Well actually, I didn’t have a farm anywhere, but whenever I remember Isak Dinesen’s, The Ngong Farm, I feel like I could have done, a long time ago. Or perhaps it’s that I should have done.
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
Is that the most perfect opening line ever written? I don’t think so, there are after all, a lot of strong contenders that I like at least equally. Yet this is the one that is fixed in my mind. It’s not just that I can quote it, it’s a sentence that resonates at odd moments. Sometimes really odd moments: like walking round a DIY store yesterday.
Like many of us, I first heard of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen because of the film, Out Of Africa, so the associations this opening-line carries are complicated for me. The words link to an image of Meryl Streep telling stories to Robert Redford. That’s beautiful people fulfilling a writer’s fantasy isn’t it, Teller, Tale and Audience in perfect harmony?
Yet it’s more than that. Those words are not just about the memory of a film, last seen a decade or two ago. I’m not in the habit of memorizing dialogue. Something else has fixed this in my mind. The writer’s ‘voice’ is strong.
Oh yes, ‘The Voice’. What is that exactly? We frequently throw that phrase around in writing classes, particularly in beginners groups. ‘You must have a distinctive voice,’ we say. Do we mean style? I don’t think so, at least, not on its own. As comprehensive as the dictionaries definitions list for style is, it’s not quite the same as voice.
Well, obviously, since voice refers to sound, an audible function that might seem incompatible with the written word. Is it though? Aren’t we still speaking when we write? I am. As I type this, I am sounding each word: testing each phrase in my head. I can hear my voice. Actually, occasionally so could someone listening at the door. (I don’t think that counts as talking to myself, I am definitely addressing a listener, even if they are bodiless.) Oh dear, when you’re in a hole, stop digging.
All too often we forget the ancestry of the written word is speech, both as writers and readers. The writers of the nineteenth century didn’t. Much of their work was intended to be read aloud. Literacy levels were improving, but authors expected, even hoped that reading would be a participatory activity, something that involved the family. Reading could be solitary, but check out the paintings and illustrations in Victorian books and you’ll get the message – cosy fireside, family grouping with children gathered at the feet as one of the family read the latest installment of At Home or some other ‘improving’ magazine.
Gradually though, prose moved over to being a personal, individual occupation. I wonder if it goes with the idea that children should be seen but not heard. All those paintings of children engrossed, alone… I think books were selling an appealing image on more than one level.
That link to the spoken nature of words remains clearest in poetry I suppose, which often benefits from being read aloud.
Interestingly, I found my copy of Out Of Africa on the shelf next to the poetry, rather than with the other short stories. I don’t remember how I came to store it there, but thinking about it, it seems like a good place. Look at the rhythm in my much repeated phrase. Each word seems to carry weight, to require a thoughtful, careful delivery. I can’t say or think it fast, I willingly wallow in her rose-lit prose.
She had a farm in Africa…it can only draw me on. A simple phrase, self contained, and yet full of interest. Who is this woman on the other side of the page: what is she?
‘Really?’ I think, ‘Tell me more…’