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Classics Reissued: West with the Night

By (February 4, 2013) No Comment

West with the Nightwest with the night

by Beryl Markham

North Point Press, 2013

Like so many works that are the nine days wonder of the critical world and then vanish, Beryl Markham’s West with the Night earned plaudits when it appeared in 1942 and then sank like a stone. Only when North Point Press re-issued it forty years later did it attract the audience it deserved, charting on international best-seller lists and shining a spotlight on its author, then in her eighties. Aficionados have been recommending the book ever since as an indelible reading experience, an adventure narrative great enough to stand on the same shelf as Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches, Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, Sir Francis Chicester’s Gipsy Moth Circles the World and West with the Night’s most obvious genetic ancestor, Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa.

North Point Press comes to the rescue again in 2013 with a lovely new reprint of West with the Night, stapled front and back with endorsements from Markham’s contemporaries (Hemingways’ exclamation “It is really a bloody wonderful book” taking pride of place) and featuring a new Introduction by Sara Wheeler, who’s no slouch herself in the writing of first-rate travel literature. Wheeler wastes no time in heaping on the praise, writing of the book, “By turns funny, thrilling, and lyrical, every page sings with the two-tone clarity of a Kenyan bush lark.”

Markham was born in England in 1902 but grew up in Kenya, where her father’s farm served as a real-life Neverland of constant adventure, and she took to aviation in the rough-hewn Wild West days of its commercial infancy. She entered the record books as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic non-stop from England to America (she crash-landed in Nova Scotia), and for years she earned her livelihood aloft, spotting herds of animals for hunting safaris. She was also a well-respected horse trainer, but as remarkable as all these things are, they don’t bestow immortality; West with the Night, after its providential rediscovery, did that.

In many unavoidable ways, it’s a book of its colonial British time and place. Modern 21st century audiences (some of them, anyway) will find the book’s casual racism a bit cringe-worthy (African natives are almost always referred to as though they were livestock – respected, valued livestock, but livestock). By the time Markham wrote her book, the era of gin-and-tonics-on-the-veranda white British rule was already dangerously susceptible to the glow of a particularly morose nostalgia, and it shows in these pages. Like so many great travel-adventure books (Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom being perhaps the two grandest examples), West with the Night is an ode to a vanished world. At one point, when our author is idly contemplating how different Africa would be if the happy, complacent native Kavirondo tribesmen had the “cunning of their white brethren,” she envisions the world that might take the place of the one she loves:

I suppose in that case the road to Nungwe would be wide an handsome and lined with filling stations, and the shores of Lake Victoria would be dotted with pleasure resorts linked to Nairobi and the coast by competitive railways probably advertising themselves as the Kavirondo or Kikuyu Lines. The undeveloped and ‘savage’ country would be transformed from a wasteland to a paradise of suburban homes and quaint bathing cabanas and popular beaches, all redolent, on hot days, of the subtle aroma of European culture.

She sighs that time brings all things to the patient, but it’s obvious she hopes never to live to see such a world. She is marvellously, undemonstratively self-sufficient, as well-fitted to her surroundings as any of the animals whose slaughter she facilitated. “I am an expedition by myself,” she tells us, “complete with rations, a weapon, and a book to read – Air Navigation, by Weems.” But as Hemingway (and perhaps more pointedly, Martha Gellhorn) could have told her, self-sufficiency comes at a cost – not that she needed to be told:

All this and discontent too! Otherwise, why am I sitting here dreaming of England? Why am I gazing at this campfire like a lost soul seeking a hope when all that I love is at my wingtip? Because I am curious. Because I am incorrigibly, now, a wanderer.

“I think, I ponder, I recall a hundred things,” she confesses, and that, too, is obvious in this book, which is far more impressionistic than journalistic. Readers seeking to know the facts of Markham’s amazing life will need to consult one or two of the excellent biographies that have been written about her; reading West with the Night is much more like flipping through the pages of her private journal, encountering one colorful memory after another, like when her dog Buller fought a leopard one night and only barely survived:

As for the leopard, we caught him the next night in a trap, but he was beyond all caring anyway. He had no ears, only part of a throat, and great disillusionment in his handsome eyes. To my knowledge, and I think to his, it was the first time any dog of any size had been caught by a leopard and lived to dream about it.

(Later in the book, when Buller dies, she pays him a written tribute as beautiful as anything a grieving owner had given a beloved pet since the last time Lord Byron did it)

The book leaps with life. The cheeping, chattering profusion of early 20th century Africa, long gone except in small and poorly-guarded game preserves, lives again in these pages:

Giant bush-pigs bolt across my way, disturbed at their morning forage; monkeys shriek and gibber in the twisting branches; butterflies, bright, fantastic, homeless as chips on a wave, dart and soar from every leaf. A bongo, rarest of all antelopes, flees through the forest, leaping high, plunging his red and white-striped coat deep in a thicket – away from my curious eyes.

North Point Press hopes to make West with the Night far better-known than it is. “It deserves to be canonized,” they say, and they’re quite right, although their author would have laughed at the thought. Whether or not it happens is in the hands of luck, which both petted and pelted Markham in her own lifetime. But either way, we get this lovely new paperback for a few seasons – to admire all over again, to savor, and to share.