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Removing All Doubt : THE SPLENDID OUTCAST Beryl Markham's African Stories compiled by Mary S. Lovell (North Point Press: $14.95, 160 pages, illustrated)

October 04, 1987|John H. Heminway, Jr.

For years, some of Beryl Markham's detractors insisted she could not have been the sole author of the highly praised "West With the Night" because she never wrote anything else. Here, then, is the balance of her literary career--eight short stories packed into a thin volume. Mary S. Lovell, her loyal biographer, compiled these works to surprise Markham on her 84th birthday. Sadly, the willowy shadow is not with us to smile wanly at her admirers and to enjoy her long-suffering bank manager's shock with the sudden cash windfall.

While Lovell suggests that the literary merits of Markham's short stories will quiet many detractors, I am not so sure. These stories were clearly tailored for the Collier's and Ladies' Home Journal market during and after World War II and seem designed for the quick dramatic kill.

The quiet ironies, subtleties, spare descriptions and wry persona that so marked "West With the Night" are absent here. These tales, mostly about horses and flying, are uneven, top-heavy with exposition and, when experimental, hopelessly sophomoric.

There may, however, be two exceptions--stories that contain stylistic flashes reminiscent of her earlier memoirs. "The Splendid Outcast" and "Appointment in Khartoum" draw heavily on Markham's feel for horses and flight. They possess moments when we might even agree with Hemingway's much-quoted praise of this exotic writer.

I disagree with Lovell that these stories will silence the campaign of innuendo against Markham's integrity as a writer. They each show the effect of heavy editing; they struggle, almost audibly, to "work," and they fail, collectively, to demonstrate the clarity that illuminated her one and only book. The legend of this remarkable woman might have remained more enigmatic had this collection been kept in cold storage.

Also available: Beryl Markham's "West With the Night," (North Point Press, cloth, illustrated edition: $19.95) and "West With the Night" on cassette read by Julie Harris (Spoken Arts, unabridged, six cassettes: $49; abridged, two cassettes: $14.95).

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