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.1 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—and hers forever. She believed they were in telepathic communication, and when she cursed him and he subsequently had an accident she assumed she had exercised witchcraft. She did everything she could to separate him from his wife, even after the wife had made a suicide attempt. Scenes of obsessive jealousy alternated with tenderness, and in the end Thorkild Bjørnvig made a violent break with her.
In his account he described her as proud of what she considered to be a special pact with the Devil. After she became permanently infected with syphilis by her husband, she said,
there was no help to be had from God—and you must understand how terrible it is for a young woman not to be allowed to make love—then I promised my soul to the Devil, and in return he promised me that everything I was going to experience hereafter would be turned into tales. And you can see: he has kept his promise.
Allowing for a vivid sense of drama, we must nevertheless accept that she felt there to be a special truth in this—the evidence is in the pattern that runs through her tales. And as early as 1926, when she was still “Tanne” (her Danish nickname), the harassed, self-doubting mistress of a bankrupt African farm, she was writing to her brother: “I’m convinced that Lucifer is an angel who should have wings over me. And the only solution for Lucifer was probably rebellion and his fall to his own kingdom.”
In that letter she was ruminating, in particular, a break with the smug, decent values of her provincial Unitarian family in Denmark, values which she entirely repudiates in the cold, patrician fantasies she chose to write. Throughout them runs a theme of common humanity surrendered in exchange for something else—pride? power? above all for the ability to turn life, with its muddle and pain, into art—exquisite where life is confused, heartless where life is passionate. A cardinal, in one of the Last Tales, is persuaded to tell his life story to a beautiful penitent; with her life in fragments she had come to him for confession, and “in the course of our talks together all these fragments have been united into a whole…. You have shown me myself”; who, then, she asks, is he? He replies with an elaborate story. He is one of the twin sons of a princess, fathered literally by the oafish prince, spiritually by a castrato singer the princess loved. The prince had intended to call the child Anastasio, the princess to call him Dionysio; when twin boys are born the roles are divided, and Anastasio is promised to the Church, Dionysio to the arts. But one of the identical boys dies in a fire, and it is uncertain which is the survivor: to the prince he is Anastasio, to his mother Dionysio. He reaches adulthood and is ordained to the priesthood—“left to promenade the high places of this world, in one single magnificently harmonious form, two incompatible personalities.”
But to the chosen office-holder of the Lord, certain spiritual benefits are withheld:
“I am speaking,” he said, “of the benefit of remorse. To the man of whom we speak it is forbidden. The tears of repentance, in which the souls of nations are blissfully cleansed, are not for him. Quod fecit, fecit!”
She understands, says the penitent; yet she feels she has lost her adviser and friend for someone of whom she is even a little afraid. Art is remorseless: “what you call the divine art to me seems a hard and cruel game, which maltreats and mocks its human beings.” But, replies the Cardinal, the telling of the story can do for human beings what nothing else can do: “the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: ‘Who am I?’ “—as his story has done for him, as her Confession has done for her. Now it is clear, she says; he is, indeed, a loyal servant of a great master. But she has one last question to put to him:
“Are you sure,” she asked, “that it is God whom you serve?”
The Cardinal looked up, met her eyes and smiled very gently.
“That,” he said, “that, Madame, is a risk which the artists and the priests of this world have to run.”
It is something of a relief, after contemplating the diabolic element in Dinesen’s fiction and life, to be reminded of her younger self—Karen Blixen—in Errol Trzebinski’s life of her adored friend, Denys Finch Hatton, who died the same year that her farm went bankrupt. Silence Will Speak is all gush and missing punctuation, but it is interesting for the light it throws on Blixen’s most important relationship and on the life of the East African settler which she lived for seventeen years. Finch Hatton was beyond doubt her great love (she would in any case have divorced Baron Bror Blixen, who gave her syphilis, and whose character would seem to be epitomized in an anecdote related by Mrs. Trzebinski: “That’s mine for the night,” he announced after a glance at a rich American girl, and proclaimed his success the next day). In her later life as Dinesen she is said to have made an unfailing habit of looking out, every night, in the direction of Africa and Finch Hatton’s grave; but for some reason—Mrs. Trzebinski suggests her possessiveness, Robert Langbaum in Isak Dinesen’s Art her syphilis—he did not marry her, though he used her house as home when he was not out on safari.
Mrs. Trzebinski, who lives in Kenya, has researched diligently, but her prose brings bathos into the Blixen/Dinesen life story by making the great white hunter sound like a cross between Lord Peter Wimsey and Bulldog Drummond: laughing hazel eyes, exquisite voice, and a legend to all who knew him. As with many another good-looking, upper-class Englishman, Denys Finch Hatton’s finest hour seems to have been at his public school; Julian Huxley, no less, has recalled him as the handsomest boy at Eton, “standing on top of College Wall in a red silk dressing-gown. An unforgettable Antinous.” When he was presented with diamond cufflinks and a set of ruby shirt studs by an adorer, “his immediate impulse was to hurl them into the grate” (but he relented and gave them to his sister “as a keepsake,” wise boy). He was inclined to drive girls down to Eton to contemplate its beauty in the moonlight.
What emerges from the haze is the portrait of a gifted eccentric with an outsize younger-son complex (his poor brother Toby, heir to the Winchilsea Earldom, had only half the glamour); perhaps a melancholic like Blixen’s father, who shot himself when she was ten; a man of courage and culture, but restless and self-defeating, a little heartless, a voluntary but uneasy exile from the home he could not inherit. The life of the pioneers in British East Africa, though always close to the primitive, was in some ways like the aristocratic setting of a Dinesen tale: wine in the crystal glasses from home, Stravinsky on the gramophone, good food, talk, and books—and perhaps the roar of a lioness in the dark outside. (There were drugs too, which Mrs. Trzebinski suggests may have influenced Dinesen’s prose style; but could she also have obtained them in Denmark?) But when the coffee crop failed and this carefully composed world fell apart, the noble Finch Hatton seems to have had little support to offer, apart from quoting poetry: “You must turn your mournful ditty / To a merry measure, / I will never come for pity, / I will come for pleasure.” In effect, Mrs. Trzebinski suggests, they had parted even before his Gypsy Moth crashed.
Later Dinesen was to fantasize that he might have committed suicide, as her father had done; as she was also to speculate that her father’s suicide could have been caused by the shame of having the same disease that she herself had. It is impossible to know, in a life that so successfully made itself myth (she even, Dinesen-like, married Bror Blixen because she was in love with his twin brother), whether there was any truth in her speculations. Mrs. Trzebinski’s book, like the memoir published by Thomas Dinesen in 1975 about his sister,2 at any rate wholesomely reminds us of the nonmythical aspect of her life, when she was still a vulnerable and insecure woman unsuccessfully trying to run her farm and find an identity; at forty she was writing, rather touchingly, to her brother:
Oh, do you think, Tommy, do you think that I can still “become something” or have I neglected my chances in life while there was still time, so that I have nothing left but to fade away and go to seed, to be patient and hope that others will have patience with me for being a complete failure?
The softer side of her character, indeed, coexisted even with the harshness and vanity that grew on her with age: she was always devoted to animals and children, she tried hard to raise money for a hospital in East Africa, and she worked unselfishly during the Second World War in an escape network for Jews.
Even so, the remarkable transformations from “Tanne,” to Tania (Finch Hatton’s choice), to Isak are recorded in her photographs, which show uncommonly little likeness between the conventional prettiness of the young woman, the confident handsomeness of middle age, and the images of the old lady, hooded, painted and powdered, eyes black with kohl, fragile as an insect—but powerful. “Women,” says a character in “The Monkey,” “when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the whole world.”
In Carnival and in The Angelic Avengers, now reissued, we have the sweepings of Dinesen’s work: the former made up chiefly of stories she discarded as not good enough for publication, the latter an “entertainment” written under a pseudonym during her time in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Professor Langbaum, whose book admirably explains and assesses each of her works in turn, dismisses The Angelic Avengers as of no literary value and points out that Dinesen was annoyed when it was chosen as Book of the Month in America, for she considered it a frivol, an illegitimate child, and quoted in correspondence the remark of one of the characters which appears as epigraph to the book:
“You serious people must not be too hard on human beings for what they choose to amuse themselves with when they are shut up as in a prison, and are not even allowed to say that they are prisoners. If I do not soon get a little bit of fun, I shall die.”
Nevertheless for those who find the ruthlessness of her more serious work oppressive, The Angelic Avengers is a delightful romp, a Daphne du Maurier novel rewritten by Hans Andersen. The sultry presence of evil is there, as usual; embodied in Mr. Pennhallow, who preaches a sermon on the loathsome contagion of the fallen woman, and sells fresh young girls into white slavery. There is a touch of voodoo, a pact with Beelzebub, and some cannibalism; it is a romp nevertheless, for virtue triumphs, the charity of a virgin exorcises evil, and—as a character says—
“A fairy tale…ought to end up with a happy marriage.”
“Perhaps it ought to,” said Zosine, “but there are so many difficulties and obstacles between the two—as always in fairy tales—that I do not know what to think about it. And I have not quite finished my tale yet.”
But a marriage there is, and love and redemption triumph. The book deserves wonderful period illustrations and the status of a children’s classic, cannibalism and all. More seriously, the fact that it moves with pace and feeling, unlike some of Dinesen’s more ambitious work, might be because she found herself happy with a fable about the redemption of the corrupt, i.e., the syphilitic. The effect of her illness on her view of the writer as a dedicated being, yet cut off from common humanity, surely cannot be overestimated.
Carnival is chiefly for the Dinesen devotee, since most of the stories in it were rejected by the fastidious author. The usual ingredients are there, but often without the imaginative fusion of her best stories. The first two, however, written in Danish before she married, are interesting in showing that her early attempts at writing were fully in the vein of her later work: both are lightweight, ironic fables with the barest touch of cruelty. The title story “Carnival,” written in Africa, is important too because in it she is clearly describing her relationship with Denys Finch Hatton and her transition to independence. “All my existence becomes nothing but being in love,” says Mimi;
all my thoughts turn around one single person, there is no sense in it, it is not living…. I have lost everything in life—friendship, hats, ambition—that is quite sad in itself, but it is not what makes me unhappy. No, it is this, that if Julius knew how I feel about it he would dislike it so much…. He wants me to run parallel with him in life. God, Polly, how sorry one ought to feel for all parallel lines which want to intersect as badly as I do.
Do you remember the nuns, and our maiden aunts? she says.
They lived in God, and threw themselves upon the Lord, and rested in him, and all that. Now say that that was the thing which God disliked most of all, and that in the end he would say to them: “For the love of God” (or whatever words he uses to that effect) “do think of something to do for yourselves, find some interest of your own in life. I really should not have created you if I had known that you could do nothing but fall back upon me again.”
The wittiest and most characteristic of the stories in Carnival is the short fragment which ends it, “Second Meeting.” Aboard ship for his last expedition to Greece, Lord Byron has a visitor announced, one who looks remarkably like himself. Fourteen years ago, the visitor, Pipistrello, explains, he saved his Lordship’s life by dressing up in his borrowed clothes and presenting himself in Byron’s place to three brothers planning to kill him for seducing their sister. The matter was easily settled by the small ransom of a sovereign, which the avengers good-humoredly handed over to Byron’s double. With it he bought a marionette theater; everything that has happened to him since, he has turned into a story. And again—
Certainly it is a great happiness to be able to turn the things which happen to you into stories. It is perhaps the one perfect happiness that a human being will find in life. But it is at the same time, inexplicably to the uninitiated, a loss, a curse even.
What, he now asks, has Lord Byron done with his gift of fourteen years? For he has come to finish the story. (Here, in a typical parenthesis, he tells the story of another second meeting: the Virgin Mary, at Pentecost, with a blush on her face, calling out “Oh, is it you, sir? After these thirty-four years, is it you?”) Why, he wants to know, have these fourteen years been a series of self-inflicted defeats? There will have to be one great and deadly defeat, says the double, to round off the story. But there will be compensations. You are going to tell me that in a hundred years my books will still be read, says Byron: “I have had it said to me before.”
“But wrongly said, Milord, wrongly said,” said Pipistrello. “In a hundred years your works will be read much less than today. They will collect dust on the shelves.”
“I do not much mind,” said Lord Byron.
“But one book,” said Pipistrello, “will be rewritten and reread, and will each year in a new edition be set upon the shelf.”
“Which book is that?” Lord Byron asked.
“The Life of Lord Byron,” said Pipistrello.
Will Blixen/Dinesen also come to be known more for her life than for her works? Of the books, Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, the one with its extreme artifice and the other with its directness, will probably last the longest. But the pattern of her life is at least as remarkable a creation: we look back to the strangeness of the story of the white cock, the chameleon, and the laughter of the gods; to the time when Blixen was leaving everything that mattered to her behind in Africa, learning to fall back on nothing and no one, and to become Dinesen; to the book that followed, in which, as Langbaum says, “we read about people who have passed through a catastrophe to a tragicomic realm of indifference, where all things are alike.” He quotes a passage from “The Dreamers” in that first book:
If, in planting a coffee tree, you bend the taproot, that tree will start, after a little time, to put out a multitude of small delicate roots near the surface. That tree will never thrive, nor bear fruit, but it will flower more richly than the others. Those fine roots are the dreams of the tree. As it puts them out, it need no longer think of its bent taproot. It keeps alive by them—a little, not very long. Or you can say that it dies by them, if you like. For really, dreaming is the well-mannered people’s way of committing suicide.
The survivor—quod fecit, fecit—is sometimes more frightening than the suicide.
May 4, 1978