Isak Dinesen Dinesen, Isak (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Isak Dinesen 1885–1962

(Pseudonym of Karen Blixen; also wrote under pseudonyms of Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Andrézel) Danish short story writer, autobiographer, novelist, and translator.

Dinesen is one of Denmark's most widely acclaimed modern authors. The stories in her best known work, Seven Gothic Tales (1934; Syv fantastike fortællinger), are rooted in the Gothic, Decadent, and Romantic literary traditions and share many of their defining qualities, including exoticism, aestheticism, and eccentric psychology. Dinesen's stories often have exotic historical backgrounds. The majority of them take place in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century France or Italy, and some are as far removed as the West Indies, China, or Persia. The device of distancing her tales, both geographically and temporally, facilitates the romantic, unfettered use of the imagination which predominates in Dinesen's art. The characters are similarly exotic, often appearing as larger-than-life heroic figures imbued with aristocratic codes of morality. They typically struggle to come to terms with their lives. For Dinesen this requires an acceptance of one's fate as determined by God. For example, in "The Roads Round Pisa," from Seven Gothic Tales, Augustus Von Schimmelmann is a melancholy man who feels helpless in the face of destiny. He broods to himself, "I do not know what to do with myself or my life. Can I trust to fate to hold out a helping hand to me just for once?" In his critical study of Dinesen's stories, Eric O. Johannesson perceives her characters as involved in a pattern of events too complex to be understood while they take place. Eventually, however, the characters gain insight into themselves and the significance of life's struggles. He notes that "Dinesen's tales tend, in fact, to become epiphanies because they concentrate on the turning point in human experience, the moment when the truth is revealed and we see in a flash the pattern of meaning."

Dinesen was bilingual and her first publication, Seven Gothic Tales, was originally written in English and afterward translated into Danish. At the time of the book's appearance, Danish literature was characterized by Naturalism and a preference for social and psychological relevancy in works of fiction. Because of this, Dinesen's early stories were not initially well received in Denmark, although they earned a favorable critical reaction in the United States and Britain, where they were first published. Eventually, however, Danish readers came to accept Dinesen's style and today Seven Gothic Tales, perhaps her most imaginative and fantastic collection, is commonly regarded as one of her most important works. Many critics note a similarity between Dinesen's tales and the Arabian Nights. Like the Arabian Nights, Dinesen's work is based on the classic storytelling tradition which favors action and imagination over intellectual analysis and views the telling of the story as an end in itself rather than as a reflection of contemporary life. Eric O. Johannesson notes that Dinesen's tales "are so imbued with the spirit of storytelling that one might venture to assert that the basic theme running through them all is, in fact, the storyteller's defense of the art of the story."

Dinesen's second publication, Den afrikanske farm (1937; Out of Africa), is distinguished from Seven Gothic Tales by its rel-ative realism and expressed concern for the immediate world. This collection of reminiscences, based on Dinesen's almost twenty years on an African plantation, has been praised for its engrossing depiction of the African landscape, people, and way of life. The posthumously published Breve fra Afrika: 1914–1924 and Breve fra Afrika: 1925–1931 (1981; Letters from Africa: 1914–1931) are also based on Dinesen's African experiences. They largely consist of letters written by Dinesen to her family in Denmark and provide many of the biographical details underlying the romantic, pastoral vision of Africa presented in Out of Africa. As the letters reveal, Dinesen endured many hardships in her final years in Africa. She had grown increasingly devoted to the land and the natives, but due to economic necessity she was eventually forced to sell the plantation and return to Denmark. Although she wrote during her last years in Africa, she did so mostly as a way to escape from the worries of her daily life. It was not until she returned to Denmark in 1931 that she first seriously considered writing as a means of livelihood.

With Dinesen's third publication, Vinter-eventyr (1942; Winter's Tales), she returned to the imaginative style that marked Seven Gothic Tales. This collection, however, presents itself in a simpler manner and with settings closer to modern Denmark. Sidste fortællinger (1957; Last Tales), Dinesen's third collection of short stories, marked the beginning of her final period of writing. Last Tales, like her earlier collections, portrays people both in conflict and in harmony with their destinies. Other works written in this final period include additional collections of short stories and African reminiscences. While Dinesen also published a novel, Gongældelsens (1944; The Angelic Avengers), most critics agree that her most significant works are her first three: Seven Gothic Tales, Out of Africa, and Winter's Tales.

(See also CLC, Vol. 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Eric O. Johannesson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"I have always thought that I would have cut a figure at the time of the plague of Florence." This quotation from Out of Africa … suggests the kind of role that Isak Dinesen has conceived for herself. Like Selma Lagerlöf, who liked to regard her audience as children listening to stories, Isak Dinesen has always imagined herself in the classic role of the storyteller, as a modern Scheherazade. Her tales are so imbued with the spirit of storytelling that one might venture to assert that the basic theme running through them all is, in fact, the storyteller's defense of the art of the story. (p. 8)

[If] one were to single out the work that has meant the most to Isak Dinesen, it would undoubtedly be the Arabian Nights. Dinesen's tales are replete with allusions to this book, and she often employs the exotic Orient as the setting for her tales. Haroun al Raschid is often referred to: his habit of masquerading has appealed to the imagination of a writer who loves to cultivate this histrionic habit. The philosophy of Islam with its emphasis on acceptance seems to have influenced Dinesen profoundly. In Africa, on the farm [where she lived for many years], the people about her must have seemed like some of the figures in the Arabian Nights, and their attitudes to life, for which she expresses great understanding, like those of faithful Mohammedans.

The stories in the Arabian Nights are arabesques in the true sense of the word. They are intricate stories woven around interlaced tales. Many of Dinesen's tales resemble such arabesques, intricate embroideries with stories within the story. The Gothic tales, in particular, belong to this type.

As already mentioned, the stories in the Arabian Nights are told with a specific purpose in mind. The young Scheherazade is telling her stories in order to save her own life, and in order to change the heart and mind of the King. The King is presented with a human comedy which brings him a new vision of life. (pp. 9-10)

Dinesen's tales, like the stories in the Arabian Nights, proclaim the belief in the all but magic power of the story to provide man with a new vision and a renewed faith in life. Her figures are often Hamlet figures, melancholy young men or women who wait for fate to lend them a helping hand, who wait for the storyteller to provide them with a destiny by placing them in a story, or by telling them a story. The degree of probability or improbability of the tale is of little consequence, for in a world transformed by fantasy all is possible. (pp. 10-11)

Whether the stories are true or not does not matter in the least, which is fortunate, since Dinesen's stories are, in the words of Trilling, "all lies. Their matter is magic and witchcraft, infants exchanged at birth, brothers and sisters who marry unknown to each other, beautiful giantesses, undying passions,—suchlike nonsense." The tales are told, as Trilling says, "with an air that leads us to believe that they are involved with truth of a kind not available to minds that submit to strict veracity." Dinesen's stories are often contrived and improbable, but in the skillful hands of the storyteller the characters are brought to their appointed end, to the moment of insight.

Some readers undoubtedly feel, like the compassionate lady in "The Cardinal's First Tale," that Dinesen's approach to storytelling is "a hard and cruel game" because it reduces the characters, the human beings in the story, to marionettes, to puppets moved by "divine powers" and their representative, the storyteller, "the keeper and watchman to the story." In Dinesen's tales life itself becomes a marionette comedy, and the figures appear like such marionettes.

One of the remarkable features of Dinesen's style is the use of images, and one of the most common types suggests a mechanical or artificial behavior or being. (pp. 14-15)

If Dinesen's human figures are described as if they were marionettes, they are also treated like marionettes. They become involved in patterns of events so fantastic that they are not able to grasp the significance of these events while they are taking place. However, in the end they are rewarded, they are rewarded with an insight into their problems. Thus it would not be correct to argue that they are reduced to being mere marionettes. Paradoxically enough, their marionette status lifts them to a higher plane. Dinesen's tales tend, in fact, to become epiphanies because they concentrate on the turning point in human experience, the moment when the truth is revealed and we see in a flash the pattern of meaning. Though they are often as fantastic and as improbable as the intrigues of opera librettos, these tales do bring this epiphany to the characters. (p. 19)

With very few exceptions Dinesen's plots … are designed to provide a central figure, or several figures, with a new vision or insight. A glance at the various tales reveals that most of them have a specific relevance to the predicament of a central observer who is himself sometimes implicated in the action. The tale as a whole, or the part of it told to him, is designed to provide him with a new vision of life. This explains, incidentally, why so many of Dinesen's central characters are melancholy dreamers, observers of life, who wait for destiny to provide them with a sign. The melancholy hero as such does not necessarily interest Isak Dinesen: she needs a melancholy figure as a focus because he is by his very nature waiting to receive an insight of some kind. (p. 20)

These insights are of various kinds. Some figures are brought to realize the unity and interdependence of all things. Others are brought to a realization of the greatness and scope of God's imagination, and an acceptance of the fact that we are only marionettes in God's great marionette comedy. Others learn that the condition of man must be accepted as it is, though it is fraught with injustice and suffering, for God is just, and God is great. Others attain a vision of life as a noble and elevated game in which the players must obey the rules, though it entails paying a high price.

Thus Dinesen moves her figures to their appointed end. (p. 24)

In treating her figures as marionettes, and in letting them discover their identities, their characters, through their fates, Dinesen has clearly revealed her dependence on the oral tradition of storytelling and romance…. But the characteristic qualities of Dinesen's tales are by no means peculiar to her mode of expression: they are the characteristic qualities of the tale as a literary genre.

Oral storytelling requires a narrator. Such a narrator is often present in Dinesen's tales. Very often a tale contains stories within the story: the characters are telling each other stories. In some other cases the narrator is absent, but in such instances we are, I suppose, to look upon Isak Dinesen herself as the storyteller, masquerading for Karen Blixen.

The narrator's language is highly mannered, and yet very simple, direct, and concrete. Abstract reflections are rare because the storyteller thinks in stories. As Dinesen has pointed out, at the heart of the story is a tale, something that can be told, rather than an idea or mood.

The storyteller's world is a world with firm outlines and distinct texture on distance. The settings, the events, the human beings that compose this world, are seen in perspective, as if from a great height, complete and perfected.

The characters are types, never individuals…. They are larger than life, and their behavior is artificial and stylized. The imagistic style of the oral tale never delves deeply into their minds: abstract qualities and states of mind are rendered by means of concrete images. The minds of men are things, as it were. The names of the figures and their gestures are exaggerated. They act as if they were on the stage, plucking quotations out of the air in order to define their roles, which are often re-enactments of classical or mythical roles. The events are never unique or isolated, but have already been fitted into an orderly pattern in which they stand out very clearly within a meaningful relationship: they have become ritual and myth. (pp. 25-6)

The storyteller tends, as we have seen, to regard life from a distance, and so does the comic artist. As things seem to hurt less when they have been put into a story, so life takes on the quality of being a great human comedy when regarded from a distance. To tell tales is to be a humorist. If the story is a divine art, so is comedy.

The world of Dinesen is permeated with a comic vision of life. It is perhaps best defined as a kind of romantic irony…. In the final analysis, it is a profound humor. (p. 51)

The tales are, of course, filled with various comic effects, and life as a whole is often conceived as a human comedy authored by a comic divinity who "loves a joke." But Dinesen's comic vision goes deeper than that, and it is for this reason that I choose to call it humor.


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Robert Langbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Isak Dinesen's] literary career falls into three distinct periods. There is the first, spectacular period, represented by her first three books—Seven Gothic Tales (1934), Out of Africa (1937), Winter's Tales (1942)—in which she appeared as a fully matured artist and made the reputation she has today, for her reputation still rests on her first three books. There is the long hiatus of fifteen years during which her only book was the novel, The Angelic Avengers, a thriller which she published in 1946 under the name of Pierre Andrézel, and which she was not for many years willing to acknowledge. There is the third period of recrudescence, remarkable for a writer in her seventies, which...

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Janet Handler Burstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Because the work of Isak Dinesen reflects her patrician inclinations, her skeptical view of "emancipated" women, and her high regard for the symbolic—rather than the sociological or psychological—value of art, her stories often appear fairly remote from contemporary concerns; in a world animated largely by individual striving for equality and self-realization, Dinesen seems to speak, conservatively, for values that many of us have learned to distrust. And yet, Dinesen's work is deeply rooted in her abiding preoccupation with a problem that is alive in our own time. Experienced as a disjunction between identity and role, or between self-image and social stereotype, this problem has been formulated by Simone de...

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Naomi Bliven

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Isak Dinesen's "Letters from Africa, 1914–1931" … is the raw material from which the author quarried her world-famous memoir "Out of Africa," published in 1938. Reserved, stoic, and tactful, that work gave little hint of its author's painful private life, and its admirably pure and exact prose produces an effect of self-possession and self-sufficiency. The letters, an unconscious—and unself-conscious—self-portrait, were written to her mother, her brother Thomas, her Aunt Bess, and her sister Ellen, and their spontaneity reproduces the reality of the author's life in Kenya: struggle, anxiety, loneliness, with intermittent periods of elation. The letters demonstrate her culture and her intimate involvement with...

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Paul Bailey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first thing that needs to be said about this exceptional volume of letters [Letters from Africa 1914–1931] is that it has been attributed to the wrong author. "Isak Dinesen" did not come into being until 1934, almost three years after Karen Blixen had left Africa in the harrowing circumstances that inform the book's closing pages. It's worth making the distinction, if only because the distinction was of such prime importance to its originator: when Karen Blixen added "Isak" (which means "one who laughs" in Hebrew) to her maiden name, it was with a view to taking on the role of storyteller—a deliberate act of personal obliteration. The hallmark of Isak Dinesen's narrative art is a serene indifference to...

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Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For Peter Matthiessen the setting is the subject; for Isak Dinesen [in her Letters From Africa, 1914–1931] it is an intermittent background. Letters from Africa but not, in proportion to the total, letters about Africa: written during the first ferment of modernism between the outbreak of World War I and the onset of a world depression, they conspicuously engage the "advanced" issues of a changing society in which Isak Dinesen was not then living, for which at heart she had little respect but which she felt compelled, for reasons of personal discomfort, to analyze, evaluate, explain or explain away. While we cannot doubt her deepening affection for the outpost country she learned to live in,...

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