FIRST IMPRESSIONS – *West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
Though this memoir is considered a classic, I had never heard of it or of Beryl Markham before a Writing Through Life survey respondent suggested it. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a woman who, raised in Kenya during the early 1900s, refused to live the “normal” and expected life of most women of her time (of any time, really). Instead, she trained race horses, became a free-lance pilot, and then proceeded to become the first person — man or woman — to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, east to west.
Markham’s writing is so artful — every sentence, every verb choice, every word so crisp and necessary, it feels as though nothing could be added or removed without altering some fundamental structure — that I am strongly tempted to toss all my writing in the trash in abject despair of ever writing that well. I am prevented from that irresponsible reaction only by a stronger desire to take apart her writing and learn how she makes her life and characters so vivid to the reader.
Let’s start with her first lines:
“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.’ …So the name shall be Nungwe —as good as any other —entered like this in the log, lending reality, if not order, to memory. But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names…”
So her memoir begins with the question that nags at every memoirist as she sits to write her story. Right away, after posing the question, Markham hints at the device she will use to order her memory and what follows — by place. “One is as good as the other,” she says, so let’s start here, where the log book is open. Then she proceeds to ground us with the details of date, time, type of plane, and length of flight.
Her writing immerses you in Africa through characterization of place, which is always central and integral to Markham’s story, and as real as any person. She deftly balances scene and reflection while portraying her life in such complete detail, one receives an almost visceral sense of the characters, the land, and the times in which she lived. She communicates an intense love of place, but her memoir is also unsentimental; the unforgiving personality of Africa shines brightly through the text. Consider the following excerpts about Africa as a whole:
“Competitors in conquest have overlooked the vital soul of Africa herself, from which emanates the true resistance to conquest. The soul is not dead, but silent, the wisdom not lacking, but of such simplicity as to be counted non-existent in the tinker’s mind of modern civilization.” (p. 7)
“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all these things but one thing — it is never dull.” (p. 8)
“Africa was the breath and life of my childhood. It is still the host of all my darkest fears, the cradle of mysteries always intriguing, but never wholly solved. It is the remembrance of sunlight and green hills, cool water and the yellow warmth of bright mornings. It is as ruthless as any sea, more uncompromising than its own deserts. It is without temperance in its harshness or in its favours. It yields nothing, offering much to men of all races.” (p. 13)
Of individual places within Africa, each has its own character.
“Nungwe…was barely alive when I went there in 1935. It lay west and south of Nairobi on the southernmost rim of Lake Victoria Nyanza, no more than a starveling outpost of grubby huts…” (p. 4)
Of the Serrengetti Plains:
“They are endless and they are empty, but they are as warm with life as the waters of a tropic sea. They are webbed with the paths of eland and wildebeest and Thompson’s gazelle and their hollows and valleys are trampled by thousands of zebra. (p 33)
And of the trees near her dwelling place:
“The trees that guard the thatched hut where I live stand in disorganized ranks, a regiment at ease, and lay their shadows on the ground like lances carried too long. (p. 143)
When she writes about people, she doesn’t describe their appearance, but the ways in which they move, the ways they live, and the ways they work; as a result, her characters appear as clearly in the mind’s eye as if they were standing before you whole and real.
Her father lives on the page as a man of integrity, hard work, and tenacity:
“The farm at Njoro was endless, but it was no farm at all until my father made it. He made it out of nothing and out of everything — the things of which all farms are made. He made it out of forest and bush rocks, new earth, sun, and torrents of warm rain. He made it out of labour and out of patience.” (p. 67)
Of a character from her childhood:
“Toombo’s grin spreads over his wide face like a ripple in a pond. To him, birth and success are synonymous; the hatching of a hen’s egg is a triumph, or even the bursting of a seed. Toombo’s own birth is the major success of his life. He grins until there is no more room for both the grin and his eyes, so his eyes disappear.” (p. 120)
Markham displays complete mastery in her use of figurative language.
Of the lion that attacked her as a child:
“The sound of Paddy’s roar in my ears will only be duplicated, I think, when the doors of hell slip their wobbly hinges, one day, and give voice and authenticity to the whole panorama of Dante’s poetic nightmares.” (p. 63)
Of men working:
“…the muscles in their backs rippling under their oiled skins like fretted water over a stony bed.” (p. 83)
Of a trail she follows:
“It is thin and it curls against the slopes of the Mau like the thong of a whip. The new sun falls across it in a jumble of golden bars that lie on the earth or lean against the trees that edge the forest. (p. 136)
Humor infuses her writing, as well. For example, in writing about a lonely signpost directing travelers to Juba, Khartoum, and Cairo through nearly impassible territory she writes:
“In any case, there the sign stood, like a beacon, daring all and sundry to proceed (not even with caution) toward what was almost sure to be neither Khartoum nor Cairo, but a Slough of Despond more tangible than, but at least as hopeless as Mr. Bunyan’s.” (Pg. 5-6.)
Of elephant hunting in general:
“The essence of elephant-hunting is discomfort in such lavish proportions that only the wealthy can afford it.” (p. 211)
And the very act of storytelling:
“The only disadvantage in surviving a dangerous experience lies in the fact that your story of it tends to be anticlimactic. You can never carry on right through the point where whatever it is that threatens your life actually takes it — and get anybody to believe you. The world is full of sceptics.” (p. 219).
At this point, I’m at risk of copying the entire book, so I’ll stop here. My first impressions are that if I want to learn to write well, this is one memoir I’ll want to read and re-read and pick apart. Exactly how does Markham create such beautiful, precise prose that paints such a vivid picture of her life?
In my next post in this series, we’ll take a closer look at Markham’s word choices and how these affect pace, tone, and overall voice. I hope you will join me. If you haven’t started it yet, West With the Night *available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audiobook formats.
In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. What are your first impressions of Beryl Markham and West With the Night?