Gothic Sibyl

Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and His Relationship with Karen Blixen

by Errol Trzebinski
University of Chicago Press, 348 pp., $15.00

The Angelic Avengers

by Isak Dinesen
University of Chicago Press, 304 pp., $8.95

In 1931, when she had lost her lover, husband, home, income, and health, Karen Blixen—she tells us in Out of Africa—went out to look for a sign to tell her the meaning of the losses, of all that had gone so wrong. “It seemed to me that I must have, in some way, got out of the normal course of human existence, into a maelstrom where I ought never to have been…. All this could not be, I thought, just a coincidence of circumstances, what people call a run of bad luck, but there must be some central principle within it. If I could find it, it would save me.” She went outside on her African estate. A white cock strutted on to the path; at the same moment, from the other side, a chameleon ran on to it. The chameleon, frightened, stood its ground opposite the cock and darted out its tongue in defiance. The cock bit the tongue out.

The powers to which I had cried had stood on my dignity more than I had done myself, and what other answer could they then give?… Great powers had laughed to me, with an echo from the hills to follow the laughter, they had said among the trumpets, among the cocks and Chameleons, Ha ha!” When, not long after, she rebuilt her life by publishing, at forty-nine, a book—Seven Gothic Tales—that was an instant success and established the beginning of a cult following, she chose as pseudonym the word Isak—the Hebrew word for laughter.

She went on, as we know, to publish more books before her death at seventy-seven; to become high priestess of her cult, guru to young writers, and public figure in her own country of Denmark; to be elaborately feted on her trips to the US; to turn herself, apparently by an act of will—as she had done in reestablishing her broken life—into the formidable Gothic sybil of her old age, a figure straight from one of her own tales. Her life story should be one of the most moral of fables, extolling the triumph of perseverance, courage, and hard work in the face of adversity. Such rewards, finally! Book of the Month four times over; standing ovations at public readings; parties, bouquets, photographs…. And yet we cannot help feeling that the laughter she heard in the African hills, and with which she announced herself a writer, was—to say the least—not a comfortable sound.

It is not hard to see a Luciferian quality in Dinesen’s life after she had heard the Ha ha! of the gods among the trumpets. A few years ago a Danish author published a memoir of his relationship with her when she was in her fifties and he a young writer. It is not a pretty story. She proposed that they should establish an indissoluble covenant by mixing their blood: he was to become son, disciple, and platonic lover in one …

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