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In the Theater of Isak Dinesen | The Nation

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In the Theater of Isak Dinesen

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ROBERT GOLDBERG/AP IMAGESIsak Dinesen, 1959

About the Author

Joanna Scott
Joanna Scott is a fiction writer. Among her many books are Arrogance, The Manikin and, most recently, Follow Me. ...

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Known in this country by her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen, the Danish writer Karen Blixen published her first collection of stories in 1934, at the age of 49. Though she'd returned to her family home in Denmark after spending seventeen years in British East Africa, Dinesen wrote her stories in English and secured her first contract with an American publisher. The book, Seven Gothic Tales, established Dinesen as a literary giant, a reputation that would be sustained throughout her life. Eudora Welty said Dinesen's fiction embodies "the last outreach of magic." Carson McCullers reported that she would reread Dinesen's memoir Out of Africa for comfort. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954, Ernest Hemingway said with uncharacteristic humility that it might have gone to "that beautiful writer Karen Blixen."

But Dinesen's claim on American readers has been waning. The majority of critical books and articles on her work were published before 1990. In 1985, three years after the publication of Judith Thurman's biography Isak Dinesen, Hollywood jumped on board, recasting the time Dinesen spent in British East Africa managing a coffee plantation with her husband as a love story starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The film, Out of Africa, might have generated a resurgence of interest in Dinesen's work, but instead it appears to have inaugurated a new period of critical indifference.

Dinesen, who died in 1962, was always an elusive target for readers, even at the height of her renown. As her fame spread, she responded by cloaking herself in an eccentric and mysterious persona. In his introduction to the Paris Review interview with Dinesen, published in 1956, Eugene Walter lists some of the legends about her: "She is really a man; he is really a woman...she is a nun; he is very hospitable and receives young writers; she is difficult to see and lives a recluse." He doesn't note the secret hidden behind the persona: Dinesen suffered for many years from ravaging syphilis, which she contracted from her husband. But if her public identity was a calculated performance, it matched the design of her tales. When Walter asked her in the interview if she objected to readers who found her tales artificial, she responded, "Of course they are artificial. They were meant to be, for such is the essence of the tale-telling art."

These days, when the merit of fiction tends to be measured by the currency of its subjects, a confessional element in the work helps establish credibility. Reviewers try to square the antics of a writer's life with the antics in the fiction. Even satirical verbal play is too often read and admired as autobiographical expression. And thanks to the democratic exposures of the web, it's easier than ever to document private experiences and divulge the most intimate secrets. Confession doesn't leave much room for imagination except to demand its allegiance to the personal, which may leave readers less inclined to find value in the extravagant lies of fiction. It's understandable, then, but no less disappointing, that the tales of Isak Dinesen--filled with children who dream too much, fat old nobles who are devoted to revenge, nuns who are good at weaving, servants who are good at cooking--would be easy to overlook.

Here is the Cardinal speaking in "The Cardinal's First Tale," a late tale by Dinesen:

"Madame," he said, "I have been telling you a story. Stories have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories, the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water. You will see the characters of the true story clearly, as if luminous and on a higher plane, and at the same time they may look not quite human, and you may well be a little afraid of them."

The Cardinal is taking it upon himself to explain, rather grandly, the impact of his story, an intricate one about a docile young princess who gradually learns the pleasures--and dangers--of independence. Though insisting on the reality of his account, the Cardinal is drawing his listener's attention to the exaggerations. A story, he suggests, is a vital form of expression: it offers not just a record of experience but also a vision of potential. And its truth is inextricably connected to its theatricality.

Throughout her writing life, Dinesen adamantly defined herself as a "storyteller." Thurman argues that this identity was based on a moral decision to align herself with the "fabulists of an older age" rather than with her contemporaries. Yet morality remains an unpredictable force as a Dinesen story unfolds. The conclusions of the tales are murky, and the motives of the heroes and heroines are questionable. Like the characters, we can't be sure whether their predicaments are defined by destiny or free will. And as they try to understand the extent of their moral responsibility, the characters more emphatically inhabit their perceived identities, performing their roles with gusto. If they are beautiful to begin with, they look more beautiful. If they are old, they become impossibly ancient. If they're strange, they become stranger. They play out the stereotypes to the extreme, even as they keep surprising us with their unpredictable qualities.

Among Dinesen's strangest creations is the title character of her early story "The Monkey," from Seven Gothic Tales. The gray monkey from Zanzibar is a wicked little thing. When it's not watching the guests of the house with its "glittering eyes," it is in the library, "pulling out brittle folios a hundred years old and scattering over the black-and-white marble floor browned leaves dealing with strategy, princely marriage contracts, and witches' trials." Over the course of the story, the monkey disappears from the action, reappears in the background, disappears again into the darkness, reappears and, with abrupt chutzpah, transforms into a human shape, exchanging places with its owner, the Virgin Prioress.

In a tale in which this bizarre metamorphosis plays an integral part, we are invited to believe that all the elements, from the historical to the surreal, cohere. The plausibility of the account has more to do with the insistent momentum of events than with verisimilitude. And the truth of the tale lies not in any familiar, verifiable outcome but in the account it provokes. A narrative makes the effect of a baffling experience more apprehensible. When a monkey turns into a Virgin Prioress and a Virgin Prioress turns into a monkey, a good story helps us to make sense of it.

As we travel through Dinesen's tales from beginning to end, we find that her characters begin to look, as the Cardinal says, "luminous and on a higher plane." It follows that a face illuminated with an intense light takes on the quality of a mask, with exaggerated features. The Cardinal is right--these characters don't look quite human. And yes, sometimes I'm a little afraid of them.

In one of Dinesen's early tales, "The Roads Round Pisa," a young Danish man named Augustus sees a figure he takes to be a pensive, graceful boy drinking coffee in an osteria, and they begin to talk. Eventually, the boy is revealed to be a girl, whom we later learn is named Agnese. The story goes on to trace the girl's involvement in a complicated affair. But while they're still in the osteria, the two characters engage in a debate about the roles of men and women.

Agnese sets the terms, offering her opinion that Adam was created by God to play the part of a guest; Eve, by default, is the hostess. It's a simplistic formula, of course, but it becomes more meaningful as the conversation continues. Agnese challenges Augustus to describe the desires of a guest. Augustus is eager to try out an answer.

A guest wants three things, he says. The first is "to be diverted, to get out of his daily monotony or worry." Second, a guest "wants to shine, to expand himself and impress his own personality upon his surroundings." And third, "he wants to find some justification for his existence altogether."

According to this arrangement, the hostess is cast as entertainer. But Augustus argues that it's not enough for her to keep a guest absorbed in the show. A hostess's diversions should provide an expansive experience. The guest wants to be able to imagine that he has a connection to the external world and may even be responsible for its design. With the help of an entertaining hostess, he's able to contemplate an expanded conception of himself. And finally, he will gain from the entertainment a heightened sense of purpose.

While Augustus is attempting to describe a paradigmatic relationship between men and women, he ends up making revealing statements about the nature of entertainment and, by implication, about the function of stories. Dinesen is suggesting in this passage that a storyteller has a set of interrelated responsibilities. She should entertain and absorb her audience, and she should offer us some insight into our imaginative abilities. Ultimately, the fiction should return us to the world with sharpened awareness of our individual potential.

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