Out of Africa

D.A.N. Jones writes:

Some of my best friends have been moved to tears by the 1985 motion picture which takes its title from the Baroness Blixen’s 1937 memoir, Out of Africa. These suckers will be taken aback if they ever come to read the old book on which they wrongly suppose it to be ‘based’. The memoir has been reissued by Penguin Books, with movie advertisements on the cover, and so have some other books by the Baroness, written under her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen. Here now is another reissue, from Century Hutchinson, hard-backed and elaborately illustrated, striving to connect the book with the film, to encourage sentimental nostalgia about British settlers in Kenya and to strengthen concern about the conservation of African wild life. The much-hyped new movie is an old-fashioned women’s-weepie, with no laughs but plenty of scenery, lugubriously relating a version of the Baroness’s love affair when she lived among other white settlers in British East Africa (1914-1931). The Baroness’s memoir has the same setting, but it is mostly about black natives, and her love affair is never discussed: it is hinted at in a rather tantalising way. There is much humour, of a sardonic sort, in the book, several good stories and surprises – none of which have reached the screen. It would be a mistake to suppose that the unsurprising movie was ‘based’ on this book. What it is really based on (very loosely) is Judith Thurman’s workmanlike biography of the Baroness, Isak Dinesen: The Life of Karen Blixen, which Penguin Books has happily reissued, with a picture of ogling film stars on the cover.

(LRB 3 July 1986)