World Literature

Isak Dinesen

 

BORN: 1885, Rungsted, Denmark

DIED: 1962, Rungsted, Denmark

NATIONALITY: Danish

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Seven Gothic Tales (1934)

Out of Africa (1937)

Winter’s Tales (1942)

Babette’s Feast (1950)

 

 

Isak Dinesan. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Overview

Isak Dinesen is best known for Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and the autobiographical novel Out of Africa (1937). 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 protofeminist by some critics, scorned as a colonialist by others, Dinesen is chiefly regarded as a masterly storyteller. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that the Nobel Prize in Literature he received in 1954 should have been awarded to her.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Tragedy. Born Karen Christenze Dinesen on April 17, 1885, in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen led a happy childhood until tragedy shattered her comfortable existence. in 1895 her father, Wilhelm, hung himself. Dinesen had always been very close to her father, and his suicide was a shock. Dinesen later reflected: ‘‘it was as if a part of oneself had also died.’’ Dinesen’s brother Thomas, with whom she remained close as an adult, later speculated that their father had suffered from syphilis, a disease that Dinesen herself would contract years later.

Literature for Fun. Tutored at home by a series of governesses, Dinesen showed early artistic promise and as a teenager studied drawing, painting, and languages at a private school in France. In 1903 she was admitted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. There she developed her affinity for painting, an interest that would later be reflected in the rich descriptive style of her writing. Dinesen dropped out of the academy after several year’s study and soon thereafter took up writing. Mario Krohn, an art historian Dinesen had met at the academy, read her work and encouraged her to take writing seriously. Krohn also arranged to have some of her stories read by Valdemar Vedel, editor of one of Denmark’s most distinguished literary magazines, Tilskueren.

During these years Dinesen spent much of her time in the company of her upper-class relatives and soon found herself deeply but unhappily involved with her second cousin, Hans Blixen-Finecke. The failed love affair had a great impact on Dinesen. Extremely depressed, she left Denmark in 1910 to attend a new art school in Paris. When Mario Krohn visited Dinesen in Paris and asked her about her literary ambitions she answered that she wanted ‘‘all things in life more than to be a writer—travel, dancing, living, the freedom to paint.’’ When she returned to her family estate at Rungstedlund several months later, Dinesen turned to writing as a pleasant diversion.

When Blixen-Finecke abandoned her for a fiancee eight years younger, Dinesen decided to marry Hans’s twin brother, Bror. Bror is said to have been competitive, the kind of man who would enjoy winning his brother’s sweetheart. This rash determination to reach the object of her desire through a substitute would later be represented allegorically in many of Dinesen’s stories, which deal with the theme of vicarious achievement.

Africa and Syphilis. With the encouragement of relatives, Dinesen and Bror embarked on a grand plan to start a pioneer coffee farm in East Africa. Little is known about their courtship, except that Bror later gave Dinesen credit for the idea of going to Africa. They were married in 1914 in Mombasa, on the coast of British East Africa. They set up housekeeping on seven hundred acres of woodland, twelve miles southwest of Nairobi. The farm lay at an elevation of sixty-two hundred feet, near the Ngong Hills, a range of low mountains forming a barrier against the Rift Valley. Only a year after her marriage, sometime in the early months of 1915, Dinesen learned she had contracted syphilis, a venereal disease. Later she told her family that her husband had given her the illness; he had evidently been unfaithful to her. The couple separated for a time after this incident.

Her letters suggest that she made a suicide attempt in February of that year. Several weeks later she turned up in Paris, looking for a specialist in venereal diseases. She eventually made her way through war-torn Europe back to Denmark, where a venerealogist found her to be suffering from syphilis and poisoning from the treatment (mercury tablets, an earlier form of syphilis treatment) given to her in Nairobi. Through a series of injections of intravenous arsenic Dinesen grew better. Reexaminations in 1919 and 1925 revealed no further evidence of syphilis; however, despite the doctor’s assurances, Dinesen continued to believe she would never recover from the illness. Syphilis appears time and again in Dinesen’s writings and features prominently in the popular myth that gathered around her after she rose to literary prominence. She could not escape the irony that she had been victimized by the same illness that had led to her father’s suicide. She spent much of her later life developing a philosophy to cope with the implications of the diagnosis. In 1926 she wrote to her brother Thomas: ‘‘If it did not sound so beastly I might say that, the world being as it is, it was worth having syphilis in order to become a Baroness.’’ Dinesen was later proved right: her disease flared up again later in her life.

After spending most of 1915 and 1916 in Denmark, Dinesen reconciled with her husband. They returned to their African farm with a new bankroll provided by her relatives. A series of droughts precluded any profits from the large capital input. Bror was frequently absent from home, chasing other investments. Toward the end of 1918 Dinesen found consolation in a new friendship, with Denys Finch Hatton, an Englishman recently returned from World War I. Shortly after the war ended, Dinesen separated permanently from Bror (they divorced in 1925). The immediate cause was not Finch Hatton, but Bror’s continuing infidelities. After Bror left, she protected herself from loneliness by writing stories. Several notebooks filled with outlines and jottings survive from her years in Africa; many of these stories were later revised and published in Seven Gothic Tales.

In 1924 Finch Hatton began staying in her house while working in Nairobi—a few months out of every year. She miscarried his child in 1922 and another in 1926. He was not interested in marriage. In 1928 he entertained his friend, Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward V until he abdicated and became Duke of Windsor) at her house—an event described in Out of Africa. He also bought an airplane and flew Dinesen over her farm, which she describes as her ‘‘most transporting pleasure’’ in Africa.

By 1929 a cascade of events had begun that would bring an end to Dinesen’s farming life. A loan promised by Finch Hatton never materialized. The collapse of major stock markets sent coffee and land prices spiraling downward. Locusts descended on the land, and drought exhausted Dinesen’s last hopes for recovery. Finally, she had to sell the farm to a developer in Nairobi. A few weeks later, on May 14, 1931, Finch Hatton died in an airplane crash. Dinesen looked on Africa for the last time that month and returned to her homeland for good.

Literature for Profit. Once home at Rungstedlund, Dinesen began to write almost immediately, working in her father’s old office. Now, however, her motives were serious. ‘‘I could not see any kind of future before me. And I had no money; my dowry, so to say, had gone with the farm. I owed it to the people on whom I was dependent to try to make some kind of existence for myself. Those Gothic Tales began to demand to be written,’’ she later wrote in Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays. Two years later, at age forty-eight, Dinesen completed her first collection of stories, Seven Gothic Tales.

Although Seven Gothic Tales was written in English, Dinesen experienced some difficulty getting the book into print; few publishers were willing to bet on a debut work by an unknown Danish author. Several British publishers rejected the manuscript before it came across the desk of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a friend of Thomas Dinesen and member of the Book-of-the-Month Club selection committee. Impressed with the collection, Fisher sent it to publisher Robert Haas, who was equally impressed and released Seven Gothic Tales the following year.

An aura of mystery surrounded the book’s publication. When it offered Seven Gothic Tales as its April 1934 selection, the Book-of-the-Month Club newsletter stated simply, ‘‘No clue is available as to the pseudonymic author.’’ Dinesen herself confused matters by preceding her maiden name with a man’s first name—Isak, Hebrew for ‘‘one who laughs.’’ Her true identity was not revealed until over fifty thousand copies of Seven Gothic Tales were in print. With this collection Dinesen began a long and rewarding relationship with American readers, as five of her books became Book-of-the-Month Club selections.

In spite of poor health and repeated hospitalizations, Dinesen continued to work on a book of memoirs titled Out of Africa. Considered by many to be the greatest pastoral romance of the twentieth century, Out of Africa enjoyed immediate and lasting critical acclaim, particularly from British and American critics. The book became a hit movie in 1985 and won seven Academy Awards.

Winter's Tales and Last Tales. In 1940 Dinesen was commissioned by the Copenhagen daily newspaper Politiken to spend a month in Berlin, a month in Paris, and a month in London and to write a series of articles about each city. Although the advent of World War II caused the cancellations of the Paris and London visits, Dinesen’s recollections of Hitler’s Germany were later compiled in the posthumous collection Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays. About this time Dinesen also began work on her second set of stories, although completion of the volume was delayed by complications arising from tertiary syphilis, a late stage of the disease. Dinesen eventually finished this second collection, and, in 1942, Winter's Tales, a book that derives its title from one of Shakespeare’s plays, was published in the United States, England, and Denmark.

Winter's Tales, along with Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, are generally considered to be Dinesen’s masterpieces. Between their publication and the 1957 publication of Last Tales, there was a fifteen-year hiatus during which she published only one book: The Angelic Avengers, a thriller novel released in 1946 under the pseudonym of Pierre Andrezel. Dinesen was never proud of The Angelic Avengers and for many years refused to acknowledge herself as the book’s author. Even after such acknowledgment, Dinesen criticized the book, claiming that she wrote it solely for her own amusement as a diversion from the grim realities of Nazi-occupied Denmark.

Although she suffered from chronic spinal syphilis and emaciation, Dinesen continued to lecture and give interviews. She became a founding member of the Danish Academy in 1960 and died in Rungsted in 1962.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Dinesen's famous contemporaries include:

Howard Hughes (1905-1976): One of the world's richest men, Hughes initially became famous for his work as an aviator and film producer, as well as his glamorous playboy lifestyle, but went on to become an infamous recluse and eccentric, eventually cutting himself off from the outside world altogether.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945): The thirty-second president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four terms, serving from 1933 to 1945. His presidency spanned two of America's darkest hours, the Great Depression and World War II, and his policies and leadership are widely credited by historians with successfully steering the country through both events.

Wallis Simpson (1895-1986): An American socialite, Simpson was divorced from one husband and in the process of divorcing another when she began a relationship in 1934 with Edward, Prince of Wales, causing a scandal. By 1936, with Edward crowned king of England, his plans to marry Simpson led to a constitutional crisis, and Edward abdicated rather than end his relationship. After Edward's abdication, Simpson continued to stir controversy thanks to rumors that she was a Nazi sympathizer.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973): An Oxford professor and academic specializing in Anglo-Saxon studies, Tolkien was also interested in mythology and fantasy. To this end he began imagining a mythical world incorporating elements of ancient Saxon folklore and his own invented languages. The resulting works, notably The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, were directly responsible for popularizing high fantasy as a literary genre.

 

Works in Literary Context

Gothic Decadence. In Seven Gothic Tales Dinesen introduced stylistic and thematic motifs that are to be found throughout much of her subsequent work. She derived these motifs largely from two nineteenth-century literary movements—the Gothic and the Decadent. As in the novels written in these genres, Dinesen’s tales are often characterized by an emphasis on the emotional and spiritual, a nostalgia for the glory of past ages, a predilection for exotic characters, and an overriding sense of mystery, horror, and the supernatural. Eric O. Johannesson noted in The World of Isak Dinesen that ‘‘the spinechilling tale of terror, with its persecuted women, its ghosts, and its mysterious convents and castles, as well as the cruel tale, with its atmosphere of perversity and artificiality, have served as sources of inspiration for Dinesen.’’

Interdependence. Seven Gothic Tales also introduces Dinesen’s preoccupation with the principle of interdependence, which she further develops in later works. In Seven Gothic Tales there are interrelationships among individual stories in the volume as well as the existence of stories within stories. Comparing such constructions to ‘‘a complex kaleidoscope,’’ Elizabeth Ely Fuller wrote in the New Boston Review that ‘‘each character and each event works as a little bit of mirror reflecting another character or event, and then turning slightly to catch some other reflection. To reinforce this overall plot structure, Dinesen uses mirror images and similes repeatedly as the characters muse on their own nature and on their relation to others. To any one of them, the story makes no sense, but taken as a whole, the stories, like a piece of music or a minuet, form a complete pattern of movement.’’ The principle of interdependence works on a thematic level in Seven Gothic Tales as well, as such disparate concepts as good and evil, comedy and tragedy, and art and life are intricately linked.

Destiny. Destiny, more specifically one’s control over it, is one of Dinesen’s major themes. In her view, such a coming to terms involves an acceptance of one’s fate as determined by God. ‘‘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,’’ Johannesson wrote. ‘‘Her figures are often Hamlet figures, melancholy men and 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.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Other works that examine the theme of destiny, and characters' struggles against it, include:

The Golden Compass (1995), a novel by Philip Pullman. The first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, this work of fantasy examines destiny, and the struggle to eliminate it in favor of free will, as a central theme.

Silas Marner (1861), a novel by George Eliot. A central theme of this tale of love and redemption is the just reward and punishment of characters according to their place in a strictly delineated moralistic order.

Oedipus the King (429 BCE), a play by Sophocles. Perhaps the archetypal tale of a character attempting to alter his destiny—and in so doing fulfilling his preordained fate—this classic Greek drama tells the story of a man prophesied to murder his father and marry his mother, which is exactly what he ends up doing without realizing it.

 

Works in Critical Context

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 and well-structured, and presents a detailed picture of life among British expatriates.

Out of Africa. In a Chicago Tribune review, Richard Stern called the work ‘‘perhaps the finest book ever written about Africa,’’ claiming that ‘‘it casts over landscape, animals, and people the kind of transfixing spell [James Joyce’s] ‘Ulysses’ casts over Dublin.’’ Katherine Woods, writing in the New York Times, praised the book’s absence of ‘‘sentimentality’’ and ‘‘elaboration’’ and averred, ‘‘Like the Ngong hills—‘which are amongst the most beautiful in the world’—this writing is without redundancies, bared to its lines of strength and beauty.’’ Even those critics who found fault with the book’s structure commended Dinesen’s style. ‘‘The tale of increasing tragedy which fills the latter half of the book seems not quite so successful as her earlier chapters,’’ noted Hassoldt Davis in the Saturday Review of Literature. ‘‘But,’’ he added, ‘‘her book has a solid core of beauty in it, and a style as cadenced, constrained, and graceful as we have today.’’ Hudson Strode seemed to capture the sentiments of many critics when he wrote in Books: ‘‘The author casts enchantment over her landscape with the most casual phrases.... Backward, forward, she goes, a spark here, a flare there, until she has the landscape fairly lit up before you with all its inhabitants and customs in place. The result is a great naturalness.’’

Winter's Tales With Winter's Tales Dinesen broke from the relative realism of Out of Africa and returned to the highly imaginative style that characterizes Seven Gothic Tales. ‘‘Suffused with vague aspirations toward some cloudy ideal,’’ noted Clifton Fadiman in the New Yorker, ‘‘with a longing for the impossible, with a brooding delight in magnificent and absurd gestures, with a quality of sleepwalking, they are as far removed from 1943 as anything can well be.’’ Some critics, however, found fault with Dinesen’s unique writing style: In a Commonweal review J. E. Tobin claimed, ‘‘The characters lack even the vague shape of ghosts; the atmosphere is that of stale perfume; the writing, called quaint by some, is downright awkward.’’ The general consensus, however, was one of commendation for both the form and content of Winter's Tales. Struthers Brut, writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, summed up such a reaction when he maintained: ‘‘Often as you read the tales you wonder why you are so interested, so constantly excited, for the tales themselves, all of them symbolic, are not especially exciting in their plots, and the characters are frequently as remote as those in fairy tales, and a great deal of the time you are wandering in a fourth dimension where nothing is clear. But the final effect is unforgettable, just as the moments of reading are unforgettable.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Dinesen’s novella Babette’s Feast became an awardwinning film in 1986. Read the book and watch the film. The feast Babette creates is, indeed, spectacular. What does the feast mean for the various characters? What is different after the feast? Do you think all the effort that went into it was worthwhile?

2. What are Dinesen’s views of love and marriage? Based on these, would you consider Dinesen a feminist?

3. Dinesen is often accused of classism. How does she represent both aristocrats and the lower classes in her novels and stories? For example, what is Dinesen’s attitude toward her Kenyan servants and workers in Out of Africa? How does race influence her concept of class?

4. Discuss the theme of destiny in Dinesen’s fiction and nonfiction. Can you relate her concept of destiny to a modern work of art with a similar theme?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Aiken, Susan Hardy. Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Donelson, Linda. Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa: The Untold Story. Iowa City, Iowa: Coulsong List, 1995.

Henriksen, Aage. Isak Dinesen; Karen Blixen: The Work and the Life. Translated by William Mishler. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

Stambaugh, Sara. The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1988.

Thurman, Judith. Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.

Whissen, Thomas R. Isak Dinesen’s Aesthetics. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1973.

 

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

 

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