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Best 19th Century Stories written in the 20th Century,
This review is from: Seven Gothic Tales (Modern Library) (Hardcover)
Years ago, I wrote a review on Amazon for Karen Blixen's _Winter's Tales_, where I observed that it was the equal of this book. I have no reason to revise that estimate, but feel I should point out that this book is extremely fine, and should not be ignored by people who like good writing and aren't scared off by a bit of melodrama.
The title of this review tries to make a small point: Blixen didn't write her stories with notions of the prevailing literary fashions in mind. She wrote them as she felt them, and she used a style and technique that harken back to earlier writers. In her introduction to the book, Dorothy Canfield, attempting to characterise this style, made reference to an array of writers from E.T.A. Hoffmann to Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Mann. Although I think the reference to Mann has merit, the truth is Blixen was genuinely unique. She doesn't really have any real imitators, either, although I've seen a number of writers allude to being influenced by her.
Back to this book: it was her first volume of short stories. Not many writers hit gold on their first book, but Blixen managed it. There was no 'prentice work as prelude, just a stream of mature works of art from this book onward.
And, goodness, she could *write*. The prose is eloquent, forceful, and full of striking phrases, images, and observations. The stories are all set in the 19th Century, and many contains elements of the gothic (hence the title) and sometimes the gruesome, as well as modernist irony and psychological insight. When it comes to characters, plots, and situations, virtually everything in the book seems beyond the ordinary. Clearly, the writer wasn't afraid to take chances. The amazing thing is that she wins most of her fictional gambles.
The first story in the book is "The Deluge at Norderney," where we have a cast of characters that seem out of Hoffmann by way of Byron, put into an extreme situation, and forced to come to terms with questions of illusion and reality in life. This story is my absolute favorite; it may not be the "best." It certainly sets the tone.
Besides "The Deluge...", the stories I'd single out for special praise are "The Monkey," "The Poet," "The Supper at Elsinore," and "The Roads Round Pisa." The remaining 2 stories in the book are a pleasure to read, although I don't feel that "The Dreamers" entirely comes off; Blixen reused the heroine of this story later in ways that lead me to think she was invested with some sort of personal significance for the author; perhaps that's why it seems less well controlled. The shortest story, "The Old Chevalier," is pleasant but feels slighter both in size and content than its companions.
Blixen's other books of stories are interesting-to-fascinating. Each book has its attractions. Admirers of this book might find _Winter's Tales_ worth their time. _Anecdotes of Destiny_, which contains "Babette's Feast" and "Tempests," is a fine collection, too, and has grown on me with the years. It isn't quite at the level of achievement of _Seven Gothic Tales_ or _Winter's Tales_, but then, how many books of stories are?