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.)