on June 27, 2007
Ah, so I finally finished this biography last night. I had fallen in love with Out of Africa and Seven Gothic Tales, and in reading her biography, I had hoped to fall in love with Isak Dinesen, the Pellegrina. Sadly, I fell out of it.
The fault is not in the biography. It's a fascinating life, and it was good to have the blanks filled in as far as her childhood, and what happened in Africa, the continent to which she spoke and which spoke back to her. The popularity of her work, the American reaction to it, I found this all good reading. But you know, eventually, she turned into quite the old megalomaniac. Thurman shows us where it all came from. (spoilers ahead) Dinesen had always believed that she was special, and was infuriated by her family's insistence on equality, fairness and calm. She felt restrained by it, stifled, dismissed. She felt that the loss of her father was uniquely hers, that it mattered less in the lives of her siblings that their father killed himself. She wanted to somehow own or claim that.
And sadly, the circumstances of her erotic life seem to have warped her terribly. She had syphilis, and had to live carefully and chastely even while madly in love (though there is a question regarding this as far as her relationship with Finch-Hatten). I can see how this would do a woman in, I really can. She spoke of syphilis as both the price and the source of her gift, a horrible bargain with the devil that made her a genius at telling tales. But the cost was high, and the damage was deep.
The warping took various ugly shapes as she aged. She tried to usurp her sisters and brothers in the eyes of their children, found her nieces and nephews disappointing in their love of their parents. She berated and belittled her most faithful secretary and companion, Clara. She asked for and received constant adoration from younger men, letting them bask in the glow of her admiration and encouragement in exchange for a strict kind of allegiance. She manipulated, bored, dominated, demanded, and through it all, she suffered the humilation of syphilis and aging. While young, she wanted to be the thinnest in the room. She died of anorexia, unable and unwilling to eat, addicted to amphetamine.
That's what I get for reading a biography. I still love her work, and in truth, that's all any writer owes the reader; the work. That aspect of this life, the story of her writing, is especially well-covered and interesting. I enjoyed Thurman's biography, and I think it's extremely well-written and full of specific, interesting information and theories. I just feel personally disappointed in who Isak Dinesen turned out to be.
on June 4, 2002
I saw "Out of Africa" in Copenhagen in 1986 when I was 21 and bought the biography in Danish, but I couldn't get into it at the time, and eventually sold it to a used book store. Then two years ago I came across it (in English) in a used book store here in Southern California, read it and adored it. It's one of the few books I have read more than once.
I love the movie as well, bought it on video about a year ago and have watched it many times. Yes, Redford is not a Dennis F.Hatton type but he's perfect. (In '86 I thought he was utterly miscast, despite being already then a huge Redford fan!)
Thurman took seven years to write this bio, and even learned Danish in the process. She truly cares about her subject and thankfully takes her time. Dinesen comes fully alive in this book, a rare accomplishment for biographers.
If you go to Copenhagen, take the train north along the coast (20 min. from the Central Station), get off at the beautiful, small, old Rungsted Station and walk down to Rungstedlund (about a mile). It was there that Karen Dinesen, later Blixen, was born and raised. She returned in 1931 from her farm in Africa, and began writing her first collection of tales, Seven Gothic Tales, published in 1934 in English and in Danish (in her own translation) a year later. She "only" wrote seven books for the next thirty years, but oh, what books. It is indeed quality, not quantity that counts with art.
In 1991 Blixen's house was opened as lovely museum with a small tasteful book store with books by and about Blixen (she is always referred to as Karen Blixen in Denmark), and a very nice and quiet small cafe. Upstairs is a wonderful exibit about her life, including seperate rooms with many books from her private collection.
The rest of the museum consists of her beautiful living rooms and study which all look as if she were still living there.
Behind the house is a parklike garden which is open 24 hours a day all year round. Here are the flower beds from where she gathered the cut flowers for her beautiful arrangements, the meadows with cows and sheep, wood benches placed along the paths, and the enormous tree under which she was buried in 1962. It is a magical garden, which she herself made sure would be preserved so that the public may enjoy as she once did.
Thurman's biography and the film "Out of Africa" generated so much interest in Blixen that it became possible to fund the museum, thus enabling us to travel back in time and walk with Karen Blixen in her garden and her house 40 years later. After you read the biography, you'll want to book your ticket to Copenhagen!
A bit of bragging: My parents live a mile from Rungstedlund, and I return to Blixens home every time I visit Denmark on my vacations. Rungsted anno 2002 is one of the most sought after addresses in the Copenhagen area, and it is easy to see why: Right on the coast, with meadows and woods still unharmed by suburban development, the scenery makes me sigh with longing just writing of it!
Note: The museum has a web site.
Plenty IS rotten in the State of Denmark, but Rungstedlund is pure bliss, and represents everything that is good and beautiful about Denmark.
on January 10, 2005
Had I not seen the movie "Out of Africa" I would never had given any thought to reading a book written by a Danish woman of her life in British East Africa in the early 1900's on a coffee plantation. The movie was enjoyable and that provoked me to read her memoir. Getting beyond the fact that Robert Redford and Meryl Streep played the main characters, I became fascinated with the wonderful story and even more so the beautiful tapestry of language presented by the author in her book. A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Nairobi, Kenya and first on my list of places to see and things to do was a visit to Karen Blixen's farmhouse. The house and a small portion of the original lands remain intact as a museum. Although the area has been built up over the last 75+ years (the area is known as Karen in honor of the Baroness) there are still a few coffee plantations in the area and of course the Ngong mountains can be seen off in the distance. With this backround in mind I set off to read ISAK DINESEN : The Life of a Storyteller. I found the biography to be very comprehensive and exhaustively researched. "Exhaustively researched" not in a negative sense in that I found it fascinating to learn of the web of personalities that floated in and out of Karin Blixen's life including Hans Christen Andersen, President Theodore Roosevelt's son Kermit, Playwrite Arthur Miller, Prince Edward, George Bernard Shaw, Marilyn Monroe, Beryl Markham, Lord Delamere.... Moreover what she read and how much she read (and learned)are testament to what one can accomplish with 'self education' (especially so when there are no televisions or radios as was the case in the early days in British East Africa). The footnotes in this biography lead the reader into intriguing digressions. For sure this is not an adventure book nor is it more of "Out of Africa". Karen Blixen led a very interesting life and accordingly it is the stuff of a very interesting biography that is well presented.
on May 12, 2002
This is maybe the only author I know of where I enjoyed her biography more than the books she wrote. Isak Dinesen, she of the many pen names matured slowly while alternating her life between a pampered bourgeois life in Denmark and a wildly iconoclastic life in British East Africa that was partly feudal and partly anarchic.Two influences punctured her life for better or worse: her bout with syphilis that made her an outsider and helped shape her interest in huminity at large rather than her own household and the debt she owed to her dead love which she bungled when he was alive because she was in awe of him but who became her driving force and her hidden mythmaker once she had to cope without him. She was also lucky enough to live in a time when not every corner of the earth echoed with the ideas of everywhere else and that allowered for her originality where not all eccentric arrows had to be pointed into practical directions.
The chapters on her afterlife back in Europe show a brave and difficult woman who loved in retrospect and was celebrant, witness and victim of nostalgia for a gone world but she was also savvy enough to know that when life breaks your heart you can become a monster or a relic or all human potentialities wrapped in a finely tuned tenderness that makes sharing your experience an act of love and a gift to generations to come who struggle with their own version of alienation and heartbreak. Dinesen's Africa is no more but her roller coaster ride as a woman of talent and sometimes complex and dark passions is timeless.
on June 26, 2006
First captivated, despite the miscasting of Robert Redford, by the film "Out of Africa", I read on to find out who this woman was. I discovered she died the same year I was born, and lived through those marvellous decades that include WW1, the roaring 20's, the Depression, the boiling 60's and through to the 70's. What changes in the world she saw, and what stories she had to tell. I thought there was nothing left for me to learn about her; I've read her books & her letters, have visited her home in Rungstedlund, Denmark, watched documentaries about her, seen the films ("Babette's Feast", in addition to "Out of Africa", are based on her books). However, this biography is a revelation on every page. Minutely researched (obviously), Ms Thurman leads us through the details that explain why she did what she did, where she obtained her passion, and her compassion, and how she went from a sheltered Danish aristocratic life, to colonial Africa, and then to becoming a world-renowned author. Excellent read for all who love stories of the grand figures of the 20th century.
This is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written biography of the life of a great storyteller. Thurman in telling the story of Dinesen's life, also presents a miniature guide to her work. She does an excellent job of portraying the character of Dinesen, the complex aristocratic independent mind, the romantic nature, the connection with a fairytale world of storytelling, the great courage and determination in making herself into a story when all appeared lost in her life. Thurman tells of Dinesen's childhood , her special connection with her father , the division between two families one wealthy mercantile, and the other more wild and adventurous. Thurman tells the story of Dinesen's long African adventure, the story of her marriage and its sad ending in divorce, and too the story of Dinesen's great love , Denys Finch- Hatton. The story of that love that plays a central part in what is arguably Dinesen's most memorable book , " Out of Africa" is a story of the man as hunter, adventurer, coming home to be feasted and entertained by his lover- storyteller Dinesen. This story which too ends with Finch- Hatton's death in a plane crash is at the heart of the first part of Dinesen's life. The second part after the African adventure is when she returns home and begins to make that writing life which would make her world- famous. The second -half of the story sees Dinesen more and more playing the part she has created for herself , as storyteller and personnage. It too however has its great human interest, especially in her relation to her mother ,her brother and her extended family. There is of course a vast world of detail I cannot begin to mention in this review. But Thurman tells the story with taste and a beauty as befits a true reader and lover of the work of Dinesen.
I believe it really does justice to the spirit of Isak Dinesen's life and work.
on July 17, 2001
I've never read "Out of Africa", but I did see the movie. I've heard plenty, however, about Isak Dinesen, whose real name was the Baronnesse Karen von Blixen. What a fascinating life this woman led. The people she, her husband, Bror and lover Dennis Finch-Hatton knew, met, and took on safari is full of names that even little-read people will recognize. Her upbringing, life and adventures in Denmark, Sweden and Africa are written here with a great deal of distance, yet they are made interesting to the reader. If you enjoy biographies, this one is very good - it doesn't read like an adventure novel, but allowed the reader to enjoy the idiosyncracies of its subject!
on January 10, 2001
Dinesen is a complex figure with more layers than fine pastry, more names than a prize thoroughbred and more moods than a sunset lighting up the Ngong hills. In her biography, Judith Thurman peels away the layers and builds a meticulous portrait laying it down coat by coat, thing glaze over glaze like a master. At times as complex as it is masterful, the writing sometimes over stimulates with its literary allusions, footnotes and citations; it does not, however waiver from telling Dinesen's essential story.
Being naive to Dinesen's extraordinary life, and unfamiliar with her own work and many of her literary influences, I found this book so compelling that I now feel driven to discover, for myself, the magic that the author reveals in Dinesen's life.
Isak Dinesen seems almost to have been born on a stage. She was always theatrical and her father's suicide was theatrical in a way that Dinesen at a very young age appreciated. She learned from an aunt that her father had killed himself because he loved another woman, not his wife. Killing oneself for love was right down the girl Tania's* alley. She had adored her father but his death became the ultimate gesture. Tania had the odd habit as a girl of opening her large brown eyes wide, a trick that she would repeat her whole life and she would later paint kohl around her eyes and put belladonna drops in them so that her pupils were huge and cavernous. Throughout her life she always seems self-absorbed but acting a part which she tailored to the person or condition. The great and final gesture of her father seems to repeat itself in the daughter who starved herself into the grave. As this splendid story of her life unwinds, she appears brittle as though any emotional drama would shatter her but although often teetering on the edge she pulls herself up again and again.
Other reviewers have said that they became disenchanted with the megalomaniac Isak Dinesen who had a cruel streak. She did indeed, but her unattractive traits in no way diminish the quality of her work. Underneath the brittleness, underneath the cruelty was a poet's soul. "Out of Africa" reverberates with the strings of a harp.
An enormous factor in Tania's life was the syphilis she caught in Africa from her husband Baron Bror Blixen. She became extremely ill and had to return to Denmark to be treated. But she said that catching syphilis was worth being married to a Baron and thus receiving the title Baroness Blixen. She wore her affliction sort of like a dueling scar. Because of the title she was able to blend socially with the upper crust population of Nairobi. Without it they would have ignored her. She and Bror divorced, his massive infidelities sinking the marriage. Bror married again, so awkwardly there were then two Baroness Blixens. But Tania had met Denys Finch Hatton and she didn't care.
Denys, the younger son of an English earl was a cultured, charming man of thirty two when Tania first met him. Like so many women, she was bowled over by Deny's charm. Denys had always been a bit worshipped, even at Eton where he had cut a wide swath on the sheer force of his personality. He probably got so used to the universal adulation he received that he may have even expected it. He was selfish but nobody held that against him. His photographs don't do him justice; although prematurely bald he was considered very handsome. What one could not do was tie Denys down. When Tania became too possessive he backed off. He didn't want marriage or a child and was very ungracious with her when she told him she thought was pregnant. He was in England when she sent him a wire about the baby she called "Daniel." He cruelly wired back "Strongly suggest you cancel Daniel's visit." He seemed to have it all, yet were it not for his relationship with Tania and later with the notorious Beryl Markham he would be forgotten today, not having achieved anything noteworthy in his short life to document. I don't like him.
Although a snob, Tania felt en rapport with the native population and her servants. They became in a way her sounding board. Farah, her major domo, was a Somali and he served her in several vital capacities until Tania was obliged to sell her farm and return to Denmark. Tania's brother, Thomas Dinesen, stayed at the farm for two years before he was married and he found Tania, who had a fierce temper, a hard person to live with but she also sank into mires of depression. She often did not tell the truth or wove into a situation her own off-beat slant of things. For instance, she was a poor horsewoman and when she could not control her horse long enough to mount it she called on her servants to help. When they couldn't control the horse either, Tania vowed she's never ride again and accused the servants of not loving her. If the housework was done poorly, her minions hated her. A fellow colonialist said people were afraid of Tania, she was so fierce and absolutely determined to get her own way, which she usually did. That observer said he was afraid Tania would shoot someone. Denys called her Titania.
It was inevitable that Tania would lose her African farm because the altitude was too high for growing coffee, and frequent droughts baked what crop there was to a crisp. While she was packing, Denys and Tania apparently had a huge row and Denys moved on- right into the arms of Beryl Markham. But fate intervened- Denys' plane, a Gypsy Moth named "Nzige" or Locust in Swahili crashed and Denys died at age 44.
The blows of losing Denys, her farm, her beloved servants, the Africans for whom she felt an almost mystical bond, might have felled a lesser person. But Tania was a survivor. She now resembled the emaciated woman which she would be the rest of her life. Syphilis of the spine caused her a great deal of physical agony but she wrote and produced her masterpieces. She had been branded with the disease but her sufferings were like a badge of honor. She was a very complex lady to fathom but this biography is superb and if anybody can explain Tania, Judith Thurman can. Tania may have appeared to have acted in a cavalier manner towards her secretary, Clara, who was very educated as well as being enormously patient. Clara acted like a sounding board, but underneath Clara knew there was at least some affection for her in Tania's strange personality makeup. Even though she had been "exiled" twice, Clara came back as Tania was her "calling."
A difficult part of Tania's life for a reader to understand was her platonic love affair in Denmark when Tania was 64 and the poet Thorkild Bjornvig was 32. Tania had a figurative hold on Bjornvig's jugular and she almost strangled him. Although Thornkild was married with a child, Tania insisted on the young man's spending most of his time with her, living in her house. The affair was exceedingly grotesque but for four years Bjornvig could not escape. They had formed a pact in which he would become a great poet through her. She alternately coddled him and vilified him, trying to possess him like she had tried to possess Denys. Finally the pact was broken and Bjornvig was free. Of course the whole sorry mess had a profound effect on Bjornvig's poor wife who felt inferior and when Bjornvig took a mistress Tania endeavored to shatter her life as well.
Tania's photographs often show her smiling a crooked smile that is almost a smirk. As though God had played a trick on us for creating us at all. But her writings are sublime. Author Thurman describes "Out of Africa:"... "the serene perfection of the style, the sparseness of details, the attendance of the gods all signal that we have escaped from the gravity of practical questions and have gotten up into a purer element..."
*I use the name Tania throughout the review. This was Denys' pet name for her but
her family called her Tanne, Africans called her Mrs. Karen and she was also addressed as Baroness Blixen.
on February 15, 2011
I was really looking forward to reading the book about Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen. Reading this book I was not dissapointed, not at all, but, still, something was missing there.
I greatly admire the author's scholarly work. She has to go through pile of letter, diaries, and other materials. When you read the book, you can almost follow Karen and people around her step by step in their everyday lives. But here is the point. Their personalities, motives, their good and bad personal traits are somehow hidden under the large building made of those archivalia. I have read some articles about Blixen and her circle, and she was, or she seemed to be, a very complex and complicated person, not to say annoying. I only wonder why so little about her personality appeared in the book. Is it because she is so famous, a celebrity, an icon, and it means that nobody can say "the king is naked?" I think that writing about noted people's real characters makes them really great and human at the same time.
However, this book is worth of reading, and it is pleasure to read it. But when I compare it with other biographies, I would prefer those which provide you a more wholesome picture of the depicted person.