by Chris Power)
My paperback copy of the 1957 collection Last Tales bears a portrait of Isak Dinesen wearing a hooded cape. She might be Dorothea Viehmann, the storyteller who provided the Grimms with a valuable cache of fairy tales, or one of the many nameless women who for centuries circulated tales in spinning rooms, nurseries, and before family hearths. She chose this identity carefully: it is one that seams her work. In her memoir, Out of Africa, which is arranged much like a series of short stories, she reaches back to Boccaccio when she writes: "I have always thought I might have cut a figure at the time of the plague of Florence."
Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, a Dane who wrote nearly all her fiction in English. She made no secret of her identity, but preferred to publish using her father's surname. Her stories utilise myth, enchantment and the lurid subject matter of the gothic (incest, murder, witchcraft) to explore philosophy, morality and questions of identity.
They form a bridge between the Thousand and One Nights, Grimm, Andersen and the metafictions of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Written mostly between the 1920s and 1960s (she died in 1962) and always set in the 19th century or before, they are involute creations, packed tightly with mysteries and potential interpretations: readers have to work to detect their full meaning. "Dinesen delighted in paradox," one critic writes, "in creating endings to her tales that were equally poised between opposite intentions without the linguistic details to suggest where the balance was meant to be heaviest." Or, as one of her narrators remarks, "it is not a bad thing in a tale that you understand only half of it".
Some critics, Lionel Trilling among them, describe Dinesen as if her stories ape the style of oral storytelling. They are "told rather than written", Trilling claims, but this misrepresents them. As Robert Langbaum notes in his 1964 study of Dinesen, "her stories cannot – in spite of her claims to the contrary – be classed with the sort of stories you can tell orally". They are simply too complex, in terms of both their construction and the literary references and quotations – explicit and obscure – they contain.
Take The Dreamers, from Dinesen's first collection Seven Gothic Tales (1934). It opens in 1863, on a dhow sailing from Lamu to Zanzibar, with a European traveller telling two Arabs a story that took place in the Swiss Alps 20 years before. From this inset story hatch three more, in a process Margaret Atwood calls a kind of "fractal exfoliation … typical of more ancient tales, such as those in One Thousand and One Nights and Boccaccio's Decameron". Dinesen employs this method again and again, building nested sequences of stories.
This structural intricacy couples with extensive borrowing and interpolation from other texts. The Dreamers, for example, incorporates or appears to respond to elements of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story Olalla, Barbey d'Aurevilly's At a Dinner of Atheists, a story by the Norwegian Sven Elvestad, George du Maurier's novel Trilby, and Byron's satiric poem Don Juan. As with Borges, familiarity with the texts Dinesen references is not essential, but adds another layer of richness to the experience of reading her. Elsewhere, The Sailor Boy's Tale in certain ways mirrors The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; The Heroine takes the setting and situation of Boule de Suif but reframes the moral questions put by Maupassant's story; part of the denouement of The Roads Round Pisa turns on a quotation from Dante (in untranslated Italian), and references to Shakespeare abound throughout. To read Dinesen is to play a game of narratives
And it was a game, of sorts, that resulted in one of the peaks of her art. Sorrow-Acre, perhaps the greatest of what Rosemary Dinnage has described as Dinesen's "cold, patrician fantasies", was her response to a challenge by a socialist friend: was there ever a distinct manorial culture in Denmark, and if so what were its values? The story has its origin in a 17th-century folk tale from Jutland, which in just 250 words describes a task set an old woman whose son is condemned to die. The lord of the manor tells her that if she can mow a rye field in a single day (a three-day task for a man) her son will be spared. The woman completes the task, but dies from exhaustion shortly afterwards. Dinesen encountered the story in a version by Paul la Cour, published in 1931, but while he accentuated the despotism of the lord, Dinesen recasts the story as a clash between the old order and the new age of democracy.
For this reason she sets the story between the American and French revolutions, and shortly before the emancipation of Denmark's serfs in 1788. In opposition to the nameless old lord, who "incarnated the fields and woods, the peasants, cattle and game of the estate", she places his pointedly named nephew Adam, the representative of Enlightenment ideals.
Dinesen's brilliance is to construct her story so that the sections describing the peasant woman and her task unfold with the directness and simplicity of a folk tale, while Adam's possess a novel-like interiority. These narratives run in parallel, combining in the "twined and twisted design, complicated and mazy" that Adam considers life to be. The achievement is Dinesen's most elaborate effect, resulting in a work of art that retains its power whatever your opinion of the high-Tory ideals it enshrines.
As the evolution of Sorrow-Acre shows, Dinesen sees all stories – high- and lowbrow, novels, poetry, plays and folk tales – as a storehouse from which to draw, adapt and extrapolate. Stories, for her, exist in a position beyond the everyday, and she conceives of the storyteller as a priestly figure. In The Cardinal's First Tale, we hear that "'stories have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water".
Those who tell stories within her tales often transmogrify, as if the act involves opening oneself to some invasive power. When a man begins a story in A Consolatory Tale, "he was changed, the prim bailiff faded away, and in his seat sat a deep and dangerous little figure, consolidated, alert and ruthless: the story-teller of all the ages". Elsewhere an old actor telling a story speaks "with a new expression running over his face, or indeed with a new face, the story-teller's face".
This idea of submission to an outside force reflects Dinesen's belief that our paths through life run along courses determined by a higher power. "Almighty God," the frustrated writer Charlie Despard says in The Young Man with the Carnation, "as the Heavens are higher than the Earth, so are Thy short stories higher than our short stories". But it is possible for humans to influence or even transcend their stories – indeed, done well it is one of the most admirable and heroic acts anyone can perform.
This belief powers The Deluge at Norderney, which, more than any other Dinesen story, asserts the primacy of storytelling. A cardinal and three aristocrats are stranded in a hayloft as floodwaters rise over the German countryside, waiting for the dawn and possible rescue. Each tells a story, or has a story told about them, which reveals the distance between who they are and how they are perceived. But Dinesen does not treat this as folly; rather she applauds their imaginative acts as bold examples of self-making.
In his essay The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin described storytelling as "the ability to exchange experiences", but here Dinesen goes further: storytelling can, in its own right, generate experience and create new realities. As the floodwaters overwhelm the land – as what was solid becomes fluid – so story overwhelms fact. "Truth is for tailors and shoemakers", one character asserts. "I, on the contrary, have always held that the Lord has a penchant for masquerades." In this story Dinesen creates a fine symbolic representation of the way humans, hemmed in on all sides by death, tell stories not merely to entertain, but to live. It is her version of Prospero's "We are such stuff as dreams are made on" speech from The Tempest.
Over the course of the story Kasparson, who emerges as its unusual and murderous hero, establishes himself, in Howard Green's description, as Dinesen's "most eloquent spokesman". One speech in particular embodies the approaches she took throughout a body of work that is, for all its complicated interrelations with other works, unique: "Be not afraid of absurdity; do not shrink from the fantastic. Within a dilemma, choose the most unheard-of, the most dangerous, solution. Be brave, be brave!"