Seven Gothic Tales (Isak Dinesen)

Posted: August 26, 2014 in fiction
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Isak Dinesen is the pen name of Karen Blixen, a Danish writer of the mid-twentieth century. Those of you who have seen Babette’s Feast will recognize the characteristics that make Dinesen a little challenging for current American audiences: long exposition, tons of narration. Seriously, sometimes in this book she’ll spend thirty pages narrating exposition for twenty pages of story. That being said, like Babette’s Feast, the stories in this book are often beautiful, and worth working your way through. Just be sure to give yourself time to enjoy them for what they are instead of asking them to be something they aren’t.

These stories were first published in 1934; Blixen had published some isolated stories in periodicals, but this was her first book. She was fifteen years older than I am now, so a mature adult, but sometimes it feels like she’s still a beginning writer. She consciously copies nineteenth-century Gothic models, even the phrases in foreign languages. She writes in English, but throws in French, German, Italian, and Latin, another obstacle to the casual American reader. The Gothic tradition did eventually lead to modern horror, but these stories are hardly frightening. Maybe I’m a bit jaded after seeing films with Norman Bates and Pamela Voorhees, but there’s not much scary stuff going on. They’re not exactly mysterious, either. Four people get trapped in a hay loft during a flood; the only real element of suspense is whether they’re going to drown or not, but knowing literature of the 1930s, you know the answer to that question.

The stories use recurrent family names and settings, so it feels like they’re in a shared version of nineteenth century Europe, though everyone shares ties to Copenhagen or Elsinore. There are also recurrent figures of speech. The Monkey was my personal favorite; one of two that rely on a supernatural ending. I think I liked it because the protagonist is such an idiot, but fancies himself quite the charmer. The Dreamers has the most complex narrative structure, frame upon frame upon frame. The Roads Round Pisa feels exactly like the sensation novels of the 1860s that I love so much. The Supper at Elsinore has nothing to do with Hamlet, but it has the most poignant emotional moment. The Deluge at Norderney and The Old Chevalier were kind of forgettable. The Poet is a fit ending for the book; it’s a little Owl Creek Bridge-ish, but with Blixen’s lengthy setup.

The thing that fascinated me the most about this book, as a whole, is the attitude toward gender. Blixen acknowledges the traditional attitudes, but also points out that they are arbitrary and not inherent. She bends gender when she can – women are mistaken for men, men have feminine characteristics, and there’s a fluidity that may have shocked some people (maybe this is an element of horror that doesn’t feel horrific to me). Witness Boris with his aunt:

Boris kissed her hand for this, and reflected what an excellent arrangement it might prove to be, and then all at once he got such a terrible impression of strength and cunning that it was as if he had touched an electric eel. Women, he thought, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the whole world.

When the only way a woman could manage to support herself was through marriage, she had to play up to men, acting dependent on them whether she felt herself to be or not. But when they’re too old to marry (throughout the book it seems agreed upon that a first marriage must happen before the woman reaches thirty or it won’t happen at all) and have their portion of the family income settled on them for life, they can do precisely as they like. Some people who have been beaten back their whole lives lose the ability to act for themselves. In others, the desire for independence grows so strong that it takes over their entire personalities. When a woman has hidden her strength for decades and finally lets herself feel and show it, that can be either inspiring or terrifying, but it is certainly dramatic.

In all of this attention to genderbending, Blixen presents the first coherent case for homophobia I’ve read. Too bad it only works for women rejecting gay men. In this passage, rumors of a regiment in the army that is almost entirely homosexual reaches the ladies of a home for older single women, and they react:

Few things could have stirred their natures more deeply. It was not only the impudence of the heroes of the pulpit and the quill attacking warriors which revolted the old daughters of a fighting race, or the presentiment of trouble and much woe that worried them, but something in the matter which went much deeper than that. To all of them it had been a fundamental article of faith that woman’s loveliness and charm, which they themselves represented in their own sphere and according to their gifts, must constitute the highest inspiration and prize of life. In their own individual cases the world might have spread snares in order to capture this prize of their being at less cost than they meant it to, or there might have been a strange misunderstanding, a lack of appreciation, on the part of the world, but still the dogma held good. To hear it disputed now meant to them what it would mean to a miser to be told that gold no longer had absolute value, or to a mystic to have it asserted that the Lord was not present in the Eucharist. Had they known that it might ever be called into question, all these lives, which were now so nearly finished, might have come to look very different. To a few proud old maids, who had the strategic instincts of their breed developed to the full, these new conceptions came very hard. So might have come, to a gallant and faithful old general who through a long campaign, in loyalty to higher orders, had stood strictly upon the defensive, the information that an offensive would have been the right, and approved, move.

Their society is built on the ideal of heterosexual marriage. Their primary mission in life was to marry because in their socioeconomic class, there was no other accepted way for a woman to make her living. These women didn’t succeed, but at least they could cling to the idea that they had been desired, that they had an opportunity to marry (or at least play around) but chose not to. And then, to be told that women are not necessary to men? That men can love and fuck each other? What use are women, then? When marriage is a woman’s only proof of value, gay men call their self-worth into question. In the conservative circles the ex was moving in at the time of our breakup, this was pretty much the same. Her blog from that time is a hymn to wifely submission and gratitude for her faithful loving husband. So when I said that I wanted to have sex with men, it broke her concept not just of our relationship but of herself. She had to reshape her entire identity, but without the convenient label that I was claiming. This is a process that I cannot imagine.

It is not only women who derive their sense of worth from the opposite sex, according to Blixen. Here’s a little digression about the De Coninck sisters:

If these sisters could not live without men, it was because they had the firm conviction, which, as an instinct, runs in the blood of seafaring families, that the final word as to what you are really worth lies with the other sex. You may ask the members of your own sex for their opinion and advice as to your compass and crew, your cuisine and garden, but when it comes to the matter of what you yourself are worth, the words of even your best friends are void and good for nothing, and you must address yourself to the opposite sex. Old white skippers, who have been round the Horn and out in a hundred hurricanes, know the law. They may be highly respected on the deck or in the mess, and honored by their staunch gray contemporaries, but it is, finally, the girls who have the say as to whether they are worth keeping alive or not. The old sailor’s women are aware of this fact, and will take a good deal of trouble to impress even the young boys toward a favorable judgment. This doctrine, and this quick estimating eye is developed in sailor’s families because there the two sexes have the chance to see each other at a distance. A sailor, or a sailor’s daughter, judges a person of the other sex as quickly and surely as a hunter judges a horse; a farmer, a head of cattle; and a soldier, a rifle. In the families of clergymen and scribes, where the men sit in their houses all their days, people may judge each other extremely well individually, but no man knows what a woman is, and no woman what a man is; they cannot see the wood for the trees.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a sailor (though living in the Middle East I can go for months without seeing a woman’s face or figure), but I’ve never really been interested in Woman as a concept. I’ve been attracted to one or two individuals of that type, but the mysteries of femininity do not charm me. Someone told me recently that the ex had always had a really masculine energy; I suppose that’s why we were together for so long. But I always felt at a disadvantage; she and her friends tended to see me as insufficiently masculine because I couldn’t change the oil in my own car (I’ve learned since), or keep my attention on a televised sporting event (still can’t do it). I also burst into tears every time I see Kate Winslet walk into Johnny Depp’s imagined world at the end of Finding Neverland. I read recently that scientists have determined that ovulation gives women uncannily accurate gaydar, so maybe they were picking up on that subconsciously (or consciously, in some cases). Something about fertility and biological imperatives lets women know who’s not interested, and in our Southern culture where a ‘real man’ is one who produces and provides for a nuclear family, gay men are left outside. If Southern masculinity is a log cabin, we live in tents in the backyard. I have recurrent fantasies about things to do out in the woods, though, so maybe that’s the best place for me.

At the end of their story, the De Coninck girls are having dinner with their brother’s ghost, and the clock strikes midnight and he has to go back down to hell. Fanny throws herself at him and

“Morten!” she cried in a long wail. “Brother! Stay! Listen! Take me with you!”

Love isn’t always sexual; Blixen seems to understand pretty clearly that love and sex rarely go together. It makes sense to me that when Disney made a movie about true love that wasn’t heteronormative, they came to the same culture that produced this scene. Fanny loves her brother so much that she would rather be in hell with him than on earth without him. She’s lived with their sister her whole life, so it isn’t as if she’s alone in the world, but if she could choose . . . There is no person in my life that I haven’t had to give up. Even my children I’ve had to release to the ex’s weird conservative Christianity. My seven-year-old came back from camp this summer talking about AK-47s, and I’m deeply disturbed by this, but there’s nothing I can do about it. She’s going to raise the boys as she sees fit. At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of someone hanging onto me so tightly that he’d follow me to hell. I’d like to fall in love with someone and really make it to ‘death do us part,’ but I’m going to need a certain amount of independence. When I go, let me go.

These stories aren’t the type that I normally think of as Gothic. Only one ghost, one bit of magic, no insane asylums or inquisitions. They are appropriately distanced from the audience in time and usually in place, but the landscape is seldom the locus of terror. People are evil enough without any help from Hawthorne’s traveler in the woods. And sometimes people aren’t evil at all, but bad stuff still happens. It’s the way the world is: flawed and somewhat indifferent to the individual human, but beautiful nonetheless. Blixen describes one of her characters as being

Of a strange, slow and angular, unexpected gracefulness in all his movements,

and I think this is the best description of her book itself. It rewards your patience with it.

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