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West with the Night: A Memoir Paperback – January 22, 2013
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A new edition of a great, underappreciated classic of our time
Beryl Markham's West with the Night is a true classic, a book that deserves the same acclaim and readership as the work of her contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Isak Dinesen.
If the first responsibility of a memoirist is to lead a life worth writing about, Markham succeeded beyond all measure. Born Beryl Clutterbuck in the middle of England, she and her father moved to Kenya when she was a girl, and she grew up with a zebra for a pet; horses for friends; baboons, lions, and gazelles for neighbors. She made money by scouting elephants from a tiny plane. And she would spend most of the rest of her life in East Africa as an adventurer, a racehorse trainer, and an aviatrix―she became the first person to fly nonstop from Europe to America, the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. Hers was indisputably a life full of adventure and beauty.
And then there is the writing. When Hemingway read Markham's book, he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins: "She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer . . . [She] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . It is really a bloody wonderful book."
With a new introduction by Sara Wheeler―one of Markham's few legitimate literary heirs―West with the Night should once again take its place as one of the world's great adventure stories.
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“Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories, are absolutely true . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.” ―Ernest Hemingway
“West with the Night is the sort of book that makes you think human beings can do anything . . . When she was a mere child, she was clawed by a lion. This should have been enough to make anybody timid for life, but not Beryl . . . A jewel of taut writing and thrilling reading . . . The girl can write.” ―John Chamberlain, The New York Times
About the Author
Sara Wheeler is the author of many books of biography and travel, including Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990–2011 and Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile. Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica was an international bestseller that The New York Times described as "gripping, emotional" and "compelling," and The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle was chosen as Book of the Year by Michael Palin and Will Self, among others. Wheeler lives in London.
- Publisher : North Point Press; Second edition (January 22, 2013)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 293 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0865477639
- ISBN-13 : 978-0865477636
- Lexile measure : 1140L
- Item Weight : 9.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.62 x 0.91 x 8.27 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #22,651 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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“It is still the host of all my darkest fears, the cradle of mysteries always intriguing, but never wholly solved. It is the remembrance of sunlight and green hills, cool water and the yellow warmth of bright mornings. It is as ruthless as any sea, more uncompromising than its own deserts. It is without temperance in its harshness or in its favours. It yields nothing, offering much to men of all races.”
And in reading this passage, I can only weep. This is the writing Hemingway praised in his review, “she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…she can write rings around us all…”
“There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.”
In understanding how Beryl Markham lived her life, this quote reminds me to aspire to the same. “It is no good telling yourself that one day you will wish you had never made that change; it is no good anticipating regrets. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.” And when she wrote about time and change, it grips my heart for its beauty is transcendent: “Life had a different shape; it had new branches and some of the old branches were dead. It had followed the constant pattern of discard and growth that all lives follow. Things had passed, new things had come.”
Even Isak Dinesen didn’t write about an elephant as descriptively, “His gargantuan ears began to spread as if to capture even the sound of our heartbeats.”
Or the way she describes her aeroplane in the cross-Atlantic flight. “She found a sky so blue and so still that it seemed the impact of a wing might splinter it, and we slid across a surface of white clouds as if the plane were a sleigh running on fresh-fallen snow. The light was blinding — like light that in summer fills an Arctic scene and is in fact its major element.”
And her exquisite description of a brothel keeper, in a dirty cockroach infested, windowless building is a passage of stunning prose that is painfully beautiful. It must be one of the passages that Hemingway envied, and if I can dare include myself, that I can only aspire to write a character with such eloquence. “She had long since forgotten the meaning of a smile, but the physical ability to make the gesture remained. Like the smile of a badly controlled puppet, hers was overdone, and after she had disappeared, and the pad of her slippers was swallowed somewhere in the corridors of the dark house, the fixed, fragile grin still hung in front of my eyes — detached and almost tangible. It floated in the room; it had the same sad quality as the painted trinkets children win at circus booths and cherish until they are broken. I felt that the grin of the brothel keeper would shatter if it were touched and fall to the floor in pieces.”
We can never go back again, begins one of the best lines from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but this one about Africa is close, “Seeing it again could not be living it again. You can always rediscover an old path and wander over it, but the best you can do then is to say, ‘Ah, yes, I know this turning!’ — or remind yourself that, while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you.”
I know I have written a long tribute to this exceptional memoir. Whether written by Markham, co-written, or ghost written, it is most certainly brilliant, and if you aspire to write, it is in my humble opinion a requirement. I will include one more, if only because its intrinsic truth has gripped my heart. “You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness.”
Paula McClain's book Circling the Sun is a fictional memoir of Beryl Markham, and West with the Night is her actual memoir. I wondered at first why McClain would choose Markham of all people to fictionalize, when Markham had already spoken for herself in this memoir. I was almost irritated. After all, Markham is dead. She can't speak up and say, "that's not how it happened. Read the book I ALREADY WROTE if you want to know." Now that I've finished West with the Night, I understand why Mcclain wanted to write Circling the Sun.
Markham writes about how she came to hunt with the Masai tribe as a child in Africa, and how she came to love and train horses (when there were no other women doing it), and how she came to fly planes (when hardly anyone, let alone women, was doing it), but she dwells not at all on her personal relationships or feelings, which for the curious reader should provide context and explanation of Markham's unusual talent and viewpoint.
She writes more about the moody, wise, indifferent nature of Africa than she writes about her own feelings. We have no idea, for instance, what it felt like when her mother left Markham and her father to return to England when Markham was four years old. You don't even know from West with the Night that Markham's father practically forced her into marrying an older man at the age of 17 because her father was moving and didn't know what else to do with her. These events undoubtedly shaped Markham's courage and ambition, but West with the Night doesn't tell us how.
West with the Night is the end result of some strange fomentation within the person of Markham. She writes without arrogance and with plenty of humor about all of her 'firsts.' To Markham, they were simply good ideas. She cared nothing for, or even seemed to think about at all, what other people thought of her. She moved in circles that other women never entered, and was treated as one of the boys. In making life decisions, like the decision to move to Britain, for instance, she was pointed solely by the needle of her own compass. She was happy flying and scouting game in Africa, but wondered what she might be missing. So she moved. Apparently, men followed her. I admit to my morbid curiosity on this point, and I may read Circling the Sun for McClain's take on the other parts of Markham's life.
On the other hand, I may not read it. Markham's critics accuse her of not writing her own memoir (it's too good, they say, to be written by her), and of being a home-wrecker. Her critics look for opportunities to criticize her, for of course she is too unbelievable to escape jealousy. Our curiosity about Markham's personal life shares also this unbelieving desire to justify, to show how the rest of us may have gotten from Point A to Markham's Point Z if only we'd been born into similar circumstances. Really, all you need to know is that she did these things, in spite of fear, and did them well. She was luminous and rare. You can sit back and be inspired by her story without having to justify, explain, or otherwise take away from its magnificence by delving into a personal life she preferred to leave private.
The story culminates in an epic, trans-Atlantic flight, but along the way it reads like a marvelous bed-time story--the kind that the Aesop's Fables author might have written if he had lived in Africa, observing human and animal nature in an era that feels farther removed from today than a mere century should seem.
I enjoyed three things about this book: the beautiful language with which it is written, the observations of a world I will never see, and the affirmation that yes, it is possible to become all that one might be if only one takes that first step and then the next and the next.
Top reviews from other countries
An evocative and enjoyable account of life in Africa in the early 20th Century- Beryl was a female pioneer and aviator overcoming the odds to live a colourful and fascinating life.