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This review is from: Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton (Hardcover)
Sara Wheeler's "Too Close to the Sun" is as much a biography of a place and of an era as it is of a man. The author went looking for Denys Finch Hatton and found East Africa as well as her elusive subject.
The man, himself, was once a nearly mythical East African figure. Finch Hatton is best known today as Karen Blixen's long-time inamorata in the film version of her book "Out of Africa." In life, he was a privileged Englishman who often worked as an African guide and professional hunter and who flourished and died during Kenya's colonial period. He was also a reluctant soldier, a glad aviator and a man who loved theatre, photography, dance, books and women.
Ms. Wheeler says that her aims in writing the biography were: "to depict a figure in the landscape, to explore the universal themes threaded through his story, and to find out why he was an engine of myth." Other than a few personal letters and some newspaper articles, he wrote little. Because of this, and because she writes so many years after his death, Ms. Wheeler is left with little more than trace evidence and the words of others with which to develop her theme and achieve those goals. Fortunately, she's an able writer and tenacious researcher. She also uses the words of Teddy Roosevelt, H. Rider Haggard, Ernest Hemingway, Siegfried Sassoon, Elspeth Huxley, W.B. Yeats and Evelyn Waugh, among others, as sources to help her develop her African story.
Karen Blixen is, perhaps, her most famous source for direct Denys Finch Hatton information. Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) wrote about Finch Hatton as her lover and used her version of him as an element to drive her own story. Sara Wheeler, on the other hand, is a graduate of the same Oxford college as Finch Hatton and seems more in sympathy with him as a human being.
Beryl Markham, an aviatrix, writer and renowned wild child, is another useful source. Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway's third wife) described her as, "Not your ordinary Circe." Beryl says of Denys, "As for charm, I suspect that Denys invented it." Those may be the final words on Denys Finch Hatton. In two-hundred-fifty-two pages of text, author Wheeler can't find anyone to say a bad word about him.
Sara Wheeler certainly charmed this reviewer when she quoted Anthony Blanche, a character in Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited." Antoine, as he's known, warns another character about the danger of English charm, stating that it blights anything it touches. Ms. Wheeler believes that Finch Hatton's own charm nearly destroyed his ambition.
Ms. Wheeler's writing skills are (to say the least) fully developed. She calls the disastrous British 1916 offensive in France the "Apocalypse on the Somme." In one chapter, she describes the deteriorating relationship between Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen by saying, "They were living in different mental worlds...coexisting like the twin beaters of a rotary whisk." In passing, Ms. Wheeler notes what she calls "the spiritual journey at the heart of all great literature."
She's made some interesting choices in her own life, both as an author and as a person. By her own reckoning, she spent three years researching and writing "Too Close to the Sun." She also traveled to three continents (Europe, Africa and America) doing research. She's also written "Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica," and "Cherry: a Life of Apsley Cherry Garrard." She spent six months in Antarctica paying part of the personal tariff for creating these two works. She paid another similar price to research her South American book, "Travels in a Thin Country."
There's a theme here: Much time and energy spent on projects with a limited market potential. That may be crass, and those of us who are interested in any of her subjects do have reason to be glad that she invested the time as she has. Considering her enormous writing ability, however, had she devoted the same amount of skill and effort in another direction, she might well have become the new James Michener or the next Donna Tartt or A.S. Byatt. Instead, she's chosen to forgo the probability of huge literary or popular success and with such success, big bucks and big acclaim. Perhaps this is too American a perspective about writing or living, but Ms. Wheeler's choices do remain interesting questions. In his day, Denys Finch Hatton was already becoming an anachronism. Sara Wheeler, who refers to modern-day Istanbul as Constantinople may also fit into that category. Bless them both.
The bottom line on the book is that for anyone with even a drop of Walter Mitty blood, "Too Close to the Sun" is a splendid read. James Joyce has given Daedalus his modern day due. Let's hear it for the new Icarus.