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HER WORLD

'Out of Africa' Author's Life Testifies to Travelers' Passionate Love of Place

'What business had I ever to set my heart on Africa?' author Isak Dinesen once wrote. But then, what business have any of us to set our hearts on a place?

September 10, 2000|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Dedicated travelers often have a strong love of place. They care about the English Lake District the way others care about food or sports. That's why I am always moved by the stories of people like Danish author Isak Dinesen who grow passionately attached to a place. For Dinesen, it was the Kenyan coffee plantation in the lee of the Ngong Hills that she made famous in her memoir, "Out of Africa," and, in her later life, a modest manor house called Rungstedlund about 30 miles north of Copenhagen.

Those who have read "Out of Africa" or have seen the 1985 movie version of the book, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, know that Dinesen went to East Africa in 1914 and stayed 17 years, managing the farm after her marriage to Swedish Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke unraveled and eventually falling in love with English safari guide Denys Finch Hatton. The tile-roofed farmhouse where she lived, about 10 miles southwest of Nairobi, is now a museum, with some of her furniture, landscaped gardens and the same view of the Ngong Hills she enjoyed. But to find out what happened to her after she lost the coffee plantation to creditors and after Finch Hatton died in a plane crash, you must visit Rungstedlund, where she was born in 1885 and died, a writer of international renown, in 1962.

She was 46 and ruined when she returned to Denmark from Kenya in 1931 to live with her elderly mother at Rungstedlund, an ivy-covered house overlooking the sound that separates Denmark from Sweden. Her beloved African servants and friends, whose portraits, painted by Dinesen, line the walls of the first two rooms visitors see at Rungstedlund, were only memories. Her ne'er-do-well husband had given her syphilis, from which she suffered the rest of her life.

But she was tough and philosophical enough to view her problems as just a piece of life's broader, unfolding design. So back home, in her father's chilly study at Rungstedlund, with a picture of Finch Hatton and a framed blueprint survey of her African farm at her side, she set to work on "Seven Gothic Tales," published in 1934. Though not as famous as "Out of Africa," this collection of stories about an odd array of late 19th century aristocrats is well worth looking up for its stately style, bizarre plot convolutions and symbolic resonance.

"Out of Africa" followed in 1937, as did more stories, essays, plays and critical acclaim. In the '50s, she did a series of radio broadcasts from the hearth room at Rungstedlund, with its trailing lace curtains and signature floral arrangements that she placed daily atop a chest given to her by Farah, her butler on the African farm. The radio shows made her cultured mind and gravelly voice the pride of Denmark and ultimately raised enough money to turn Rungstedlund and the beech forest around it into a museum and nature preserve after her death. When Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, he said the award really should have gone to "that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen."

By this time, her mother had died and Dinesen was an invalid largely confined to Rungstedlund, where she entertained and decorated with care. Her understated, aristocratic taste shines there, with pride of place given to beautiful old things: vintage stoves, her father's desk and the grandfather clock she had in Africa. She never waxed poetic about Rungstedlund the way she did about her African farm but once said, "It should be grander than a vicarage but not as grand as a country house."

From there, she kept in touch with her cherished African retainers by letter (one of them addressed her as "Honorable Lioness") and dreamed of ways to return to Kenya. She pursued writing assignments from magazines that would take her there and thought of starting a hospital for Masai children with her earnings from "Out of Africa." When she met with Albert Schweitzer in England and told him about it, he discouraged her because he was alarmed about her frail condition.

Then her first royalty check arrived, and it was just $8,000, forcing her to abandon her plans.

She never saw Africa again.

Her grave lies through the garden at the back of the house, across a farm field to the west. Nothing about this cozy Danish landscape bespeaks Africa.

"What business had I ever to set my heart on Africa?" she once wrote.

But then, what business have any of us to set our hearts on a place? Yet we travelers do, with better luck, I hope, than hers.

Karen Blixen Museum, P.O. Box 40658, Nairobi, Kenya, telephone 011-254-2-882-779, Internet http://www.museums.or.ke/regkbm.html.

Karen Blixen Museum, Rungstedlund, 111 Rungsted Strandvej, DK-2960 Rungsted Kyst, Denmark, tel. 011-45-4557-1057, fax 011-45-4557-1058, Internet http://www.isak-dinesen.dk.

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