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 (fortaellerske)
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, 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?'
The Cardinal looked up, met her eyes and smiled very gently.
'That,' he said, 'that, Madame, is a risk which the artists and the priests
of this world have to run!'
(from 'The Cardinal's Fist Tale')
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. In 1914 she married her cousin Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke,
and went with him to Kenya, where they directed coffee plantation. They were
divorced in 1921. Blixen ran the plantation by herself but in 1931 she returned
to Denmark, after fruitless struggles with mismanagement, drought, and the
falling price of coffee. Blixen's years in Kenya are depicted in OUT OF AFRICA
(1937) - "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 started to write her first book, Seven Gothic Tales
(1934), but it appeared three years after African memoir.
"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 in the film.
Later she returned to her African years in the autobiographical SKYGGER PÅ
GRÆSET (1960, Shadows on the Grass). Blixen's description of her servants
and Africans is understanding, but a more overtly 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 Unites States. In Denmark the critics were more reserved - her stories
were considered too exotic, and they did not fit in any literary movement.
The elaborate, deliberately unrealistic tales, mostly set in the old aristocratic
Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries, combined the themes of love and dreams
with elements of fantasy. 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, spent 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 lead into
other. The Danish edition published in 1935, Syv fantastiske fortællinger,
received mixed critics: the author was accused of elitism. Especially Blixen's
characters annoyed critics. The stories were set in the era of Romanticism
and dealt with cosmopolite Bohemians, artists, and aristocracy. After a rebellious
youth they often understand the value of traditional roles and cultural heritage.
"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)
During WW II, when Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, 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 falling Nazism. In 1942 appeared VINTER-EVENTYR
(1942, Winter's Tales). Its title derived from Shakespeare's play, but the
tales also contained references to folktales. 'The Pearl' was a variant on
the Brother Grimm's 'The Boy Who Set Out to Learn How to Shudder'. Winter's
Tales was smuggled out of the occupied country through Sweden. 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) were set in the Mediterranean
world. "I first began to tell tales to delight the world and make it
wiser..." (From Anecdotes of Destiny, 1958)
ANECDOTES OF DESTINY (1958) contained five tales.
The most famous is 'Babette's Feast', about an old cook, who has not been
able to show her true skills. Babette, a famous French chef, finally has her
opportunity at a memorial celebration. The surprise ending takes the story
in the realms of fairy tales, but is also Blixen's answer to her critics.
The story was filmed in 1987. 'An Immortal Story', in which an elderly man
tries to by himself his youth, was adapted into screen by Orson Welles (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
'Tempest' in Anecdotes of Destiny, 1958)
In the 1950s Blixen's health was deteriorating,
and writing became impossible. However, Blixen appeared as a lecturer in radio
and made one record. Her name was mentioned several times in the context of
Nobel Prize awards - Hemingway himself said that the Prize should have been
given to Dinesen, not to him. In 1959 she made 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.
Though Danish, Blixen wrote her books in English and then
translated her work into her native tongue. Her English had unusual beauty
and great technical skill. Blixen's later books usually appeared simultaneously
in both languages. She died in Rungsted on September 7, 1962. Her last great
work, ALBONDOCANI, 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)
- Note: In her late years, Blixen dressed some times as commedia dell'arte
character Pierrot - also her works with multi-voice narrations presenting
material in a complex, dancelike pattern, reflected the influence of this
theatre tradition from the 16th-century. - Blixen's story 'Tempest' from Anecdotes
of Destiny is based on William Shakespeare's play. - Muita suomennoksia: Kohtalotarinoita,
Ehrengard ja muita kertomuksia, Neljä tarinaa, Suuret tarinat. - See
also: Karen Blixen Museet
SEVEN GOTHIC TALES - Syv fantastiske fortællinger,
1934 - Seitsemän salaperäistä tarinaa
OUT OF AFRICA - Den afrikanske farm, 1937 - Eurooppalaisena Afrikassa - film
1985, dir. by Sydney Pollack, starring Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus
Maria Brandauer. "When the Gods want to punish you, they answer yout
WINTER'S TALES - Vintereventyr, 1942 - Talvisia tarinoita
GENGÆLDELSENS VEJE, 1944 (under name Pierre Andrézel) - The Angelic
Avengers - Koston tie
DAGUERROTYPIER, 1951 - Daguerrotypes
BABETTES GÆSTEBUD, 1952
KARDINALENS TREDIE HISTORIE, 1952
EN BÅLTALE, 1953
SPØ GELSESHESTERNE, 1955
LAST TALES - Sidste fortællinger, 1957 - includes chapters from unfinished
novel Albondocani - Viimeiset tarinat
ANECDOTES OF DESTINY, 1958 - film adaptations: 'Babette's Feast' dir. by Gabriel
Axel, starring Stephane Audran, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Gudmar Wivesson (1987);
'The Immortal Story', dir. by Orson Welles, starring Orson Welles, Jeanne
Moreau, Roger Coggio (1968)
SKYGGER PÅ GRÆSET, 1960 - Shadows on the Grass
SANDHEDENS HÆVN, 1960
EFTERLADTE FORTÆLINGER, 1975
CARNIVAL: ENTERTAINMENTS AND POSTHUMOUS TALES, 1977
DAGUERREOTYPES, AND OTHER ESSAYS, 1979
LETTERS FROM AFRICA, 1914-31, 1981 (2 vols.) - Breve fra Afrika