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|Karen Blixen (1885-1962) - in full Karen Christence Dinesen, Baroness Blixen-Finecke - wrote as Isak Dinesen, Pierre Andrézel, other pseudonyms Tania Blixen, Osceola, etc.|
Danish writer, who mixed in her work supernatural elements, aestheticism, and erotic undertones with an aristocratic view of life. Blixen always emphasized that she was a storyteller (fortællerske) in the traditional, oral sense of the word. She drew her inspiration from the Bible, the Arabian Nights, the works of Homer, the Icelandic sagas, Boccaccio, Don Quixote, and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, her great countryman. Blixen's stories have inspired such film makers as Orson Welles and Sydney Pollack. She wrote in English and in Danish.
'Are you sure,' she asked, 'that it is God whom you serve?'
Baroness Karen Blixen was born in Rungsted, Denmark, into a well-to-do patrician family. She was the daughter of Ingeborg Westenholz Dinesen, and the writer and army officer Wilhelm Dinesen, whose adventuresome spirit and storytelling talents influenced deeply Blixen's imagination. She spent her childhood on the family estate in Rungsted. Throughout her life Blixen's outlook and manner were unabashedly aristocratic.
At early age, Blixen showed an artistic inclination. She attended the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen, and also studied in England, Switzerland, Italy, and France. In 1907 Blixen made her debut as a writer with several short stories. Many of her early writings appeared under the pseudonym Osceola. In 1914 Blixen married her cousin Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, and went with him to Kenya, where they run coffee plantation. Bror was supposedly the model for Hemingway's great white hunter, Robert Wilson, in 'The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.' Blixen suffered in Africa from syphilis, which she had contacted from her husband. "There are two things you can do in such a situation: shoot the man, or accept it," she said many years later to her secretary. After divorce in 1921, Blixen struggled with mismanagement, drought, and the falling price of coffee by herself but in 1931 she returned to Denmark.
While in a hospital in Denmark, she wrote the poem 'Ex Africa' (1915), which was published ten years later under the name Osceola in the magazine Tilskuere. In this evocation of a lost paradise, she addressed the moon behind the hills of Kijabe, "over Suswa and Ngong, in my free land, in my wide land, my heart's land." Her years in Kenya Blixen depicted in Out of Africa (1937), which started with the famous words, "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." This opening also sets the tone of the autobiobragphy – nostalgic, calm, and stoic. The book ends with a view to the same hills: "The outline of the mountain was slowly smoothed and levelled out by the hand of distance." On the coffee-farm Blixen began to work on her first book, Seven Gothic Tales (1934).
"White people, who for a long time live alone with Natives, get into the habit of saying what they mean, because they have no reason or opportunity for dissimulation, and when they meet again their conversation keeps the Native tone." (from Out of Africa)
Out of Africa was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1985, directed by Sydney Pollack. Blixen's work is often considered a masterpiece, but it did not reveal intimate details her unhappy marriage and her affair with the English game pilot Denys Finch-Hatton, as the film did. Blixen's English friends called her Tania in Africa; Denys was called Bêdar, meaning "The Balding One". Blixen returned to her African years in the autobiographical Skygger på Græsset (1960, Shadows on the Grass). Although the description of her servants and Africans is more or less politically correct, an patrician outlook towards them is revealed in her posthumous Letters from Africa (1981).
Blixen's first major work, the short story collection Seven Gothic Tales, was proclaimed a masterpiece by critics in England and in the United States. In Denmark the critics were more reserved – her stories were considered too exotic, and she was accused of elitism. Moreover, Blixen did not fit in any literary movement. Mostly set in the old aristocratic Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries, the elaborate, deliberately unrealistic tales, combined the themes of love and dreams with elements of fantasy. Often the characters understand the value of traditional roles and cultural heritage after a rebellious youth.
The opening tale, 'The Deluge at Norderney', is an account of a night passed in a hayloft by four strangers, who tell the story of his or her life, while waiting for rescue. In 'The Old Chevalier' a Danish nobleman and a French prostitute, Natalie, spend a night together. Years later the nobleman sees a human skull, which features are similar to those of the girl. As in several other Blixen's works, one story leads to another.
"What is man, when you come to think upon him, but a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning, with infinite artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine?" (from 'The Dreamers' in Seven Gothic Tales, 1934)
After the outbreak of WW II, Blixen traveled in the Third Reich, where she was informed that Hitler would be pleased to accept autographed copies of her books. Finding the thought distasteful, she caught a cold and avoided meeting with the Führer. When Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, Blixen opened her family estate at Rungstedlund as a 'runaway station' to escaping Jews. One of her friends, the literary critic and writer Johannes Rosendahl, who became active in the Resistance, credited Blixen with having inspired him to act. During this period Blixen started to write her only full-length novel, the introspective Gengældelsens veje (The Angelic Avengers), which was published in 1944 under the pseudonym Pierre Andrézel. The horrors experienced by the young heroines in the novel were interpreted as an allegory of the Nazi rule. Clara Svendsen, the purported translator of the book, had served first as Blixen's maid and cook. Later she became her secretary and companion, and finally her literary executor.
Winter's Tales (1942) was smuggled out of the occupied country through Sweden. Its title was derived from Shakespeare's play, but the tales also contained references to folktales. 'The Pearl' was a variant on the Grimms Brothers' tale 'The Boy Who Set Out to Learn How to Shudder'. In the United States a pocketbook edition was printed for soldiers fighting in different parts of the world. The setting of the stories were prediminantly Nordic, but not exactly the present time. Last Tales (1957) was set in the Mediterranean world.
Anecdotes of Destiny (1958) contained five tales: 'The Diver,' 'Babette's Feast,' 'Tempests,' 'The Immortal Story,' and 'The Ring.' 'Tempests' was based on William Shakespeare's play. 'Babette's Feast', the most famous, is about a French cook, Babette, who has not been able to show her true skills, but finally she has her opportunity at a memorial celebration. The surprise ending takes the story in the realms of fairy tales, but the work can be also read as Blixen's answer to her critics. 'An Immortal Story', in which an elderly man tries to buy himself his youth, was adapted into screen by Orson Welles. Blixen was Welles's favorite author, next to Robert Graves. Originally made for French television, the film was put on limited cinema release in 1968.
"That when soon I sail from here, I may again run into such a storm as the one in Kvasefjord. But this time I shall clearly understand that it is not a play in the theatre, but it is death. and it seems to that then, in the last moment before we go down, I can in in all truth be yours..." (from 'Tempests' in Anecdotes of Destiny, 1958)
In the 1950s Blixen's health was deteriorating, and writing became impossible. However, Blixen started a new career as a radio lecturer and made one record. Her name was mentioned several times in the context of Nobel Prize awards and she was nominated six times for the prize – Hemingway himself said that the prize should have been given to Dinesen, not to him. In 1961, when Ivo Andric was granted the honor, Graham Greene was a runner-up with Blixen, who came third. Blixen made in 1959 a lecture tour in the United States which gained a huge success. Such American writers as Truman Capote and Carson McCullers acknowledged their admiration of her work. She could hardly stand without support, but dressed in all black and with large dark eyes and her chalk-white face she made an impact on the audience.
Though Danish, Blixen wrote her books in English and then translated her work into her native tongue. During WW I she had written many of her letters from Africa to her family in Denmark in English, just to help the work of British censors. Blixen's later books usually appeared simultaneously in both languages. Karen Blixen died in Rungsted on September 7, 1962. Her last great work, Albodocani, was not finished, but parts of its appeared in Last Tales.
For further reading: The World of Isak Dinesen by E.O. Johannesson (1961); The Gaiety of Vision by R. Langbaum (1964); Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen by P. Migel (1968); The Life and Destiny of Karen Blixen by C. Svendsen and F. Lasson (1970); Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality by D. Hannah (1971); Isak Dinesen's Aesthetics by T.R. Whissen (1973); My Sister, Isak Dinesen by T. Dinesen (1975); Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller by J. Thurman (1982); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); The Power of Aries: Myth and Reality in Karen Blixen's Life by A. Westenholz (1987); The Witch Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading by S. Stambaugh (1989); Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman (1995); The Aristocratic Universe of Karen Blixen: Destiny and the Denial of Fate by Frantz Leander Hansen, Gaye Kynoch and Baye Kynoch (2003); Den främmande förförerskan - svenska synpunkter på Karen Blixen, ed. by Ivo Holmqvist (2012) - Note: In her late years, Blixen was photographed by Rie Nissen dressed as commedia dell'arte character Pierrot. Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedeon, and Carl Van Vechten made portraits of her when she visited New York in 1959. Peter Beard's photobook Looking for Darkness (1975) contained tales by Blixen's majordomo Kamante.