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Friday, August 14, 2009

Isak Dinesen: A Great Writer's Reputation Fades in the US

In the Theater of Isak Dinesen

Joanna Scott writes:

Known in this country by her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen, the Danish writer Karen Blixen published her first collection of stories in 1934, at the age of 49. Though she'd returned to her family home in Denmark after spending seventeen years in British East Africa, Dinesen wrote her stories in English and secured her first contract with an American publisher. The book, Seven Gothic Tales, established Dinesen as a literary giant, a reputation that would be sustained throughout her life. Eudora Welty said Dinesen's fiction embodies "the last outreach of magic." Carson McCullers reported that she would reread Dinesen's memoir Out of Africa for comfort. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954, Ernest Hemingway said with uncharacteristic humility that it might have gone to "that beautiful writer Karen Blixen."

But Dinesen's claim on American readers has been waning. The majority of critical books and articles on her work were published before 1990. In 1985, three years after the publication of Judith Thurman's biography Isak Dinesen, Hollywood jumped on board, recasting the time Dinesen spent in British East Africa managing a coffee plantation with her husband as a love story starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The film, Out of Africa, might have generated a resurgence of interest in Dinesen's work, but instead it appears to have inaugurated a new period of critical indifference.

Dinesen, who died in 1962, was always an elusive target for readers, even at the height of her renown. As her fame spread, she responded by cloaking herself in an eccentric and mysterious persona. In his introduction to the Paris Review interview with Dinesen, published in 1956, Eugene Walter lists some of the legends about her: "She is really a man; he is really a woman...she is a nun; he is very hospitable and receives young writers; she is difficult to see and lives a recluse." He doesn't note the secret hidden behind the persona: Dinesen suffered for many years from ravaging syphilis, which she contracted from her husband. But if her public identity was a calculated performance, it matched the design of her tales. When Walter asked her in the interview if she objected to readers who found her tales artificial, she responded, "Of course they are artificial. They were meant to be, for such is the essence of the tale-telling art."

These days, when the merit of fiction tends to be measured by the currency of its subjects, a confessional element in the work helps establish credibility. Reviewers try to square the antics of a writer's life with the antics in the fiction. Even satirical verbal play is too often read and admired as autobiographical expression. And thanks to the democratic exposures of the web, it's easier than ever to document private experiences and divulge the most intimate secrets. Confession doesn't leave much room for imagination except to demand its allegiance to the personal, which may leave readers less inclined to find value in the extravagant lies of fiction. It's understandable, then, but no less disappointing, that the tales of Isak Dinesen--filled with children who dream too much, fat old nobles who are devoted to revenge, nuns who are good at weaving, servants who are good at cooking--would be easy to overlook.
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