Reading Round the World: D is for Denmark

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

As with many of the tales (and there are indeed seven) in this book by Danish writer Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Baroness Karen Blixen), the initial one (“The Deluge at Norderney,”) is written by ‘the author’ but told by people who meet by chance and tell their tales in their own words. Sometimes these tales overlap. Sometimes the characters reveal themselves for who they are, and oftimes they hold back from true revelations. The deluge refers to a flood that traps four people in a hayloft as the waters rise.

One of them is a Cardinal who turns out not to be. He is revealed as an actor behind a mask – much as Blixen is the Baroness behind the mask of writer Blixen. As the Cardinal says,

“Every human being has, I believe, at times given room to the idea of creating a world himself…What an overwhelming lesson to all artists! Be not afraid of absurdity: do not shrink from the fantastic.”

Here, Blixen wrestles with the idea of, if not the very existence of God, at least the problem of his divinity. The Cardinal again,

“I am convinced…that there has been a fall, but I do not hold that it is man who has fallen. I believe that there has been a fall of the divinity. We are now serving an inferior dynasty of heaven.”

As in “The Old Chevalier”, strong and independent women who live unconventional lives, are unbeholden to men.

“The Monkey” features another independent woman, and the female head of an abbey who has sold her soul to the devil. When the Prioress arranges for the marriage of Athena, she resists. There is an ambiguous rape. I had trouble finding the gothic in these tales, but this one may fit the bill more than most (as does “The Dreamers” and “The Supper at Elsinore”, the most classically gothic of them all).

“The Roads Round Pisa” is a story of mis-identity of almost Shakespearean proportions.

The Poet” hammers home her belief that much of life – our destiny if you will – is out of our control.

Many of the tales reveal something about Karen Blxen’s own life, some to a greater extent than others.

My overall thoughts on these stories? Like Lincoln says in “The Dreamers”,

“You must take in whatever you can and leave the rest outside. It is not a bad thing in a tale that you understand only half of it.”

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