Monday, June 13, 2011

West With the Night

Beryl Markham's memoir of her youth in Africa and early years as a record-setting aviator, West With the Night, is one of the most beautifully written, lyrical books I've ever had the pleasure to experience. This was another audio book for me, and the incomparable Julie Harris did a superb job with the reading. The only downside to listening to the book is that there were dozens of passages that I thought would be ideal to quote here for flavor but there's not a way to tag them as they slip into the ether. When I commented on Goodreads that I was reading this book, a friend suggested the illustrated version, which I promptly acquired from Amazon marketplace at a bargain basement price, and I look forward to opening it at leisure and just reading the beautiful words out of context.

Before I read the book, I had heard there was a bit of controversy over how much Markham wrote of it and how much her third husband, Raoul Schumaker, wrote. I plan to read a biography of Markham, hopefully later this year, which should help me get a better grasp on how much of the memoir is fact and how much is fancy, but in a way it doesn't matter because the book itself was so incredibly enjoyable to read.

I will admit, however, that I enjoyed her stories about training horses and hunting with the Masai warriors more than her flying stories, but that could be because I am such a earth-bound being myself. My father was a flyer and definitely resonated with her ecstasy at slipping "the surly bonds of Earth," but though I flew with him many times when I was a child, I never did share his desire to pilot a plane.

In keeping with my assertion that I could open this book to any page and begin reading any paragraph and find something wonderful, I did just that and found this passage to share with you, from chapter IV, "Why Do We Fly?":

There is no twilight in East Africa. Night tramps on the heels of Day with little gallantry and takes the place she lately held, in severe and humourless silence. Sounds of the things that live in the sun are quickly gone--and with them the sounds of roving aeroplanes, if their pilots have learned the lessons there are to learn about night weather, distances that seem never to shrink, and the perfidy of landing fields that look like aerodromes by day, but vanish in darkness.

Finally, if you won't take my word that this is a simply glorious book, here's what Ernest Hemingway had to say about it:

"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West With The Night? ...She has written so well, and marvellously 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 ... it really is a bloody wonderful book."


  1. I'm convinced- it really does sound like a glorious book! Great review:) Thanks for stopping by and you're so lucky to once have seen Lautrec's work!

  2. I need to read this! sounds lovely. Love the quote you shared.

  3. I read about this book a couple of years ago on some NPR show but have never talked to any one who had actually read it. You've absolutely sold me! I love that quote from Hemingway!

  4. I read this when I was in school and loved it--that was ages ago. I also later bought the illustrated version and should really revisit it. At a library sale I found a book of her short stories as well. That's a wonderful quote by Hemingway--if he liked it, it must be good! :)