Customer Reviews: Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton
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If you know of Denys Finch Hatton, you probably know of him as the flyer in _Out of Africa_, whether in the memoir by Karen Blixen (under the pen name Isak Dinesen) or in the movie as played by Robert Redford. His long and troubled love affair with Blixen and her commemoration of him in her writing are now just about all there is to Hatton, but that was not what those around him would have thought. He was a legend in his own time, idolized by men and adored by women, as unforgettable a personality as anyone around him had ever met. The new biography of Hatton, _Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton_ (Random House) by Sara Wheeler, contains many reminiscences of those whom Hatton had impressed. "As for charm, I suspect Denys invented it," wrote aviatrix Beryl Markham, who also wrote of her lover in the memoir _West with the Night_. "The man with about the most impressive personality I have ever known," wrote Bertie, Lord Cranworth, who had fought alongside him. Yet as Wheeler admits, "the real Denys" is unknowable. He did not leave a diary, and there are only a few dozen letters existent. It is clear that except for making himself into a legend, his accomplishments were minimal. Since he died in 1931, no one now alive has adult memories of him. He is thus perhaps a thin subject for a full biography, but Wheeler has summarized both the life and the social forces of its time, to make a portrait of a man who charmed himself into history as effortlessly and successfully as he did everything else he tried.

He was schooled at Eton, which remained in his memory as his happiest years. He was admired there for his good looks, ability at sports, and his wit. At Oxford, he excelled in sports, and didn't care much about academics, leaving with a fourth-class degree and no particular enthusiasm for a career. In 1911 he headed for British East Africa, now Kenya. He had to do something, and he invested in land, in shops, in cattle, and in mining, with little effect. He served in the African arena of WWI, but a friend remembered that he "made no secret of the fact that warfare bored him to distraction." It was only after the war that he discovered the vocation of big game hunter (and guide to would-be big game hunters) that was perfect for him. He was just the fellow to kill two lions with successive bullets from a double-barreled rifle. He eventually worried about the toll that such killing was taking on the area's ecology, and long before his countrymen came around, he was talking about the importance of conservation. He took up photography and advocated that visitors come shooting with the goal of bringing back as trophies photographs rather than mounted heads. He had many satisfied customers, none more important than the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII), who didn't like anyone much, but liked Hatton. The Prince bet him that he couldn't affix the king's head to the bottom of a rhinoceros, but the fearless Hatton managed it, putting postage stamps on each buttock of a sleeping rhino. He had the Prince's admiration, and he also had the Prince's ear and understanding as he advocated for photography of game and against the useless shooting of it from motorcars.

On another safari, he was asked by American tycoon Frederic B. Patterson how it was that he came to the career of guide. "Oh, it just happened, if you know what I mean," came the reply. He was exactly right; striving for accomplishment was not in him. When he encouraged Karen Blixen to resume painting for relaxation, she wrote, "He has a great talent himself but cannot be bothered to do anything about it." He also could not do anything about relationships with women, of whom Blixen was merely the most important and enduring. Book and film have made her part in his story well-known, but he did leave her when she was emotionally and financially at her neediest. And then, never having accomplished much besides being well liked and admired by almost everyone, and loved by many, in 1931 he was killed in a plane crash, sealing the legend forever, and preventing any resolution of the many enigmas he personified. He might be a minor figure, but he is a fascinating one, and for all his limitations, and the sparseness of documentation of his own reflections, Wheeler has given as good a portrait as he is likely to get. No one knew him well during his lifetime, and not even Wheeler's careful attention explains him satisfactorily, but he is worth knowing even just a little, as all around him would have said.
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on October 19, 2007
Having been to Africa several times, I had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately the book fell short.

First, the good: The opening of the book is well done. Using evocative language, she sets out the story and her motivations for writing it. She goes on to place her characters in history, describing both personal and political backgrounds. And this is the real strength of the book; Wheeler manages to conjure the mood of the time in which Denys lived and this goes a long way to explaining him. Looking at the accompanying pictures, you can almost imagine how he moved and spoke. The other key strength of the book is that it was meticulously researched. There are myriad entertaining stories about minor characters in the book, from Beryl Markham to Bror Blixen to the hedonists of the Happy Valley set.

Now the not so good: Wheeler clearly dislikes Karen Blixen. This would be fine if there were some objective reasons to back it up, but there simply aren't. Wheeler goes on and on about Blixen's histrionics and neediness and takes numerous shots at her abilities as a writer. By the book's midpoint the cattiness is bordering on the pathological. Apart from a grudging complement to Karen's "endurance" at the book's close, it seems she can do no right - especially in contrast to the supremely English Denys. And this "English good" while "others bad" runs throughout the book, so much so that I began to wonder if there wasn't a kind of cultural myopia at work. What Wheeler attacks as Karen's grandiosity (when she compares herself to a retreating Napoleon) was probably really an example of the Danish sense of humour, viz. bathos (read some Kierkegaard to see that in action!) At any rate, Wheeler's constant jibes at Karen were enough to wreck my enjoyment of the book - and to erode my confidence in her objectivity.

The other criticism I have is in the writing itself. To be sure, Wheeler is a gifted wordsmith with a prodigious vocabulary (I had to run for my dictionary on numerous occasions) but she can also overdo things, wantonly at times. Long stretches of text are so crammed with adjectives it becomes hard to follow what she's saying. Take for example:

"Below the fretworked balconies of close-packed coral-lime houses, rickshaw boys with teaky backs pulled carts teetering with the graying boards of dried kingfish."

Happily, the writing isn't all so airless. Worth buying if you're very interested in East Africa in the early 20th century.
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VINE VOICEon January 9, 2008
I picked up this book after finishing Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen's OUT OF AFRICA and Beryl Markham's WEST WITH THE NIGHT. When I found out that a biography about Denys Finch-Hatton had just been published, I thought it was too good to be true - he is so fascinating, and so mysterious, in Blixen and Markham's memoirs that it's hard to read them without wanting to learn more.

It turns out it WAS too good to be true.

Finch-Hatton left little to no record of his own life. There are no diaries and very, very few letters. My burning questions were: What is the interior world of a charming, dashing adventurer like? What is he thinking while he's busy making life brighter, sweeter, and more exciting for others? Wheeler has no more idea than anyone else. Finch-Hatton has left no record of what his life was like, from his own point of view.

Aside from Blixen and Markham, whose portraits of Finch-Hatton are already well known, his nearest and dearest didn't sit down to describe his character, his thoughts or hidden sides. I recognized huge sections of OUT OF AFRICA and WEST WITH THE NIGHT rephrased here, with additional comments pulled from research into Blixen or Markham's life, plumped up with (generally fascinating) cultural and historical context and (generally very clever) anecdotes and asides. But this was an enhanced reading of Blixen or Markham's life, nothing new, and at a real distance from the actual subject of this biography.

I learned a lot about a particular moment in the history of British East Africa. I learned some things that I didn't know about Blixen and Markham and, yes, even a few things that I didn't know about Denys Finch-Hatton - a bit about his family history, where he went to school, where he was during the war and how he became involved in big game hunting and conservation.

Wheeler writes beautifully; she has an exquisite style. She clearly hopes that if she can plump up her scanty material with lots of dazzling imagery, we won't notice that this lengthy description of the English countryside or that lengthy description of the Serengeti actually isn't telling us anything at all about Denys Finch-Hatton. This felt like sleight of hand to me, like a trick, and I resented her for it. I want to see gorgeous style used to make good, solid research come to life. I don't want to see it poorly masking the author's failure to gather enough material to justify a book.

In short, even though I generally enjoyed reading TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN, I disliked it.
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on August 8, 2014
I became addicted to Isak Dinesen after reading Judith Thurman's comprehensive biography of her. And, I just had to, also, read more about Denys Finch Hatton, Dinesen's main love interest.

This book is noteworthy, primarily because Sara Wheeler writes very well with a wckedly surprising and dry sense of humor. This is the main reason to read this biography, Sara Wheeler's writing skill. ( Wheeler is a great nature writer, also, and a fantastic describer of The Great War in Africa. Just a part of Finch Hatton's life but a part that Wheeler brings to vivid life.) She then constructs Finch Hatton's life out of thin air, as they say.

There's not much to Finch Hatton's life story for Wheeler to grab onto because he died young and left little in the way of letters and papers. He seems, though, to have charmed most he met, seems to have been a good casual friend and was just settling down in his forties when he died. ( Note that he had drawn a will before he died, but he left nothing to Dinesen--even though he knew she was losing her farm. This says a lot about his life, his maturity in an age when people were supposed to be grown up at an earlier age than we .)

Read this book to round out your knowledge of the 1920s and 1930s, especially in Africa's British colonies.
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on January 1, 2008
I visited East Africa and while in and around Nairobi took a chance on visiting the public museum that is now entrusted in preserving Karen Blixen's original home and a few acres that remain the last remnant of the Karen Coffee Plantation. On the tour I came to learn of Denis Fitch Hatton, the early days of colonization of British East Africa
( World War I in East Africa) and the likes of Lord Delamere, Count Blixen, Beryl Markham, Kermit Roosevelt and Prince Edward. Although much has been written by and /or about Isak Dinesen, Beryl Markham, Blix (and the others) so very little was available to learn more of the elusive Finch Hatton as early flyer, big game hunter, East African land speculator, conservationist, herdsman, nature photographer...and here again the author admits that accurate personal historical information remains sparse. Nevertheless the author is to be commended and this book can be highly recommended as a worthy presentation of an unusual life "well lived" in the context of his time and place. Admittedly it is not all "easy reading" and the author does perhaps over indulge in the "who's who" and "who's title is the umpteenth earl of somewhere....but I can accept all of that as necessary and essential to that time and place in history.
The book especially captures the land,it's colonists, it's native people, the animals and Denis Finch Hatton's place within East African history. Thoroughly enjoyable and informative reading.
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on August 22, 2007
Why some books win prizes and others do not eludes me; this one is a prize winner.
Too Close to the Sun has set me on a worthy adventure to understand the Victorian/Edwardian cusp especially in British Africa and for this I am thankful because those were glory days.
Through Ms. Wheeler I have met persons Much More Interesting than me and my friends. Her dogged research has invigorated my life. For her reader's delight, the author darns together memories, letters, and written data concerning a self-effacing gentleman, Denys Finch Hatton. Luckily for us we may now tag along in the glow of his charisma and be voyeurs of his well-born and lively acquaintances. We may celebrate with African settlers as they host a wilderness New Year's dinner 'comme il faut', we may sit in our a.c. as British soldiers portage battleships across a brutal continent during WWI, we may brush dust off our jackets after cavalierly shooting two charging lions with a double-barreled shotgun, we may politely manoevre and entertain a persnickity Prince of Wales.
I thank Ms. Wheeler for her Fascination of What's Difficult, to paraphrase Mr. Yeats, because pulling together a three-dimensional picture of This Time using only carefully chosen evidence is difficult and more honest than throwing together hearsay and calling it a book.
Her talent as a lover of language is evident as she brings us the scents, sounds, atmosphere, gossip, innuendo, mores, jokes, custom, and emotion that enliven her facts and put feet in Finch Hatton's footsteps. Ms. Wheeler's pages rebuild that World before the Wars that we 21st centuriers can't understand and most often wrongly judge.

I sprinted to the bookstore for more news of the largely-lived lives mentioned throughout Too Close To The Sun. I'm now hooked on the soap opera of the Blixens (the 2nd Mrs.,too), Lord Delamere, the Masai, Lord Carberry, various British Generals, the younger Mr. Roosevelt.... I can't think of any group more instructive to learn about!
Beryl Markham's West With the Night was my next read. What a woman, and how fascinating to get to know her from her own writing, so different than her appearance in TCTTS. I have ordered Bror Blixen's African Hunter, to catch his and Dr. Turvey's viewpoint on the Kenyan crowd. I plan to read Elspeth Huxley's book about growing up on a coffee plantation. Like craning to hear the whispered name of someone you love, I want to hear again the names that Ms. Wheeler has called forth.
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on June 7, 2007
Ever since I saw the movie "Out of Africa" I have been captivated with the lives of Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham and Denys Finch Hatton. "Too Close to the Sun" focuses on the unique life of Denys and tries to explain how and why he lived his life according to his own rules.
The book also describes the history of British East Africa or Kenya as we now know it.
This biography was a facinating read and hard to put down!!!
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VINE VOICEon October 28, 2011
Denys Finch Hatton was the second son of an earl, a highly privileged aristocrat who seemed to have everything: good looks, charm, adored by men and women alike. Denys' family could trace their ancestry back to Sir Christopher Hatton, Queen Elizabeth's courtier. However his personal claim to fame teeters on a very flimsy base: he was the lover (among others) of two famous women- Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and Beryl Markham, British East Africa's literary doyennes. Without "Out of Africa" and "West with the Night" Denys would long ago have disappeared, plowed under by the bulldozer of history. It is almost impossible to flesh him out although this thorough biography tries hard and presents a great deal of information. The real Denys is still elusive. It is difficult to appreciate just what it was that made him so universally acclaimed and to this reader, at least, he remains an enigma.

Too close to the sun refers, of course, to the flight of the Greek Icarus whose father Daedalus crafted for his son feathered wings soldered together with wax. The young man in exhilaration flew so close to the sun that the wax melted and he plummeted to his death.The title of Wheeler's biography is very pertinent to the life of Denys Finch Hatton. The metaphor of the book title is that Denys had the opportunity and talent to achieve success and fame from his own merits and efforts, but instead he only lives on in the works of others. And of course his plane crashes, like Icarus plunging to earth, his wings destroyed

Denys was languid and totally without ambition, not competitive although he did hate losing a game such as chess. His inheritance and social standing, even in British East Africa, allowed him to rub shoulders with the moneyed, titled class of British colonists. The British ex- patriots took their class distinctions right to BEA (later Kenya).As an aristocrat he could hobnob with the titled as could Karen Blixen by virtue of her title, Baroness

A great deal of background information is provided in the book such as descriptions of Denys' family and his activities in Africa during World War I. But let us cut to the chase and introduce Tania, Denys' name for Karen Blixen. Although several reviewers have remarked upon author Wheeler's dislike for Tania, I felt that Wheeler's portrait is quite reasonable. She describes Tania as "neurotic" and without a sense of humor. Tania considered her life a performance and wanted to be the heroine of every scene, having a high regard for her own importance and her own place. She may have loved her native servants but Wheeler remarks that her Africans were actually extensions of the African landscape.

Nobody would describe Tania as easy to get along with but "Out of Africa" and her short stories propelled her into a plane far above Denys Finch Hatton : she was not Icarus, her wings got singed but she kept them intact. She lost Denys and she lost her African farm but she achieved immortality through the majesty and beauty of her writing. "Out of Africa" is sublime. Her biggest mistake as regards her relationship with Denys was that she became too possessive. Denys wanted total freedom with no restraints and Karen's clutching of him drove him right into the arms of Beryl Markham , a notorious bed-hopper who wanted freedom to do whatever she wanted, just like Denys. Author Wheeler describes the relationship of Tania and Finch Hatton as being like two beaters of a rotary whisk that spin and never touch, an extraordinary metaphor that seems spot on.

Author Wheeler excuses any faults and eccentricities of Denys but she does not excuse Karen Blixen. Tania was very strange, very outré and at times could act ludicrously. Her servants had to wear white gloves when serving dinner and she and Denys dressed for dinner even when they were alone. That Tania adored Denys there is no doubt but did he adore her? No. She was convenient, her house was convenient and although he surely enjoyed her company as long as she didn't try and ensnare him into a permanent relationship (marriage) things went well. However, he could be cruel. The two lovers had a code for any future child of theirs -Daniel. When Denys was away. Tania was sure she was expecting and wired him. He replied "Strongly urge you cancel Daniel's visit."* In other words, get an abortion.

Although others have described Denys as a "Renaissance Man" he did not achieve enough to earn that description. He was a big game hunter, consorted with the Prince of Wales, and Kermit Roosevelt and other wealthy safari clients. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his attempt to interest clients in photographing the wildlife rather than shooting it. Not exactly an over-whelming achievement.

Wheeler's biography is very well written in a distinctive style. But I found myself skipping chapters to get to the meat of the biography- Karen Blixen. That is not the fault of the author, it's just that Denys without Tania, or Beryl Markham for that matter, doesn't interest me.

*Denys'wire has been disputed as no record of it now exists. Judith Thurman mentions it in her book "Isak Dinesen". It does seem out of character that Denys would wire anything so hurtful to his lover or to anyone for that matter.
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on February 26, 2008
Too Close to the Sun, The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton is as much a detailed history of British East Africa--the country known today as Kenya--as it is the story of Denys Finch Hatton's life. In other words, the focus is keener on the times than on the life.

Finch Hatton, a notorious and romantic character portrayed in Out of Africa (Modern Library), the book of stories by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and the in the film played by Robert Redford, didn't keep a journal or, for that matter, write many letters. As a result, a great deal of the exhaustive research on him compiled by dedicated author, Sara Wheeler, is derived from Dinesen's fiction and other contemporary, Beryl Markham's autobiography, West With the Night. Generally well written, a bit on the formal side, the prose wavers between colorful and descriptive and textbook laborious. (Have your dictionary nearby!) The subject, Finch Hatton, might have been better left to the material written by his former lovers than the subject of an entire biography.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the trip to Kenya and the stunning visuals it provided. Having spent time there, including a visit to the town now known as "Karen," and a tour of Blixen's house, the pages of this book gave it a living history quality. Wheeler also clarifies Finch Hatton's character as more than the uncommitted lover of Karen Blixen ("Tania")--"They were living in different mental worlds, as unhappy lovers do, coexisting like the twin beaters of a rotary whisk, spinning in time by never touching"-- but also notes he was one of the first to point out the dangers of uncontrolled hunting on safari endangering Africa's wildlife. "For the first time in his life, he had found something he believed in, a cause that was worth commitment." Hence, his legacy as "an eternal wanderer on a perpetual quest for knowledge and experience," which is the main thrust of this dissertation.

Michele Cozzens, author of I'm Living Your Dream Life: The Story of a Northwoods Resort Owner.
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on March 6, 2016
Sadly, the book is unreadable. Faced with few facts about the man, yet a real love for the romance of his life, the writer fall back on an attempt to write as Blixen would have done if she hade cared to write about him this way at all. The result is a disaster. Take this line:"The bride had copper pre-Raphailite hair, aspirin-white skin, and large grey eyes that sheltered under broad red brows." Yikes! The writing is so poor, so overly, badly wordy. I'm sad the writer did not use her own voice, her own style. It would have been a greater (possible) read.
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