A woman long dead – marvelous and bold and complicated – is the subject of Paula McLain’s new novel, Circling the Sun. Read this book if you want to spend more time in Paula McLain’s company (The Paris Wife). I wouldn’t blame you! It’s a suspenseful, engaging read, focusing on the storied love triangle between Markham, Karen Blixen, and Denys Finch Hatton (think Out of Africa, published under Blixen’s pen name Isak Dineson). If – on the other hand – you want to know something of the wit and spirit and glory of Beryl Markham herself, you should really read her stunning memoir published in 1942, West with the Night (republished to great acclaim in 1983).
I have strong feelings about Beryl Markham (obviously), and it’s not just admiration for her accomplishments as a pilot in the golden age of solo flying. I suppose it’s more of a complete and utter fascination with her life as recounted in West with the Night. Born in England but raised in British East Africa, she is bold – adventurous – brave – sometimes foolish; a hunter of lions; a trainer of horses; a lover of airplanes and men. For a time, she was a great celebrity: the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, in 1936.
West with the Night went out of print rather quickly after its original publication despite making an impression in high places. Ernest Hemingway recommended it to his friend Maxwell Perkins in a letter: “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …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 this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.” (I wonder what she would have said about you, Papa!)
I’ll offer you two passages to highlight the differences between Circling the Sun and West with the Night.
From the first chapter of Circling the Sun:
“I have a chart that traces my route across the Atlantic, Abingdon to New York, every inch of icy water I’ll pass over, but not the emptiness involved or the loneliness or the fear. Those things are as real as anything else, though, and I’ll have to fly through them. Straight through the sickening dips and air pockets, because you can’t chart a course around anything you’re afraid of. You can’t run from any part of yourself, and it’s better you can’t. Sometimes I’ve thought it’s only our challenges that sharpen us, and change us, too – a mile-long runway and nineteen hundred pounds of fuel.”
There is nothing wrong with this writing. It simply doesn’t sound anything like Beryl in the pages of her memoir. It especially doesn’t sound like anything she would have said about flying. It sounds like something you’d read in a contemporary self-help book. And I felt the presence of the present throughout.
In contrast – this from the first chapter of West With the Night:
“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all these things but one thing – it is never dull.
From the time I arrived in British East Africa at the indifferent age of four and went through the barefoot stage of early youth hunting wild pig with the Nandi, later training race-horses for a living, and still later scouting Tanganyika and the waterless bush country between the Tana and Athi Rivers, by aeroplane, for elephant, I remained so happily provincial I was unable to discuss the boredom of being alive with any intelligence until I had gone to London and lived there a year. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic.”
There is life and spirit in those words. In the pages to come, there are prejudices and pride, humor and wit, sorrow. West with the Night transports you to a time and place far distant – remotest Africa – when flying an “aeroplane” anywhere in the world was still a thing of wonder. Circling the Sun somehow never feels far enough from home.
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There have been questions regarding Markham’s authorship of West with the Night. It has been alleged that she had help from a lover (though “scholarly” opinions differ as to which lover). I have to agree with Robert O’Brien that “the aesthetic power that compelled Hemingway’s praise, the book’s republication, and its subsequent popularity, remains whether we regard West with the Night as autobiography, biography, or … a combination of the two.”
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Paula McClain will speak August 4th at 6:15 p.m. at the Nashville’s Downtown Public Library as part of the wonderful Salon@615 series.
Fascinating! Was she perhaps Denys Finch-Hatton’s “other woman” to Karen Blixen of “Out of Africa” fame, as well?
Jennifer- Both you and Gus are masters of the perfectly chosen, representative snippet. Now I have to read West with the Night myself.
John, I think you will absolutely love it! Thank you for the very kind words. xo
Each is as it is….one a memoir, one a work of historical fiction. The thing to do is to read both for comparison. Both are thoroughly enjoyable and valuable.
Jennifer – I’m so glad you’ve reviewed West with the Night. It’s on the top of my Africa book list and I’ve reviewed it there myself. So just to be sure: Circling the Sun, is that a biography of Beryl Markham? I have to agree with you based on the one passage you excerpted: There is no need to read anyone’s book about her if you’ve read West with the Night.
Re Hemingway’s quote – I also mentioned that in my review I think. You may have seen that I’m on a bit of a Hemingway bashing trip these days as I’ve written several blog posts about him. I think he is actually absolutely right in what he says, even though he meant it as praise. He IS indeed a mere carpenter putting together words as compared to Beryl Markham. There is nothing in his books (the ones I attempted and didn’t put down in utter boredom) that compares to her prose, her sense of plot, her imagination. They ARE dull in comparison.
As to whether she’s the original author or not – it just seems to me that that is a sign of the times back then, that a rumor was started about her not having written it. How could a woman possibly write so well? It was a man writer’s world, after all. I like to think that she DID write it, and that she was far ahead of some of her male contemporaries.
Hi Sine! It is always so terrific to hear from you at Bacon! I’m glad you feel as passionately about West with the Night as I do! Just to clarify – Circling the Sun is historical fiction. The choice that I suppose I had so much trouble with is that McLain wrote it as if Beryl were telling her own story (in first person). And it just doesn’t compare – in my mind – with how Beryl told her own story.
I agree with you there, Jennifer. If that person already wrote a first-person account, then it is pretty weird, in my opinion, if it’s written first-person as historical fiction. Now if Beryl had never written a thing about her story, perhaps it would be different… By the way, did we talk about Africa House? If you like the one, you’ll probably like the other.
“WWTN” has been on my bookshelf for at least ten years, but I have yet to read it. Alas, I am more of a book buyer than a book reader…something I need to remedy. Your review has movtivated me, thank you!
I am so happy to hear it, Mary Jo! It is one of my favorite books of all time. I hope so much you love it as much as I did. I’d love to know what you think of it! xo