Beryl Markham, author of West With the Night, grew up on a Kenyan horse farm with her English father and became an early aviatrix, working as an African bush pilot, then setting a record in 1936 for a westward solo flight across the Atlantic, hence the title of her book, although the flight only appears in the final chapter. Most of the book is about growing up in Africa with her dog and horses until it all ended at age seventeen with one season of drought.
She lived life on the edge. A non-conformist even among the eccentric British expatriates, she hunted with yet-to-be circumcised, yet-to-be warrior, thin as reeds, Masai boys and was once “moderately eaten” by a lion. A noted beauty, she had been married twice by her late 20s and had a child, supposedly by the Duke of Gloucester whose family paid her an annuity for the rest of her life. She would eventually marry six more times.
But she is most noted for her book that is still a wonder—and a puzzle. She was only moderately educated, but, out of nowhere, produced this amazingly well-written book that even Hemingway said made him ashamed of himself as a writer. (He also said, “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.”) No doubt she had help from her writer husband, her third, but the book far exceeds anything he wrote, and she did not publish anything else. Friends never knew her to read a book, let alone write one. Nevertheless, a fading copy remains on my own bookshelf as one of my all-time favorites.
Here is an example of the quality of writing:
We fly but we have not ‘conquered’ the air. Nature presides in all her dignity, permitting us to use her forces. It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick falls across our impudent knuckles.
She has advice for people like me who like to reminisce, advice she learned at seventeen:
I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep—leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can, never turn back, and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it.
Her book comes to mind now because one of the concluding chapters is “Benghazi by Candlelight.” Like most, I had never heard of Benghazi, and, imagining it by candlelight, it seemed incredibly exotic. She says in the beginning of the chapter that the city was originally named “Berenice” by Ptolemy the Third to honor his wife, and somehow over the years it became “Benghazi.” She prophetically describes it:
Benghazi sprawls in the path of war. Mars kicks the little city to earth and it rises again, stubbornly, and is reduced again, but not for long. It is a small city with a soul—a grubby soul, perhaps, but cities with souls seldom die. . . . Once it lived on ivory brought by caravan across the desert, trading this treasure and ostrich feathers and lesser things to an appreciative world, but now it deals in duller stuff—or deals in nothing, waiting for another war to pass, knowing that in reality it has no function except to provide hostelry for armies on the march.
Her entry into the city by taxi, along with her companion, was not propitious:
The driver knew most certainly that there was not a hotel room to be had in all of Benghazi, but he chose to break this disheartening intelligence to us gently; he drove from one hotel to another, sitting behind the wheel with a kind of anticipant leer on his face, mumbling in gulps and snatches of English that the next place would surely have rooms enough. But there was none.
They end up staying in a brothel on the outskirts of Benghazi, lit only with candles, hence the sardonic chapter title. She describes the proprietress:
Put her in an apron and soak the mask of paint off her face and she could be used as the fit subject for any artist wanting to depict the misery and the despair and the loneliness of all women driven to drudgery. . . . 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 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.
This is writing as it should be done. (It was difficult to pick examples, and I had to restrain the impulse to copy the entire chapter. Read the book.)
Markham disappeared from public view and memory until rediscovered when she was in her eighties, living in poverty and having been badly beaten in a robbery. West With the Night was re-issued in 1983 and PBS produced a documentary on her life. Proceeds from the book allowed her to live comfortably for the remainder of her life. The cloud concealing her future cleared nicely, just as she said it would.