Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Reading Through My Christmas Books

The next book on my list to read was West With the Night by Beryl Markham. I discovered the book at the local used bookstore because I spotted Ernest Hemingway's stunning accolade on the back cover. Markham's book made Hemingway feel "completely ashamed of myself as a writer." He said Markham "can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers." That's high praise from a man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature during his lifetime.
The book is Markham's memoir, a series of stories from her interesting life. Her parents moved to East Africa when she was a small child, but her mother returned to England and left her to be raised in Africa by her father. Markham grew up hunting and playing with native children, barely escaping lion attacks, and learning to love the mysterious continent as only a person can who lives there as a child.
She was a beautiful woman, a true adventurer. She tamed horses, and became the first professional pilot in Africa. The book begins with an account of a night flight alone to deliver an oxygen tank for a dying man, and Markham's worries for a fellow pilot who's been missing for days.
I read books in small snatches these days, rather like one nibbles on a chocolate bar one corner at a time, over the course of many days. I rarely find a book that want to consume, don't want to put down. Frankly, such a book must have a compelling story (and I've heard a lot of stories, and only real ones are compelling anymore), must have a winsome, appealing speaker, and must have a flawless style of beauty, rhythm, a perfect flavor that is neither cloying nor bland. Here's my favorite passage so far. I'm only 1/3 through the book. Markham writes these words to describe the silence she finds as she walks around the empty, downed airplane of her missing pilot friend.
"There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo."

She concludes, "The silence that belonged to the slender little craft was, I thought, filled with malice -- a silence holding the spirit of wanton mischief, like the quiet smile of a vain woman exultant over a petty and vicious triumph. I had expected little else of the Klemm (the airplane), frivolous and inconstant as she was, but I knew suddenly that Woody was not dead. It was not that kind of silence."

What a passage! She can say such things because we know that Markham is intimately familiar with silence, and with what death feels and even smells like.  She has faced a multitude of fears. I know the thinking, the feeling, she's processing as she walks around that plane. I've thought thoughts like those. A man's life has never depended on it.

How many times have I told my students never to being a sentence with the most boring subject/verb combination: "There are"?  Yet, she does it repeatedly, to wonderful effect. Hers is a perfect example of how a master may break the rules as he chooses, because he can so easily keep them, or break them, according to his plan.
Well, I won't prolong this. I highly recommend this book. Markahm lived an exotic life, a dangerous life both physically and personally. She was the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, east to west. This is the only significant, full-length book she ever wrote, but she's not alone in having written but one excellent book. West With the Night is not a novel, but quite a few important novelists wrote only one -- Harper Lee, Sylvia Plath, Emily Bronte, Margaret Mitchell. Some lived lives too short to write more. Some had, perhaps, only one story to tell well, and knew to stop there. I am thankful for Markham's one, excellent memoir. If you love a brilliant, rich, evocative style, this is a treasure. A first edition copy, signed by the author, evidently goes for about $4500. Not bad, Beryl!

2 comments:

  1. I read this years ago; it's an all time favorite. I've never understood why she didn't receive the accolades that Karen Blixen received. Markham had a more interesting life, imo.

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  2. Sandra, I think it's kind of random and inexplicable how some people achieve fame (even posthumously), and others don't. She was so adventurous!

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