Out of Africa

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,”

And so in the lilting Danish accent of Meryl Streep, opens Out of Africa, a 1986 film directed by Sydney Pollack.

With sweeping plains of East Africa in view, an attractive cast including Streep and Robert Redford, bolstered by a beautiful musical score by John Barry, ‘Out of Africa‘ went on to win 7 Academy Awards and box office earnings of over USD $227 million.

Based on the memoir with the same title by Danish author Karen Blixen, [Isak Dinesen] the original book was first published in 1937, and recounts events of the seventeen years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa. The film script was adapted with additional material from Dinesen’s book Shadows on the Grass and other sources.

The book’s title is probably an abbreviation of the famous ancient Latin adage,

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.

Pliny, The Elder

Out of Africa, always something new.

The book and film are a lyrical meditation on Blixen’s life on her coffee plantation, as well as a tribute to some of the people who touched her life there. It provides a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire.

Noted for its melancholy, nostalgic and elegiac style, biographer Judith Thurman describes Out of Africa using an African tribal phrase:

clear darkness.

The tale covers the deaths of at least five of the important people in Blixen’s life, and is a meditation on her feelings of loss and nostalgia. She describes her failed business, and comments wryly on her mixture of despair and denial, of the sadness she faces there. A brave and hard working woman for whom almost nothing flows smoothly: marriage, love, business, health. Everything is challenging, even crushing.

Why then is such a story, so sad and so melancholy, yet so enduringly popular among movie goers and readers?

Perhaps in true modernist and existentialist style, Blixen captures the feeling of living, the sights, smells, and sensations of a foreign land and the strange and diverse people she meets there. The bitter-sweetness of existence is shared with us through her experience, marked by love, loss, desire, knowing, holding and surrendering.

Blixen was admired by her contemporaries including Ernest Hemingway, who is reported to have said on winning his own Nobel prize in 1954,

I would have been happy – happier – today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.

Babette’s Feast

“An artist is never poor.”

Babbette’s Feast is a short story written by Isak Dinesen, the author of “Out of Africa.” Otherwise known as Karen Blixen, the Danish  author was a contemporary of and admired by many modernist greats including  Hemingway, e e cummings, Truman Capote and others.


Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, Hemingway declared the prize really belonged to Isak Dinesen.

Babette’s Feast’ recounts how a fugitive of the bloodshed and revolution in late 18th century France arrives in a small and humble religious community in Denmark, seeking asylum. Unmarried sisters Martine and Phillipa, daughters of the elderly minister, are unable to pay the woman but accept her as their cook. The woman Babette, cooks faithfully for them for 15 years, serving the simple fare their religious community allows.

babettes feast

Every year her friend in Paris enters Babette into the lottery and one day, when she wins 10, 000 francs her sole request is to cook a delicious meal for the small community in celebration of the minister’s 100th birthday.

Babette determines to cook a ‘real French dinner’ and begins to order the ingredients through merchants. As the unheard of fare begins arriving in the village, Martine and Phillipa discuss whether the feast will become a sin of sensual luxury to their small religious community. In compromise, the sisters and congregation agree to eat the meal but to never discuss their pleasure nor mention the food during the meal.

Although the attendees of the meal refuse to comment on the earthly pleasures of it, Babette’s gifts breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten between villagers, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles in the community.

Once the meal is completed, Babette reveals that she once was the chef of Cafe Anglais in Paris and at this restaurant, a dinner for 12 people cost 10, 000 francs. Despite her winnings she is now still penniless.

babettes feast 1

Martine in tears delcares:

“Now you will be poor the rest of your life”,

Babette simply replies,

“An artist is never poor.”

I wonder how many artists see their work as a gift to the world – a source of restoration to a community rent by distrust and superstition, a means of elevating them physically and spiritually, a source of love and mystical redemption?