Isak Dinesen 1885–1962
(Born Karen Christentze Dinesen; also known by her married name Karen Blixen; also wrote under the pseudonyms Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Andrézel). Danish short story writer, autobiographer, novelist, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Dinesen's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 10 and 29.
Dinesen is best known for Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and the autobiographical novel Den afrikanske farm (1937; Out of Africa). Acclaimed for her poetic prose style, complex characters, and intricate plots, Dinesen was concerned with such themes as the lives and values of aristocrats, the nature of fate and destiny, God and the supernatural, the artist, and the place of women in society. Hailed as a proto-feminist by some critics, scorned as a colonialist by others, Dinesen is chiefly regarded as a masterful storyteller. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that the Nobel Prize for Literature he received in 1954 should have been awarded to her.
Born in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen was the daughter of an army officer who was a friend of Hans Christian Andersen and who wrote a book about his experiences as a fur trapper among the Indians of the northern United States. Dinesen studied English at Oxford University and painting at the Royal Academies in Copenhagen, Paris, and Rome. Following her marriage to Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, a cousin, in 1914, Dinesen moved to East Africa as the owner and manager of a coffee plantation near present-day Nairobi, Kenya. Following the death of her lover Denys Finch-Hatton and the eventual sale of her farm in 1931—events that are dramatized in Out of Africa—Dinesen returned to Denmark, where she completed her first book, Seven Gothic Tales. Subsequent works included several more short story collections, and numerous essays and novels in both Danish and English. Although she suffered from chronic spinal syphilis, emaciation, and the physical frailty attendant to these conditions, she continued to lecture and give interviews. She became a founding member of the Danish Academy in 1960. Dinesen died in Rungsted in 1962.
Seven Gothic Tales is a collection of short stories written in a romantic style, employing fantasy to explore aristocratic sensibilities and values. For example, in "The Deluge at Norderney," a Cardinal directs his high-born com-panions to give up their places on a boat to save peasants during a flood. Out of Africa presents Dinesen's experiences as a British East African coffee plantation owner, her relationship with the Africans who lived and worked on and around her plantation, her divorce from Baron Blixen, her affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, and the failure of her coffee enterprise, which precipitated her return to Denmark. The short stories in Winter's Tales (1942), with their simpler narrative style and attention to landscape, history, and life of Denmark, solidified Dinesen's standing in the Danish literary community. "Sorrow-Acre," for instance, is based on a medieval Danish folktale and is set in eighteenth-century Denmark. The story examines the inevitable social consequences of the master-servant relationship: how aristocratic values and traditions govern the attitudes and actions of a landlord toward a thieving serf and his mother. During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Dinesen wrote The Angelic Avengers (1946), a mystery-thriller about two orphaned girls. The manuscript was smuggled out of Denmark and published under the pseudonymn Pierre Andrézel. Dinesen continually denied authorship of the book, however, because she was unsatisfied with its literary quality. Last Tales (1957) is a collection of short stories that are divided into three sections—New Gothic Tales, New Winter's Tales, and Tales from Albondocani. These works represent a return to her earlier literary style, themes, and characters. In "Echoes," for instance, Pellegrina Leoni, who first appears in Seven Gothic Tales, is an ex-opera star, devastated by the loss of her voice. Consequently, a disgruntled Pellegrini uses elaborate disguises to ensure her anonymity. She remarks that when it comes to fate and life, God can be both a charlatan and "jokester" with his human creations. Skygger paa Graesset (1960; Shadows on the Grass) recalls Dinesen's African experiences. In this nonfiction work she focuses on the lives of several of the African servants and friends whom she first wrote about in Out of Africa. The novel Ehrengard (1963) was published posthumously and was Dinesen's last work. Its themes include the notion of the artist as creator and interpreter of life. The story follows the artist Cazotte's lust for Ehrengard, while she sits for a portrait. Cazotte's objective is to humiliate her, and in the process diabolically usurp God's role as the ultimate and defining artist of creation and master of life. Among Dinesen's other posthumously published works are Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (1977); Breve fra Afrika 1914–31 (1978; Letters from Africa: 1914–1931), which contain her correspondence with family and friends during her years in Africa; and Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays (1979), containing the well-known "Bonfire Speech," which presents her thoughts on many feminist issues.
Dinesen's writings have been widely praised and enthusiastically received. Critics applaud her prose style, her facility with complicated plots and characters, and her "natural" gift for storytelling. While many scholars have claimed that her picture of Africa in Out of Africa is romanticized, they note that the story is engaging, well-structured, and presents a detailed picture of life among British expatriots in Africa. Several commentators have noted similarities between Dinesen's views on identity, spirituality, and meaning and those of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; others have detected the influence of Aldous Huxley and Sigmund Freud on the development of Dinesen's themes and characters, particularly in such works as "Carnival." Finally, many critics have recognized humor as an integral part of Dinesen's literary style and agree that her stories consistently reveal a positive attitude and "passion for life," which embraces life's challenges and adversities as well as its triumphs and joys.