Isak Dinesen is the pen name of the Baroness Karen Blixen of Rungstedlund, born in 1885. Her first published work is included here, “The de Cats Family,” dating from 1909, and “Second Meeting,” the last story in this collection, is an unfinished fragment planned for a larger collection in 1961, a year before the author’s death. Whereas most of Dinesen’s work was in the form of short stories carefully grouped in collections, this edition, while striving to present only work representative of her best quality, has been prepared posthumously to make available tales not previously readily accessible. Three of these tales, “The de Cats Family,” “Uncle Theodore,” and “The Bear and the Kiss,” have been translated from the Danish for this volume by P. M. Mitchell and W. D. Paden. Most of Dinesen’s work was written in English, and she has enjoyed great popularity in this country. Four of her books have been Book-of-the-Month Club selections, and her stories have appeared in The Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. The present collection, while not as cohesive as the carefully constructed Seven Gothic Tales or Winter’s Tales, does provide an overview of the development of Dinesen’s style as well as an insight into her process of creation, since several of the works are really only preliminary drafts, still in need of the final polish. The diversity of theme also gives a good idea of the range of Dinesen’s work, though one should not forget that beyond her mastery of the story form she also wrote the autobiographical Out of Africa, resulting from her years in British East Africa where she and her husband established a coffee plantation. The story “Carnival” is also a product of that period.
The stories are presented in a roughly chronological order, beginning with “The de Cats Family,” a simply structured and dryly narrated satire of subdued, rather tongue-in-cheek humor, which becomes a basic element of Dinesen’s style. But this early work lacks the depth of her mature style, being elegant and mannered in its presentation of a bourgeois family that has become synonymous with the highest probity and virtue, though always at the cost of containing one member who, scapegoatlike, exemplifies the very opposite qualities. The irony is created when one of these ne’er-do-wells reforms, and as a consequence the family’s virtue begins to crumble, until after long plotting and finally at great expense, he is persuaded to return to his life of vice, and the virtuous members return instinctively to upholding the family honor. This elegant structure is presented in a clear and straightforward prose that makes easy reading, yet already in this earliest work one can see Dinesen’s predilection for whimsical inversions of order, the creation of patterns of symmetry, and an artificially ordered world in which characters are more like figures in a dance, revealing by their relative positions and motions an underlying structure. These underlying structures may impart a philosophical idea, a social critique, or a psychological truth, but because they are entirely aesthetic the reader faces them from the standpoint of amused delight, and only in a few of the mature works is one gripped by a profounder sense of insight. The concept “entertainments” is applied specifically to those works conceived for American magazine publication, but this quality applies to the majority of the works in this collection.
“Uncle Theodore,” another of the very early works, shares this lucid style which takes delight in elegant twists of plot. Like “The de Cats Family,” it was written in Danish and appears here in translation; thus one cannot be entirely certain of the actual qualities of tone and phrase that may have been lost in translation. It is clear, however, that this work is also superficial, in the sense that it is the surface of the tale that holds our interest, and the pattern of the plot which contains the substance of the story. There is very little to think about when one is done, and yet the strange permutations of reality that occur as coincidence follows coincidence open up this simple, humorous tale and create a world in which illusion and reality mirror each other, and fantasy proves a more valid tool for identifying the true nature of things than reason—while in a final ironic twist, no sooner is the reality of the fantasy confirmed than a counter movement sets in to bring all elements back to the opposite swing of the pendulum. All ends happily and serenely, antagonism proves ephemeral, and the artfully constructed dance leaves both the element of fantasy and its corrective intact. Here perhaps we begin to see the possibilities inherent in Dinesen’s style, which she will later exploit precisely through the development of this romantic element of fantasy, as well as through mythic and magical elements.
“Carnival,” the title piece of the collection, is in fact the unrevised...
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