Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen
If one’s introduction to Isak Dinesen, the Baroness Blixen, were through Parmenia Migel’s panegyric, Titania, in all likelihood one would be disinclined to read the work of the woman here presented. For she emerges inordinately egocentric, socially snobbish, imperious, posturing, appallingly arch. If one has already read her, it is very nearly impossible to believe that in an earlier incarnation she wrote Out of Africa. Consider the genesis of the biography: one day when she was in Paris, she made a telephone call “…to the wife of an American diplomat…. ‘Are you Parmenia Migel Ekstrom?’ asked the low, husky voice, sounding curiously like Greta Garbo. ‘This is Karen Blixen. I have heard from my agent of your enthusiasm for my books…Why did you never write to me?… I shall be here for only three more days and have many people to see but could spend half an hour with you at my hotel.’ ” She was persuaded, however, to come to lunch—on the same day—and she stayed until seven: she told stories, she “reminisced about her student days, hummed snatches of French songs that had been popular in 1910, recited a poem by Béranger….” and when she decided to leave, said, ” ‘…we shall continue this conversation tomorrow. I have never seen Chartres. Let us start early in the morning and spend the day there.’ ” The ladies became fast friends and, in the last year of her life, Isak Dinesen said to Miss Migel, who was visiting her in Denmark, ” ‘I know you are busy with a book about Augusta Maywood…. But I want you to promise that as soon as I die, you will finish my book.’ ”
When Isak Dinesen came to New York many years after the historic meeting in Paris, the idolatrous biographer arranged a lunch for the Danish demon (the word is used here as a pejorative, although in Miss Dinesen’s vocabulary it was synonymous with darling) and Pearl Buck, whom Miss Dinesen claimed to admire greatly. The encounter must surely be one of the most outrageous in the annals of female literary society, and one wonders why on earth it has been put down in black and white. Miss Buck had been obliged to make a three-hour trip by train; she arrived on time; Isak Dinesen was late—one gets the impression that she was hours late and the soufflé had to be made all over again. When at last she did arrive, she began at once to talk and she talked incessantly, brooking no interruption. From time to time Miss Buck opened her mouth but “gave up, bowing to a force majeure.” Presently it was time for the non-winner of the Nobel Prize to go on to her next engagement; in the taxi, this colloquy took place:
“Tell me, was that Pearl Buck?”
“Tania, you wicked creature! You know perfectly well that it was Pearl Buck.”
“Yes, yes. I suppose it was,” Tania allowed. “She didn’t say anything.”
On this memorable trip to New York when there was “meeting after meeting with celebrities and simple folk” (whoever they may have been), “artists and intellectuals…and those who consider themselves American aristocrats…” she stayed at the Cosmopolitan Club, and while she was grateful to be a guest there, she could not help, with her “cruelly perceptive eyes,” taking in the members’ hats: “These clubwomen wore drab, nondescript hats, or if they were a bit more daring, hats that were all alike and slavishly following the current fashion.” Not from the beginning of time—or, at any rate, the beginning of hats—has a “cruelly perceptive” eye been a prerequisite for shooting at this particular species of sitting bird.
The wonder of all this, the flabbergasting wonder of it, is how the author of Out of Africa, how the woman who was capable of living that long, remarkable, dangerous adventure and of writing it down in an almost faultless minor masterpiece, could have lent herself to such coquetry and hokum, such banality and cattiness. A bevy of her ladies-in-waiting are discussing their fairy queen:
“She appears to be hovering, elegant and unconcerned, on the very brink of death,” commented one of her Paris friends, “and hastening the inevitable end by the exhausting life she leads.”
“Ah, but wasn’t it Tennyson who wrote: ‘More and more life is what we want. Indifference to life is disease and therefore not strength,’ ” said someone else. “The Baroness derives strength and renews herself precisely because indifference to anyone or anything is totally alien to her nature.”
The improbable conversational style of these boosters is a travesty of the dialogue in her own gothic tales; perhaps her entourage really did come to talk like that. But this aside, one has to question the observation of the second interlocutor, for if one is to believe in the character Miss Migel reveals, one can only conclude that, for a good part of her middle and late life, Isak Dinesen was indifferent to much of what did not pertain directly to herself. What else can account for her odious treatment of Pearl Buck? If she was not indifferent on the occasion of that lamentable lunch party, if she was in fact reacting, then she must have been impelled by awful ill-will. There are numerous references to her frequent candidacy for the Nobel Prize and her failure ever to receive it as, years before, Pearl Buck had done. When Hemingway won it, he said in his speech of acceptance that he would be happy if the prize had been given to “that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.” The recollection of this leads Miss Migel to a speculation which, however, she states as fact: “Though he praised her ‘beautiful writing,’ Hemingway would not, of course, have exchanged her style for his own succinct and original one, but he could not help envying her poise and sophistication, nor being impressed by her offhand endorsement of homosexuality which for her was simply another aspect of life but for Hemingway was at the very roots of a morbid hatred and fear that had dogged him since boy hood.” So much for Hemingway and so much for Pearl Buck and so much for the Nobel Prize.
KAREN DINESEN, called “Tanne” by her family, was born in the house where seventy-seven years later she died. The house, Rungstedlund, situated between Copenhagen and Elsinore on the sound, had for centuries been an inn, and an imaginative child, as Tanne certainly was, could easily conjure up the images of wayfarers, on romantic errands or tragic ones or nefarious, who broke their journeys there. The lyric poet, Johannes Ewald, came there in 1773 and lingered on to fall in love with the innkeeper’s daughter, to write, to walk and brood in the woods of a hill, thereafter known as “Ewald’s Hill,” where Karen Dinesen is buried near the grave of a favorite dog. Wilhelm Dinesen, her father, bought the inn in 1879 and tenanted it with a wife of good deeds and advanced ideas who bore him five children. Wilhelm was an ill-starred and moody man; he had fought in the Dano-Prussian war and in the Franco-Prussian war and had arrived in Paris the day before the Commune. He was just beginning to recover from this dreadful experience when he got the news of the death of the Danish girl with whom he was in love. He took his heavy heart to America and for a couple of years lived with the Indians of Nebraska and Wisconsin. The child Tanne acquired from him her gift of storytelling, for on their daily rambles over Ewald’s Hill he filled her head with Danish lore and tales he had heard from the Pawnees and the Chippewas. But his melancholy, always with him, overpowered him at last and, when Tanne was ten, he committed suicide; she was never entirely to get over this early shock and loss.
She was educated at home in French and English and Shakespeare and womanly graces; she went to balls and grand house-parties in grand castles. In her early twenties she wrote and published a few stories which were so well received that she was urged to continue, but she wanted to paint, not write, and she went for a time to Paris to study. (There was a hiatus of thirty years between those early stories and the publication, in 1934, of Seven Gothic Tales.) She was twenty-nine when she went to Africa to marry her Swedish cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, and to settle with him on a coffee plantation in Kenya.
The marriage lasted seven years—the man was a boor, one gathers, and a bore, keener on safaris than on husbandry, a philanderer, and a liar—but after it was dissolved and the Baron went back to Europe, the Baroness stayed on for ten years more, managing the plantation and managing the scores of natives in her employ. In Out of Africa which beings: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills” and goes on with the same uncluttered tranquility, there is no mention of domestic unpleasantness, not a breath of bitterness or self-pity. One could say that she eliminated the sour notes through the simple expedient of eliminating her husband (he is mentioned only once or twice and then perfunctorily), but there is more art to it than that, there is more control. Later on, she could not resist setting the record straight about the blackguard Bror. Her valor, however, is not extended by the revelations Miss Migel makes but is, on the contrary, vitiated. She much objected to Freud and often declared that the exposure of the roots of a living thing was dangerous. Yet she appears to have been a green and willing analysand on the subject of her husband.
Her frequent guest, Denys Finch-Hatton, a safari guide and, paradoxically, a conservationist, who was probably her lover, is shown forth as a part of the landscape and the life upon it—never as he is to appear later on in Miss Migel’s embarrassing portrait of him, which must, alas, be based on the Baroness’s reflection: his good looks “consisted in a lean, lithe physique of pantherine grace, curly blond hair bleached lighter by the tropical sun, the keenest of eyes, a sensual mouth and an astonishingly Greek profile. Many years later Tanne enjoyed bringing out photographs of Denys and one of a Hermes statue to point out the extraordinary similarities—the long straight nose and almost too short upper lip, the classic proportions and sculptural curls.” It was Finch-Hatton who first called her Tania and Titania.
There is no question at all that for seventeen years, Karen Blixen was a woman of prodigious nerve and stamina, of common sense and generosity; she doctored her natives, she shot lions that best their cattle, heard their disputes; with urbanity and without condescension, she learned her servants and her squatters as thoroughly as she might have learned a foreign language. Similarly, she learned the animals and the land. The following passage, endlessly quoted, does not suffer from reiteration:
Out on the Safaris, I had seen a herd of Buffalo, one hundred and twenty nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished. I had seen a herd of Elephant travelling through the dense Native forest, where the sunlight is strewn down between the thick creepers in small spots and patches, pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world.
A Masai warrior is a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence which we call chic;—Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much a part of their being as are a stag’s antlers.
Just so, the woman in this book has chic as she drives to Nairobi in an untrustworthy old car for mail and medicine for her impromptu infirmary; as she flies over the hills with Finch-Hatton in his small plane; as she teaches one of her boys how to cook in the manner of the Cordon Bleu so well that the Prince of Wales, dining at her house, compliments her on a sauce; or as she sits in the evenings before a fire reading, surrounded by her Scotch deerhounds and her pet bushbuck antelope, Lulu. At one time she had a gunbearer who, after he returned to his native Somaliland, wrote her a letter with the salutation, “Honourable Lioness.” What happened to her between the time she received this noble title and the time in 1956 when she was pleased to be called “Queen of the Northern Monkeys” by one of the young men who danced attendance on her and whom she addressed in a letter, “Dear Monkey Prime Minister”?
The coffee plantation was a failure; it was at too high an altitude; it was plagued by grasshoppers and burned by drought. The Baroness finally had no choice but to give it up. Bit by bit she sold or gave away her furniture and all the oddments and mementos she had accumulated in these long and crowded years. She stayed on a while in the house, sitting and dining on the crates of books she would take back to Denmark; the rooms were empty, “noble like a skull, a cool and roomy place to dwell in, with an echo to it, and the grass of the lawn growing long up to the doorstep.” She sent her beloved dogs and horses to live out their lives with friends. Finch-Hatton no longer stayed at the farm but he drove out from Nairobi each evening to dine with her; on a Friday he left in his plane to go to Takaunga where he owned land and on the following Thursday, returning to the farm, he crashed and was killed. The Baroness supervised the digging of his grave in the hills where he had said he wanted to be buried. Soon after that, she left Africa and she never went back again.
At Rungstedlund, sharing the big house only with her mother, she was at loose ends, penniless, miserable. She was middle-aged but her mother treated her like a bad child (“You smoke too much. You don’t even close doors behind you.”) and she retaliated in the manner of a bad child (“Of course not!… In Kenya my boys did it for me.”). She pondered what to do with the rest of her life. She thought of becoming a supervisor of restaurant kitchens, she thought of becoming a matron in a lunatic asylum. She decided finally to write and so she did and continued to do with popular success (her stories often appeared in the Ladies Home Journal and several of her collections of tales were chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club) and with a considerable, if special, succès d’estime. The tales are often dazzling performances with their Arabian Nights richness of costume and cuisine and choreography, or their Volsunga Saga hemispheres, their landscapes of dreams in which the lights and the songs of birds are preternatural, their aristocrats and sage servants or agrarians who speak in heroic periods, their foregrounds of mille-fleurs and their celestial or infernal horizons. But they lack a dimension; their history is disturbingly unhistoric, their truths lack echo, their elegance and wit and beauty do not engage the heart. There is a want of sweetness and with this goes a want of humor. Literature abhors such a vacuum, although entertainment, fancy and fugitive, does not.
During the war, her house was full of Jews in transit to neutral Sweden—they were smuggled out in the dark of night and ferried across the Sound while the Baroness stalled the Nazis at her door. At this time, she offered her hospitality to another group, young Danish writers who had established a magazine Heretica, and who “craved the heroic, the Romantic, the utopian.” It was probably about then that the subject of Miss Migel’s study was born, when, that is, she was in the neighborhood of sixty. She began to dress eccentrically (she was to step off a plane in Rome one winter day in a get-up a little hard to imagine—she was wearing a big bearskin coat and would have looked like “a shaggy deity from the northern ice floes had she not had the humor to wear with it a stocking cap rakishly caught up over one eye with a jeweled pin.”) and to make the most of the signatures of age and of infirmity. From the time she left Africa and until her death, she was often ill, sometimes seriously. The nature of her illness is not made clear; one is made to understand that the tomcatting Baron gave her a venereal disease; then later on she had delicate spinal operations and, because of an ulcer, she had a good part of her stomach removed. Her meals, when she ate at all, consisted of nothing but a few oysters, asparagus in season, a grape or two, and champagne. As a result of eating like a bird, she weighed about as much as a bird, and, unless the photographs in this book are altogether untrue, she also looked a good deal like a bird. She had been born with large eyes and emaciation had further enlarged them; she went a step beyond these two natural stages and heavily shadowed them with kohl. Her hair was thin and she took to wearing extraordinary hats. She looked, and chose to look, like a witch. The photograph on the jacket of Titania, taken by Peter Beard, would be that of a deathmask except for the huge open eyes; the deeply rutted skin seems to have no flesh beneath it but rather to lie directly on the bones.
Such whims (the hats, the kohl), such personal theatricals are to be applauded unless they become too important, unless the personage takes over the personality. The readers who admire Isak Dinesen should avoid Miss Migel’s book; they will do better to remember her as a lioness than to learn about her as a monkey queen.
Tommyrot April 25, 1968