on May 15, 2003
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?
on March 30, 2014
I loved "Out of Africa", which I read--on Hemingway's recommendation--long before the silly movie adaptation existed. This is quite different, except that in both that book and this book Karen Blixen proves herself a master (mistress?) of English prose-- which is all the more surprising considering that English was not her native tongue (apparently she was more than fluent in several languages).
I've decided the "Gothic" in the title means, not to put too fine a point on it, that these are essentially horror stories--but they're muted horror stories that unfold at a very leisurely pace and discursively. They're also oozing erudition and steeped in the sensibility of the early nineteenth century. Most of them involve a weave of subsumed and parallel tales, a thing which tends to try my patience as a reader--and mostly why I've docked the book a star. (The only work I know which comes close to it in this respect is Stanislaw Lem's "The Cyberiad", and I actually recommend tackling that first to test your tolerance for nested stories.)
on October 24, 2008
I sometimes try to decide which is my favourite Isak Dinesen book and always after a lengthy quandary settle on "Seven Gothic Tales". These long stories, constructed with the most unassuming virtuosity, leave behind the same feeling of mingled enchantment, wisdom and sadness as reading Shakespeare or her countryman Hans Christian Andersen.
The author was Karen Blixen, a coffee-planter in Kenya who wrote the wonderful "Out of Africa", (which has little in common with the movie.) But as Isak Dinesen, she moved through an imaginary but meticulously evoked late-18th century Europe, where the paradoxes of love and fate, innocence and disillusion, order and dream, are played out gracefully and remorselessly.
Where did she get her stories from? I feel as if I never had to read them, as if I have always known them. Artificial and stylised yet almost unbearably true, they linger like music and burn like ice.
I envy anyone who has yet to read them.
on March 20, 2005
Why isn't I. Dinesen's work more widely known and accepted in the modernist pantheon? Her reputation seems to have settled into that of oddball literary personality and vehicle for Meryl Streep, however the work itself would have eluded me, despite a decent education in high school and university (for example, I was given Hesse and Camus to read in 10th grade, why not Isak?)had I not been attracted to this title in a dusty library. The work is about as anti-Hollywood as I could possibly imagine. Perhaps the answer is, she is not really a modernist but some sort of high baroque romanticist belonging more in the 19th century world of German prose; the "layering of stories" effect, especially in "Roads to Pisa", reads like she is channeling the world of Jan Potocki, enigmatic author of "The Saragossa Manuscript," who like Casanova moved in that incredible world of the international bohemian intellectual elite that Rexroth describes so well somewhere in one of his essays; that world of post-chaises and midnight rendezvous and military officers with seemingly endless resources of money, brains, education and cunning ... in fact "Saragossa" and Casanova's "Memoirs" were the books that came to my mind as I read her...reading this stuff is like eating a chocolate eclair with a brain more powerful than yours will ever be...why aren't there writers like this anymore? Was it all only a dream?
on June 22, 2000
Such melancholy has been portrayed in these stories, so dark, yet exquisitely sweet. The characterisation is incredible, I could feel the emotions of the characters - loss, frustration, hope and fear as I read, the mood of the book enveloped me. The tales are almost timeless, set in a dark and dreary Europe, moving slowly yet they were not laborious, rather they were sensual. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to curl up by a fire, in the middle of winter, and wants to be alternately delighted and dismayed.
on December 27, 2014
SEVEN GOTHIC TALES (1934) is a collection containing six novelettes and one short story, translated into English by their Danish author Karen Blixen (1885-1962), who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen. Following their sequence in this book, the stories are THE DELUGE AT NORDERNEY, "The Old Chevalier," THE MONKEY, THE ROADS ROUND PISA, THE SUPPER AT ELSINORE, THE DREAMERS, and THE POET.
Many of these stories are set in the 19th century or earlier, and many involve people who suffer from strange bouts of depression and/or have extremely warped outlooks on the world. While five stories are "realistic" despite some considerable weirdness, two of these stories, THE MONKEY and THE SUPPER AT ELSINORE, also involve supernatural beings: shape-shifters in one and a ghost in the other. THE MONKEY, by the way, despite some violence, seems intended to be the collection's only comic story.
For many reasons, the writing style of these stories is fairly challenging: Blixen's sentences are often long, occasionally contain words or phrases or quotations in French or German or Latin or Italian or Hebrew (or Aramaic), and frequently include English words that most readers probably have never heard or seen before (e.g., "carking," "snow" [a kind of ship], "laundaulet," "lawn" [a kind of cloth], "corrodent," "balker," "tholes," "rencounter," "tristful," "epose," and "convive"). For some words, definitions cannot be found anywhere, including the great multi-volume OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (e.g., what is the shiny substance called "risk" in Blixen's story THE POET, that the Councilor pulls from his pocket?). Readers also need to be quite familiar with botany, geography, mythology, art, literature, European history, and the Bible.
Blixen's prose style is often poetic, most often decorated with dozens of similes, and the structures of her stories are usually complicated with additional stories within them ... and sometimes with smaller stories within those sub-stories as well.
Very frequently Blixen portrays people with unusual mental states in great depth and with remarkable imaginative clarity. In many scenes in her stories this is vitally important to show us readers precisely how and why various characters are misunderstanding each other. Even in the few stories that seem relatively slight, such passages provide a kind of "value added" that makes them difficult to dismiss.
Currently my own favorites in this collection are "The Old Chevalier" (a first-person story that is 98 percent the reminiscence of the title character), THE ROADS ROUND PISA (which involves a Danish man who helps an old woman injured in a coach accident), and especially THE DREAMERS (which is about 90 percent a story about love and grief told by an Englishman to two Africans as they sail to Zanzibar at night).
"The Old Chevalier" contains this amusing description of the title character: "... he had shown very little skill in managing his own affairs. Probably from a sense of failure in this respect he carefully kept from discussing practical matters with an efficient younger generation. But on theology, the opera, moral right and wrong, and other unprofitable pursuits he was a pleasant talker."
And, to me, the most wonderful passage in THE ROADS ROUND PISA was a conversation between a brilliant 17-year-old Italian girl and Augustus, a Danish count, who was on a mission of mercy for an injured old lady; he was unhappily married, and in an inn they talk about how men have failed to understand women for thousands of years (on the wall of the dining room where they talk, there is a mural of Adam and Eve in the Garden, that they glance at). Here is some of the passage, with Augustus speaking first:
"... It is so many years now since Adam and Eve"--he looked across the room to a picture of them--"were first together in the garden, that it seems a great pity that we have not learned better how to please one another."
The girl thought for a time of what he had said. "I suppose," she then said, "that even in your country you have parties, balls, and conversazione?"
"Yes," he said, "we have those."
"Then you will know," she went on slowly, "that the part of the guest is different from that of a host or hostess, and that people do not want or expect the same things in the two different capacities."
"I think you are right," said Augustus.
"Now God," she said, "when he created Adam and Eve"--she also looked at them across the room--"arranged it so that man takes, in these matters, the part of a guest, and woman that of a hostess. Therefore man takes love lightly, for the honor and dignity of his house is not involved therein. And you can also, surely, be a guest to many people to whom you would never want to be a host. Now, tell me Count, what does a guest want?"
"I believe," said Augustus when he had thought for a moment, "that if we do, as I think we ought to here, leave out the crude guest, who comes to be regaled, takes what he can get and goes away, a guest wants first of all to be diverted, to get out of his daily monotony or worry. Secondly the decent guest wants to shine, to expand himself and impress his own personality upon his surroundings. And thirdly, perhaps, he wants to find some justification for his existence altogether. But since you put it so charmingly, Signora, please tell me now: What does a hostess want?"
"The hostess," said the young lady, "wants to be thanked."
Here loud voices outside put an end to their conversation.
---------[end of quotation]-----------
My least favorite story is THE DELUGE AT NORDERNEY, because it contains a serious technical flaw in its presentation of information: the omniscient narrator not only misleads readers about a central character but, in an early passage, deliberately lies to us about that character.
In my judgment, weighing the collection's many factors, I would give it a solid "B+" grade.
A HELPING HAND BONUS: Blixen's THE DREAMERS, after a former opera singer dies, contains a very peculiar (Danish?) spelling for the Hebrew (or Aramaic) opening of the Jewish KADDISH PRAYER ("May His great name grow exalted and sanctified ..."). And in Blixen's THE ROADS ROUND PISA, the three passages of Italian verse, quoted by the 17-year-old girl and a man whose life she has just saved from a duel with an expert marksman, are from Dante's PURGATORIO: (1) PURG., Canto XXX, lines 34-39; (2) PURG., Canto XXXI, lines 85-89; (3) PURG., Canto XXXIII, lines 31-36.
on January 9, 2000
When I was a teenager, I found a copy of Seven Gothic Tales in my grandparens attic. It was a rather worn hardcover copy and was inscribed to my father, who had recently died by someone who was a stranger to me. I could not ignore the magic of the circumstance and I have been equally unable to forget the magic of the narratives. The grace and cadance of the language still is with me.
"....'Well,' he said, 'there are only two courses of thought at all seemly to a person of any intelligence. The one is: What am I to do this next moment?--or tonight, or tomorrow? And the other: What did God mean by creating the world, the sea, and the desert, the horse, the winds, woman, amber, fishes, wine? Said thinks of the one or the other.'"
When we read Dinesen, we are thrown into bothe story and "the other."
Isak Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales
on August 25, 2012
I didn't know Isak Dinesen was nominated for the Nobel Prize twice and lost out to Hemingway and Camus. This gave me a clue of how good she must be. So I went back and read her two best sellers in America Seven Gothic Tales and Dark Tales. She is an original thinker and her first story in Seven Gothic tales The Deluge at Norderney is a fabulous fable. Language is the only medium that could create this world and be all thing's, sweet, devastating and inevitable.
I loved and reread "Out of Africa" three times. I'm glad to have discovered these books, they let me inside the passages in Karen Blixen's mind. I visited her home in Johannesburg and came away disappointed, there was none of her there anymore. But when I read these books she was alive in me again.
on March 16, 2004
This is a demanding work of seven multilayered and esoteric stories in this, Dinesen's first book.
We know of Dinesen more commonly by way of Meryl Streep, who played Dinesen, or the Baroness Karen Blixen, in "Out of Africa." But the woman we find here as the author of these stories is no easily-understood, Hollywood character. Her stories within stories are rich in symbolism, imagination, and a "long ago and far away" feeling that is carefully, carefully, controlled by the author. Dinesen wrote some of these tales in Africa, and finished others along with ordering the book back home in Denmark, after her farm had failed. She wrote, interestingly, in English (and did her own translations back into Danish later on). Many books follow this one, including LAST TALES and, of course, OUT OF AFRICA. Dinesen, while the heroic, strong, individualist of Streep's portrayal, is also kind of strange, introspective, and fabulously bizarre. She uses her stories' plot lines as a means, one feels, to work out her life philosophies, reshape and recast ideas and symbolic imagery, and impart creative insights. After getting to about the fourth or fifth story, one can see that she uses the same imagery repeatedly and even the same turns of phrase.
I have read this volume at least once before, and wanted to go through it again knowing just that much more literature and biblical references. (It helps to be well read in the classics when reading Dinesen.) Anything is up for her use, and if you don't see it, something will be lost to you as you interpret the stories and what they meant, or even, what happened. She loves Shakespeare (OUT OF AFRICA was written in five sections, after the five-act structure of Shakespearian drama), and Don Giovanni, she has interesting ideas about femininity and independent women, and symbolizes these issues with women who are doll-like, women who seem as if they can fly, women who are witches in some way or another, etc. She likes to toy with the mind of God, as well, having characters pronounce his proclivities, likes and dislikes, etc., quite often. I found these to be some of the most interesting passages, after some of the gender-defining ones, that is. (She chose her pseudonym, "Isak," as it is Hebrew for "He who laughs" and she definitely plays with many ideas here, many humorously.)
Of the seven tales (The Old Chevalier, The Roads Round Pisa, The Monkey, The Supper at Elsinore, The Dreamers, The Poet, and The Deluge at Norderney), The Roads Round Pisa is my favorite, and I have studied it for a graduate class. In the book, a mistake is the central event, and we learn of it only at the end. Our main character, Count Augustus Von Schimmelmann, is writing a letter to a friend, when a carriage accident occurs in front of him. An old woman, who seemed at first to him to be a man, is injured and asks that he go and seek out her granddaughter so that she may forgive her for an estrangement before she dies, as she believes she will do shortly. Augustus sets out for Pisa and in an inn meets a young man, with whom he engages in an interesting conversation. Soon, however, he finds out that this man is a woman, and whereas before he had been asking "him" for help in finding his way into the city, now he offers her his assistance as a gentleman. Their subsequent conversation holds a particularly compelling passage I have never forgotten. In it, Dinesen explicates a concept of women's differences, physically, psychologically and societally, from men through the artful use of the host and guest metaphor.
This passage is a key to the story's mood when toward the end the mistake around which the characters swirl is revealed. But the passage is also an interesting philosophical and societal analogy that provokes thought and discussion. This is, then, quintessential Dinesen.
The other stories deal with identity and loss (The Dreamers), a ghost who is allowed to rise up from hell whenever the sound between Denmark and Sweden freezes over (Supper at Elsinore), the mirage of lost love (The Old Chevalier), poetry and power (The Poet), the societal roles of women (The Monkey), and identity (The Deluge at Norderney), but these are very brief and basic categorizations. One could safely say that all the stories deal with many of the others' main themes. The book as a whole is an excellent study of the power of fiction to suggest and manipulate, with beautiful, evocative writing and deep and stirring underlying meanings. I recommend it.
on March 17, 2000
I loved these stories by an expert storyteller. The way she wove tales inside tales, intertwined and yet clear is simply amazing. There was definitely a mystical side to these stories that left me spellbound. I cannot reccommend this book enough.