Other Literary Forms

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In addition to her numerous tales and stories, Isak Dinesen wrote many letters and essays. She is particularly well known, however, for her narrative Den afrikanske Farm (1937; Out of Africa , 1937), which tells of her years in Kenya (a sequel was published in 1960). After her death, two...

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In addition to her numerous tales and stories, Isak Dinesen wrote many letters and essays. She is particularly well known, however, for her narrative Den afrikanske Farm (1937; Out of Africa, 1937), which tells of her years in Kenya (a sequel was published in 1960). After her death, two volumes of letters, written while in Africa, were published, as were her essays.

Achievements

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Isak Dinesen has a special position in modern literature in that she is a major author in two languages. Although a native of Denmark, she wrote in both English and Danish, creating her tales as original works in both tongues. Popular with the critics as well as the general public, she was appointed an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1957 and was repeatedly mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her initial success came in the English-speaking world. With time, however, she became successful also at home, where her magnetic personality and storytelling gifts gradually captivated the public. Aided by the medium of radio, she became a veritable cultural institution in Denmark. Since her death, her critical reputation has steadily grown both at home and abroad, and she has come to be considered a modern master of short fiction.

Discussion Topics

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How does Isak Dinesen’s “storyteller” differ from a writer?

Were there advantages for Dineson’s literary perspective in her cultural life being “formed before the outbreak of World War I”?

Demonstrate how some of the characters in Winter’s Tales take charge of their own lives.

How did the circumstances of Dinesen’s life contribute to her capacity for looking at life with the eyes of a painter?

What did Africa do for Isak Dinesen?

Bibliography

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Aiken, Susan Hardy. Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Offers thoughtful critical interpretation of Dinesen’s works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Bassoff, Bruce. “Babette Can Cook: Life and Art in Three Stories by Isak Dinesen.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Summer, 1990): 385-389. Discusses the plot elements of desire for transcendence, a fall caused by confrontation with the real world, and new knowledge or resignation in “The Ring,” “The Diver,” and “Babette’s Feast.”

Bjørnvig, Thorkild. The Pact: My Friendship with Isak Dinesen. Translated from the Danish by Ingvar Schousboe and William Jay Smith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983. This short book offers Bjørnvig’s account of his friendship with Dinesen, from their first meeting in 1948 to their definitive parting in 1954. Written by an accomplished poet, the volume is interesting in its own right as well as for the insight into Dinesen which it provides.

Donelson, Linda. Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa: The Untold Story. Iowa City, Iowa: Coulsong List, 1995. A good, updated biography of Dinesen. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Hannah, Donald. “Isak Dinesen” and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality. London: Putnam and Company, 1971. The biographical sections are particularly valuable in charting the development also of Dinesen’s aesthetic, especially Dinesen’s emphasis on the nature of story, her masklike impersonality, and the nature of her characters. The second half of the book, devoted to Dinesen’s art, focuses on her process of writing and the general characteristics of her stories, and it analyzes several of the most important.

Henriksen, Aage. “The Empty Space Between Art and Church.” In Out of Denmark, edited by Bodil Warmberg. Copenhagen: Danish Cultural Institute, 1985. Henriksen asserts that the underlying principle of all Dinesen’s tales is the discovery that reality is transformed into a dream. Contends that Dinesen’s stories are based on the complicated nature of human love.

Horton, Susan R. Difficult Women, Artful Lives: Olive Schreiner and Isak Dinesen, in and out of Africa. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Profiles these two woman writers. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Johannesson, Eric O. The World of Isak Dinesen. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961. From the theoretical perspective of the New Criticism, Johannesson offers brief but close analyses of Dinesen’s tales, concluding that the art of story-telling is the author’s central theme and the basis for her worldview. The book serves as an excellent introduction to Dinesen’s work. Contains a good bibliography as well as an index.

Juhl, Marianne, and Bo Hakon Jørgensen. Diana’s Revenge: Two Lines in Isak Dinesen’s Authorship. Translated from the Danish by Anne Born. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1985. This volume contains two sophisticated scholarly and critical essays of considerable length. Juhl’s contribution, “Sex and Consciousness,” is informed by feminist theory. Jørgensen, in “The Ways of Art,” discusses the relationship between Dinesen’s sensuality and her art. Their book, which includes a good bibliography, is particularly strong in its discussion of Dinesen’s use of classical symbols.

Langbaum, Robert Woodrow. The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen’s Art. New York: Random House, 1964. In an extensive study that will serve as a suitable introduction to Dinesen for the experienced reader, Langbaum places her within the Western literary tradition. A major claim is that, by dissolving the distinction between fact and value, Dinesen is able to achieve a unified vision of the beauty, sadness, and gaiety of life. Good bibliography, index.

Migel, Parmenia. Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen. New York: Random House, 1967. The work of a writer rather than that of a scholar, Migel’s biography truly represents a labor of love. Migel, a friend of Dinesen, promised Dinesen that she would be her biographer once Dinesen had died. The resulting volume is aimed at an audience of Dinesen devotees but will be of interest to others as well. Bibliography, index.

Mullins, Maire. “Home, Community, and the Gift That Gives in Isak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast.’” Women’s Studies 23 (1994): 217-228. Argues that the meal Babette prepares is not a gift but a demonstration of her own aesthetic powers. Argues that Babette subverts the phallo-logocentric society in which she finds herself and transforms home and community through her presence.

Pelensky, Olga Anastasia, ed. Isak Dinesen: Critical Views. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993. A collection of essays. See also Pelensky’s biographical Isak Dinesen: The Life and Imagination of a Seducer (1991).

Rashkin, Esther. “A Recipe for Mourning: Isak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast.’” Style 29 (Fall, 1995): 356-374. Claims the story is a psychoanalytic reflection on the process involved in overcoming an inability to mourn, for which it writes a recipe for transcendence of that inability through the preparation and consumption of food.

Stambaugh, Sara. The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988. Stambaugh offers a feminist-inspired examination of the portraits of women which are found in Dinesen’s texts. The strength of her brief study is the recognition of the centrality of gender for an understanding of Dinesen’s work; its weakness is its lack of theoretical sophistication. The book has a complete scholarly apparatus.

Thurman, Judith. Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Thurman’s biography constitutes the fullest treatment of Dinesen’s life and work in any language. Meticulously researched and highly readable, it provides an account of the writer’s life, brief analyses of her works, and extensive discussion of the relationship between her life and works. Addressed to both scholars and an educated nonspecialist audience, it contains scholarly notes, a select bibliography, and a useful index.

Yacobi, Tamar. “Pictorial Models and Narrative Ekphrasis.” Poetics Today 16 (Winter, 1995): 599-649. Discusses interrelations between pictorial models and narrative ekphrasis in which the two join forces to bring a visual image into literary play. Illustrates interplays between the ekphrastic model and narrativity through the poetics of Dinesen.

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