First, as a former pilot myself, I am astounded and in awe of the pioneering pilots of the 1920's and 30's in Africa. They were all equal parts brave and reckless as they flew across uncharted land and skies for which no map (as we know them today) existed--flying aircraft equipped with only a compass.
I am even more impressed with Markham's writing. As I was reading West I kept thinking that her writing was on par with Hemingway and F. Scott (although she only ever wrote this one novel) and then I came across this gem from one of Ernest's letters to a contemporary:
Did you read Beryl Markham's book, "West with the Night"? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, 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 some times making an okay pig pen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant,... can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb. She omits some very fantastic stuff which I know about which would destroy much of the character of the heroine; but what is that anyhow in writing? I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.
I couldn't agree more with Hemingway--this was an incredible and beautiful book-- I place it in my all time TOP 5 best books written. Markham is a master at the extraordinarily difficult task of capturing and retelling memories and events. Her excellence shines through, however, in capturing past feelings and sentiments.
Markham on the soul of Africa:
Africa is never the same to anyone who leaves it and returns again. It is not a land of change, but it is a land of moods and its moods are numberless. It is not fickle, but because it has mothered not only men, but races, and cradled not only cities, but civilizations--and seen them die, and seen new ones born again--Africa can be dispassionate, warm, or cynical, replete with the weariness of too much wisdom.
Markham on Africa today and tomorrow:
Today Africa may seem to be that ever-promised land, almost achieved; but tomorrow it may be a dark land again, drawn into itself, contemptuous, and impatient with the futility of eager men who have scrambled over it since the experiment of Eden. In the family of continents, Africa is the silent, the brooding sister, courted for centuries by knight-errant empires — rejecting them one by one and severally, because she is too sage and a little bored with the importunity of it all.
Markham on retreading one's footsteps, i.e., 'the second time around':
Seeing it again could not be living it again. You can always rediscover an old path and wander over it, but the best you can then is to say, 'Ah, yes, I know this turning!' --or remind yourself that, while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remember you.
Markham on remembering and silence:
There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo. (KL 603-7)
Markham on lions:
‘Lions are more intelligent than some men,’ he said, ‘and more courageous than most. A lion will fight for what he has and for what he needs; he is contemptuous of cowards and wary of his equals. But he is not afraid. You can always trust a lion to be exactly what he is — and never anything else.’ (KL 705)
Markham on writing:
Silence is never so impenetrable as when the whisper of steel on paper strives to pierce it. I sit in a labyrinth of solitude jabbing at its bulwarks with the point of a pen — jabbing, jabbing. (KL 1764)
Markham on life in Africa:
In Africa people learn to serve each other. They live on credit balances of little favours that they give and may, one day, ask to have returned. In any country almost empty of men, ‘love thy neighbour’ is less a pious injunction than a rule for survival. If you meet one in trouble, you stop — another time he may stop for you. (KL 1832)
Markham on loneliness:
You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents — each man to see what the other looked like. (KL 3498)
More on two documentaries/movies made about Markham:
Other great books on Africa: