In 1934, Seven Gothic Tales took America by storm, starting one of the most essential writing careers of the twentieth century
On the Danish fifty kroner banknote there’s a portrait of Isak Dinesen. It’s signed “Karen Blixen”, which is how she is known in Denmark. She’s shown at the age of sixty or so, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a fur collar, and looking very glamorous indeed.
I first saw Dinesen when I was ten, in a photo shoot in Life magazine. My experience then was similar to that of Sara Stambaugh, one of her bio-critics: “I well remember my own excitement around 1950, when, leafing through a used copy of Life magazine, I stumbled across an article on the Danish Baroness Karen Blixen, her identity not simply revealed but celebrated in big, glossy black-and-white photographs. I still remember one in particular, showing her leaning from a window, striking, turbaned, and emanciated.”
To my young eyes, this person in the pictures was like a magical creature from a fairytale: an impossibly aged woman, a thousand years old at least. Her outfits were striking and the makeup of the era had been carefully applied, but the effect was carnivalesque – like a dressed-up Mexican skeleton. Her expression, however, was bright-eyed and ironic: she seemed to be enjoying the show-stopping, if not grotesque, impression she was making.
“She seemed to be enjoying the show-stopping, if not grotesque, impression she was making”
Could Dinesen have been contemplating such a moment in Seven Gothic Tales, twenty five years earlier? In the story The Supper at Elsinore, the De Coninck siblings are described as living memento mori: ” … as you got, from the face of the brother, the key of understanding to this particular type of family beauty, you would recognise it at once in the appearance of the sisters, even in the two youthful portraits on the wall. The most striking characteristic in the three heads was the generic resemblance to the skull.”
Dinesen was already ill at the time of the 1950 pictures. Nine years later she made a final triumphant visit to New York. She was lionised; famous writers paid homage to her, including EE Cummings and Arthur Miller; her public appearances were packed; and there were more photos. Less than three years later she was dead, as she must have known she would be. Her flamboyant self-presentation takes on, in retrospect, a new meaning: in her place, other doomed sufferers might have stayed in seclusion, concealing from the camera the wreckage of a once striking beauty, but instead Dinesen chose the full public spotlight. Was she incarnating one of her own dominant literary motifs – the brave but futile gesture in the face of almost certain death? It’s tempting to think so.
New York was a fitting choice for her swan song, since it was New York that had made her famous back in 1934 when Seven Gothic Tales took America by storm. Rejected by several publishers for the usual reasons – short stories didn’t sell, the author was unknown, the stories themselves were odd and not attuned to the zeitgeist – the book was finally picked up by a smaller American publisher, Harrison Smith & Robert Haas. There were conditions: the well-known novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher must write an introduction, and the author was to receive no advance. Blixen gambled and took the offer. Then she won – for, much to the surprise of all, Seven Gothic Tales was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was a guarantee of wide publicity and large sales.
Now it was time for Blixen to make her own condition: she would publish under a nom de plume, Isak Dinesen. “Dinesen” was her maiden name, “Isak” was the Danish version of Isaac (which means “laughter”), the name picked by the elderly Sarah in the Book of Genesis for her late and unexpected child. Blixen’s American publisher tried to talk her out of using a pseudonym, but to no avail: she was determined to be multiple. (And, by the way, male, or at least genderless. Perhaps she did not wish to be thrust into the Lady Scribbler cage, suggestive of lesser merit.)
“Isak” was appropriate: Blixen’s emergence as a writer was indeed late and unexpected. She had returned to Denmark in 1931, stony broke – her marriage was finished; her African coffee farm had failed; her romantic lover, big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, had died in a plane crash. Although she had written much earlier – her first stories were published when she was barely twenty – she’d chosen marriage and Africa over writing; but that life was now finished. At forty six, she must have been feeling both desolate and desperate; but also, evidently, boiling with creative energy.
The stories in Seven Gothic Tales were written at speed and under pressure. They were also written in English: one reason usually given was that Blixen felt English would be more practical than Danish, since many more potential readers spoke it. But there were surely some deeper motives. She herself was fluent in English; so what, we might ask, could she have been reading in English during her formative years? What, that is, might have led her to write “tales” rather than “stories”? Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? Old wives’ tales? Fairy tales? The Winter’s Tale, the Shakespeare play that lent its name to a later Dinesen collection?
The distinction between the two forms was well understood in Victorian times. The French distinguish between contes – from raconter, to relate, often intertwined with the notion of yarn-spinning, as in raconter des salades – corresponding roughly to our “tales”; and nouvelles, which are stories with their feet firmly on realistic ground. In a “tale”, a woman may change into a monkey before our very eyes, as one does in the Dinesen tale, The Monkey; in a mainstream short story, she cannot.
“Tales” have tellers and listeners within them, much more frequently than realistic stories do. The most famous tale-spinner of all is Scheherazade, narrating to stave off death, and that is the very first storytelling situation Dinesen offers us. In The Deluge at Norderney, a courageous group of aristocrats who have chosen to exchange places with a small peasant family waits out the night while a flood rises around them, telling stories to encourage one another and pass the time. Perhaps a boat will arrive at dawn to rescue them; perhaps they will be swept away first. Dinesen ends her story thus:
Between the boards a strip of fresh
deep blue was showing, against
which the little lamp seemed to
make a red stain. The dawn was
The old woman slowly drew her
fingers out of the man’s hand, and
placed one upon her lips.
“À ce moment de sa narration,” she
said, “Scheherazade vit paraître le
matin, et, discrète, se tut.”
Seven Gothic Tales is filled with storytellers, and also with the kind of fractal exfoliation and multichambering structures so abundantly typical of more ancient tales, such as those in One Thousand and One Nights and Boccacio’s Decamaron. There is a “frame” – a couple of men on a boat, for instance, whiling away the time by telling about their lives, as in The Dreamers; then one of those stories leads into another, told by yet another person within it, which opens up into another, which then links back to the first, and so on. As with Scheherazade, much of this tale-telling (and indeed much of the action in the tales recounted) takes place at night.
But Seven Gothic Tales also echoed a more recent period in which writers drew on these older-time forms of tale-telling. Blixen was born in 1885, three years after Robert Louis Stevenson published his first collection, New Arabian Nights. That moment ushered in a rich period of late Victorian and Edwardian tale-telling, in both short and long forms, that stretched to the outbreak of the first world war. Not only Stevenson, but Arthur Conan Doyle, MR James, the Henry James of The Turn of the Screw and The Jolly Corner, the Oscar Wilde of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the early HG Wells of The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, Bram Stoker of Dracula, the H Rider Haggard of She, the George du Maurier of Trilby, and a host of other English-language tale-spinners engaged with ghosts and possession and the uncanny were energetically publishing in those years. (Borges, Calvino and Ray Bradbury, among others, drank from the same well.)
Stevenson was possibly the most important of these for her. She kept a collected edition of his work in her library, and alludes to him overtly in the story The Dreamers by naming one of her characters, Olalla, after one of his. That particular story plays with many other motifs from the tale-telling tradition, not all of them English: the heroine of multiple identities, as in The Tales of Hoffman; the dark enchanter, a mirror reversal of the Svengali figure in Trilby, linked with an opera singer who has lost her voice.
Two motifs from Stevenson’s early work are particularly dominant throughout Seven Gothic Tales: the courageous act or last throw of the dice in the face of impending doom, as in (to give only one instance) Stevenson’s The Pavilion on the Links; and the controlling older person manipulating the sexual destinies of the young, as in his The Sire de Maletroit’s Door. In the Stevenson stories all turns out well, but in Dinesen’s various things do not go so smoothly. In The Poet, the old arranger gets shot and bashed to death by the two young innamorati with whose fates he has been toying, and who will now face execution themselves; in The Monkey, a marriage designed to cloak homosexuality is forced, not only by rape, but by a horrifying metempsychosis; in The Roads Round Pisa, the old arranger is deceived into fighting an unnecessary duel, then dies of a heart attack from the stress. In The Deluge at Norderney, the marriage stuck together by the elderly Baroness is not only invalid – the officiating Cardinal being in fact another person entirely – but all the participants may soon perish. Dinesen affirms the Romantic through her insistence on the spiritual validity of honour, but she also subverts it. Not so fast with the happy endings, she seems to be telling us.
As with the stories in New Arabian Nights, and indeed as with modern “Romantic” conventions, many of Dinesen’s tales are placed long ago and far away; but whereas with Stevenson the choice was primarily aesthetic, for Dinesen there is another layer of significance. She was gazing back at that late Victorian and Edwardian golden age of tale-telling across a vast gulf: not only the years during which her own earlier life had ended up as wreckage, but also the first world war, which had smashed the social fabric of belief, status and social convention that had held sway in the two centuries before it.
“She was gazing back at that late Victorian and Edwardian golden age of tale-telling across a vast gulf”
Dinesen can see that vanished country as if through a telescope: she describes it in minute and loving detail, even the more unpleasant sides of it – the provincialism; the snobbery; the inturned, stifled lives – but she can’t return to it except through storytelling. It’s lost to all but words. There’s a vein of stoic, clear-eyed nostalgia running through her work, and, despite the ironic distance she often assumes, the elegiac tone is never far away.
Nevertheless, what pleasure she must have felt in the process; and what pleasure she has provided for her many readers, over time. Seven Gothic Tales is the opening act of a remarkable writing career, one that placed Dinesen on the list of essential twentieth-century authors. As James Joyce invokes Daedalus the maze-maker at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – “Old father, old artificer” – so many readers and writers might invoke Dinesen: “Old mother, old tale-spinner, stand me now and ever in good stead.”
And from those Life magazine photographs, her enigmatic, ornamented skeleton self with the living eyes gallantly returns our gaze.
Margaret Atwood is a novelist and author of The Handmaid’s Tale. She also writes for The Guardian newspaper.