Reading Isak Dinesen

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6 November 2010

Reading Isak Dinesen (nee Karen Blixen) makes one content to check out from life as we know it.  Her stories are so absorbing, the people in them strange and otherworldly.  I am four tales into Seven Gothic Tales, all of which so far are simply remarkable, romantic and creepy (there is an arresting moment in “The Old Chevalier” in which a woman is imagined naked down to her bones, i.e. the beauty of her skull is considered).  Particularly intriguing is Dinesen’s bending of gender in all her stories (not just in her use of a pseudonym); her insight and imaginative powers with regard to the nature of male and female seem to me unmatched.

Dinesen is most well-known for Out of Africa (the fine film version of which starred Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, and features what I think is one of the most affecting minimalist-erotic scenes in movie history), but her non-autobiographical storytelling talents are equally stunning. Judith Thurman wrote a biography of Dinesen, A Tale of Destiny (1982), which I’m interested to read; here’s a link to Margaret Drabble‘s NYT review, in which Drabble wrote:

Witch, sibyl, lion hunter, coffee planter, aristocrat and despot, a paradox in herself and a creator of paradoxes, a desperately sick but indestructible woman, she steps forth from these pages with all the force of legend and all the human detail and frailty of a real person made by real circumstance. This, like the best biographies, is a book in which the reader can live, and which, despite its wealth of insight, leaves final judgments to the reader. It is a fine achievement.

I read somewhere that Dinesen’s official cause of death, at age 77, was emaciation.  Gothic, indeed.

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