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Whoever she was, she could write

SO there I was, not wanting to appear ungracious but thinking, how can I read a book ``for pleasure'' -- I've got lots of work to do. Most of the material I read is connected with my job. I read with pencil in hand, ready to underline Significant Passages, on the watch to share pedagogical ideas. The plight of the English teacher: We read from design, anticipating use, measuring enjoyment. We hardly do even that; we are so busy marking papers. We are corrupted; the academic world is too much with us. I force a tolerant smile. I don't have time for reading an autobiography, especially one by an author I never heard of, and on a subject far removed from my interests. What could aviation, East Africa, the late '30s, say to me? But my recommender is insistent. ``Put down your pencil, put up your feet, this book is unusual. Beryl Markham can really write.'' Indifferently, I take the book and pocket it. I'll read it sometime, I promise. I proceed, then, to forget about it. ``Sometime,'' turns out to be weeks later when I come across the book accidentally in a stack of unread pamphlets. It is a slim paperback, with large print and short chapters. The back jacket has admirable praise -- from Hemingway -- but so what? As for my recommender, well, he was an inventor, so that explained his own attraction to the subject of airplanes. I like nonfiction, but what have I to do with night runs on the Serenghetti plain and horse training -- the aviatrix's earlier life? What is more, I observe, Ms. Markham has no literary credentials, though Hemingway does say she can outwrite him. Hyperbole is the mother of promotion.

I smirk, hold the book at arm's length, then reluctantly, because I had promised, settle into a chair (none too comfortably . . . I won't be with the book too long) and skeptically eye the cover: Markham in pilot's headgear looking a bit like Katharine Hepburn. Wonderful! I'm going to spin about in the outer orbit of an eccentric English lady. And what a title, ``West with the Night.'' How corny, melodramatic! But friendship being what it is, I don't want to disappoint my inventor friend, so I descend into my chair, more in defeat than anticipation, and fold back Page 1. I go through the opening line about 12 times, but decide, anyway, to give the thing a decent run.

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With 10 pages I am hooked. And humbled.

If the highest tribute we can pay to an artist is envy, then reading Beryl Markham I became more envious than I had been in a long time. Beryl Markham, whoever she was, could indeed write. Brilliantly. Movingly. She was on no academic lists; no survey of contemporary literature featured her; no well-known trade publisher hawked her wares. For all I knew, this brief account of her childhood and early adulthood in Kenya was the only piece she had ever written and her motives for writing it were not clear. The story stops in time and I do not know what happened to Beryl Markham since, or even how she met Hemingway.

I am stunned. Not only because I am reading remembrances of things past that would never have interested me to hear tell of them -- hunting lions, making spears, fixing a truck, clearing a runway -- but because I am following the adventures of a remarkable person and master craftsman of words, someone who must have known -- could it have been otherwise? -- that she had enormous literary talent but who chose to stay in Africa for the desert and the sky and to listen to the night sounds and a voice of inner challenge.

Beryl Markham is in the Hemingway line -- ironically, more successful in it than Hemingway: a self-contained human being living close to the edge, defining her worth and powers by action. No bored expatriate slumming through contrived existential encounters, she is what she has done, her life the sum of caring for the land and for its different peoples. She has sentiment but not one drop of sentimentality.

Long after the book is finished, I think about it and mourn the loss -- as Beryl Markahm briefly does -- of a time of personal heroism. A time before encounter groups and decisionmaking committees, when man encountered the Powers of Nature and drew first, foremost, or exclusively on himself for cues to passion, motives for action. A time when values spelled in capital letters -- Justice, Mercy, Courage, Honor -- still mattered, even for the experienced and the cynical.

Our syllabuses reflect a world defined by anomie, hysteria, ideology, and despair, and by characters who obsessively take their emotional temperature as they diagnose and suffer from life's disease. Beryl Markham was a romantic. Her reach might exceed her grasp, but she would never stop reaching. Her prose was like her life -- lean, active, original, truthful, strong. Going west with the night is to move into it and thus to engage the forces of the universe and the world within.

There are contemporary affinities here: feminism, minorities, technology, superficial reasons for adding Markham to the syllabus. But in ``West with the Night,'' the theme is implicitly Wordsworthian: ``The Child is father of the Man,'' and I would wish for myself and for my colleagues and students that our days would be, like hers, ``Bound each to each in natural piety.''

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