Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2041
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.
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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 version of a piece originally part of the work that later coalesced into Seven Gothic Tales. It was written in the late 1920’s, after the author’s departure for Africa. While still rough in quality, it shows a deepening of perspective perhaps implicit in the theme of masks and masquerades. Again we find the fascination with illusion and reality, in this case creating some confusion, as the eight guests at a carnival supper party are all costumed, sometimes as the opposite sex, and the interplay of the masquerade personas with the real characters develops a multifaceted world of fantasy. In the expected twist, reality breaks in in the form of a robber, also costumed, whose costume again relates thematically to his situation in the plot. He is, however, seduced into joining the game which the eight are playing, thus submerging his level of reality in their more compelling illusion. The fatuous world of these self-indulgent and spoiled aesthetes is doubtless depicted ironically, and there is an obvious element of social criticism, but this, too, is submerged beneath the primary concern for the manneristic convolutions of the narrative, in which the refractions of the various elements cast strange lights upon what seems at first to be a straightforward depiction.
Whereas “Carnival” is rambling and diffuse in its unpolished state, the next tale, “The Last Day,” though also unfinished, shows the mature state of the author’s craft. It was intended for Winter’s Tales in 1942, but was put away and only taken up again a year before the author’s death. We find in it a far more complex structure, with several themes skillfully interwoven. The device of a narration within the tale, which is a favorite technique in her later works, is used to great effect, as the subject of the first half of the tale becomes the object of the tale told to him in the second half, while both halves remain knit together through the thematic relationships established. That the story is set on Pentecost gives a clue to the increasingly metaphysical dimensions of Dinesen’s work. The irony and the play with levels of reality take on greater significance here; they are not merely formal elements, or humorous in their effect, but the potential latent in her very first works is here released, and, though the central character, Johannes, is not aware of it, a kind of epiphany occurs in the inset narrative, only intensified by the irony that Johannes, a student of theology, receives a sermon from a ship’s officer, and that in accord with the prayer of a whore. Once again the conventional order of things is inverted, and while there is still a humorous tone to the tale, the elements of coincidence, inversion, irony, and illusion are used here to create a sense of mystery and to hint at a level of understanding which passes beyond the surface of the story. In these later works, one comes away with food for thought, with new insights and an awareness of the impenetrable mystery underlying the simplest of events. Each work creates its own world, and from the clever but unindividual concoctions of the skilled beginner, Dinesen progresses to a mastery of her art.
In “The Fat Man,” for example, we find a convincing depiction of psychological obsession, as a young man irrationally fastens on a certain fat man as the man who was seen walking off with a young girl who was later found murdered. He sees the man every day, and becomes possessed by his intuitive perception. The familiar element of the play-within-a-play is used here, with direct reference to Hamlet, with the ironic twist, the precise opposite of that in Hamlet, that the man shows his guilt not by an emotional reaction to the “play,” but by his failure to react—for he, too, is obsessed, and the crime and its victim are so present to him that he is not at all shocked to see them; the girl is the only thing he sees everywhere he goes. Again the ironic twist is used to convey an insight, and the story is no mere formal arabesque, but a compelling work.
While “Anna,” a splendidly constructed romance in twenty-five brief chapters, is a breathtaking series of coincidences and ironies told in an almost mocking vein of arch bemusement, the elements of magic and mystery again combine to create a mood in which the events of the tale take on a heightened significance. The images of the saintly dancer, the deaf-mute, the decay and potential regeneration of the family, and the allusions to the fairy-tale world of Cinderella, are all combined to create a miniature fairy-tale epic with much the same power to fascinate and charm.
Toward the end of this collection, each story presents this quality, and one can observe how Dinesen develops the technique of allusion to myth and fairy tale, as well as to established literary works, such as Hamlet, or Schiller’s ballad “The Glove.” These allusions become a kind of prefiguration, and again expand the resonance of the work, as the events of the plot are seen to fit into archetypal patterns of experience, and take on mythical proportions. In works like “The Ghost Horses” or “The Bear and the Kiss,” the ironic, humorous element almost disappears, and the techniques developed earlier are used to create the experience of a semimagical world where the boundaries between fantasy and reality are obscured. In “The Ghost Horses,” a young child lies ill, and can only be drawn back into life when a man enters into her fantasy world, previously shared with a now dead boy. In the old stable room of an estate, he had found a secret cache of jewelry. To him they are not jewels, but horses and guards in a royal procession, and the man reenacts this with the sick girl. In this world, the jewels are actually more glorious in their fantasy role than they are as mere jewels—again we see Dinesen’s inversion of fantasy and reality. In “The Bear and the Kiss,” the combination creates a powerful mysterious constellation of intimations and mythical reminiscences. There is the sea voyage into the primitive world of the Arctic, legends of a heroic figure, Joshua, and his witch wife, Lahula, a quest for an elusive bear, an initiation through the confrontation of death and eros. The tale is told in a lucid, realistic style, but the figures of the story are richly suggestive, and the work builds to more than a mere ironic turn; Dinesen brings the reader into this fantasy world, and the climax, in itself elusive, is nonetheless powerful.
This collection is at times disappointing; it is, after all, not uniform in respect to the maturity or finish of the pieces, and one must inevitably turn to the author’s own composed collections for an adequate judgment of her work. But as a document of the growth of a style from gifted promise to mature fruition, and indeed for a collection of diverse tales ranging from the amusing to the magical, this sampling of the work of Isak Dinesen, the literary mask of Karen Blixen, can be appreciated by any who respond to the artful creations of a master of the storyteller’s craft.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
Atlantic. CCXL, October, 1977, p. 107.
Best Sellers. XXXVII, December, 1977, p. 263.
Nation. CCXXV, November 5, 1977, p. 474.
New York Times Book Review. October 16, 1977, p. 10.
New Yorker. LIII, December 5, 1977, p. 231.
Progressive. XLI, November, 1977, p. 58.
Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, July 25, 1977, p. 65.