Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen

by Parmenia Migel
Random House, 325 pp., $8.95

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.”

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