them the sounds of roving aeroplanes, if their pilots have learned the lessons they are to learn about night weather, distances that seem never to shrink, and the perfidy of landing fields that look like aerodromes by day but vanish in darkness" (46).

But if you are intrigued, do read it, please.



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