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One of the more iconic ad campaigns of my youth was Blackglama furs’ “What Becomes a Legend Most?” — each installment featuring a grande dame of the day swathed in mink. Had Isak Dinesen lived long enough — she died in 1962, six years before the series began — she would have been a natural choice: all sharp angles, hooded eyes, and hauteur. By the end of her life Dinesen had indeed become a kind of dowager empress, living on grapes and oysters, champagne and cigarettes, holding court until she literally dropped from exhaustion and then dictating to her secretary while flat on her back. In a 1957 New York Times interview, she was asked, “Do you then look on your own life as a ‘tale’?” “Yes, I suppose so,” she replied, “but in a sense only I can grasp. And, after all, the tale is not yet quite finished!” It could hardly have been easy toward the end, or even particularly enjoyable. But for someone who nurtured an unmistakable ideal of high drama from childhood, and a writer’s sense of life as a narrative arc, how else could she have lived?
Karen Christentze Dinesen, nicknamed Tanne, was born on Denmark’s coast just north of Copenhagen, in 1885. A stormy and creative child, Tanne balked at her mother’s moral restraint. Her father, on the other hand, was her idol, swashbuckling and at ease in the world. They took daily walks together and he told her tales of his time hunting and trapping in America, his cabin in Wisconsin, his kinship with the local Chippewas. These attentions confirmed what she had always believed — that she was special, destined for greatness. When he committed suicide she was left, at age ten, to make sense of her story alone — and she would keep doing so for the rest of her life.
She was always a writer and a doodler, and notebooks full of her early work — essays, dramatic tales of love and woe, and marionette plays — still survive. Her early training was as a painter, but she was a product of her mother’s bourgeois world, where art was merely a hobby, and never settled on a course of study. At 19 she wrote a series of ghostly tales titled “Likely Stories” — an obvious precursor to Seven Gothic Tales. A friend arranged for the editor of Tilskueren, a Danish literary journal, to look at them, and eventually three were published, under Osceola — the name of the dog that had accompanied Tanne and her father (himself a writer, who had published an account of his youthful adventures in America under the pen name “Boganis,” the Chippewa word for hazelnut) on their long-ago walks.
Dinesen identified with her father for most of her childhood and adolescence, scorning what she saw as her mother’s staid values and lack of sensuality. Yet she herself was a bit of a prude, and deeply old-fashioned. While her fiction enthusiastically delved into humanity’s darker side, she still felt most comfortable setting it far from her own experience, a century or more in the past. And it’s not surprising that she would marry a man like Bror Blixen, a brutish kind of fairy tale prince. Not only was he handsome, tough, and macho — he’s popularly believed to be the model for Hemingway’s great white hunter, Robert Wilson, in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” — but he was titled: the Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. They were engaged in 1913.
While in most respects they were a mismatched couple, both craved novelty and excitement. When Blixen’s uncle returned from a safari to British East Africa rapturous over the countryside — “Go to Kenya, you two,” he said — they convinced relatives to invest in a 4,500-acre coffee plantation near Nairobi, and emigrated in 1914. As it turned out, the farm’s soil and rainfall were inadequate, and the project was most likely doomed from the start. Nonetheless, Africa was an intensely fertile place for Dinesen herself. Her 14 years in the Ngong hills would forge her into the artist — and the character — she would become.
For much of that time, she didn’t write. Her responsibilities kept her busy, and she soon collected a wide circle of friends. These weren’t only her fellow white expats; she became deeply involved in the lives of the natives. Tanne — now calling herself Tania — grew to appreciate the straightforwardness of the local Kikuyus, Masai, and Somali. Notwithstanding an evident colonial attitude typical of her time and station, her affection for them was genuine and respectful. She gladly took on the role of doctor, advocate, educator, and admirer.
In Kenya Dinesen came into her own as a storyteller, a kind of self-fashioned Scheherazade, and as she learned their language she discovered that the natives were an enthusiastic audience. Nights were long on the farm, and she fell into the tradition of spinning tales for a spellbound crowd. It was also, within that first year, when she discovered that her indiscriminately unfaithful husband had given her syphilis (of which she was never fully cured, probably the cause of her chronic ailments later in life).
Her divorce wasn’t finalized until 1925, and later she would admit to a friend, “If it didn’t sound so beastly I might say that, the world being as it is, it was worth while having syphilis in order to become a Baroness.” In the meantime, between bad weather and the Baron’s mismanagement, they had managed to lose the farm. Dinesen was depressed, and the inconstancy of her lover, the handsome, mercurial Denys Finch Hatton, didn’t help. In an attempt to combat despair she began, at age 40, to write in earnest: “I was young, and by instinct of self-preservation I had to collect my energy on something, if I were not to be whirled away with the dust on the farm roads, or the smoke on the plain.” Out of this dark time emerged drafts for parts of Seven Gothic Tales, Winter’s Tales, and of course Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass.
Dinesen’s return to Denmark in 1931 effectively marked the end of her time as a fruitful subject for her own myth-making. She moved from a life of great activity and engagement to a state of suspension: once again ensconced in her childhood home, surrounded by old friends and relatives, living on money parceled out by her family. She had nothing else to do but write. So she threw herself into her work, taking the next year to polish the stories that would become Seven Gothic Tales, essentially myths and ghost stories with sophisticated underpinnings. There is a perversity to many of them that no doubt echoed Dinesen’s feelings; at 46, she was financially and sexually ruined. The book is rife with witches and crones, as if to conjure through her writing the strength she needed. She could well have been describing herself in “The Deluge at Norderney”:
In all her fantasies she was her own heroine, and she ran through the sphere of the seven deadly sins with the ecstasy of a little boy who gallops through the great races of the world upon his rocking-horse. No danger could possibly put fear into her, nor any anguish of conscience spoil her peace.
The book was turned down by European publishers, but her brother Thomas passed it on to a reader in the United States, who sent it on to publisher Robert Haas. She chose a new pseudonym for the work in order to confound any gender expectations: Isak Dinesen — Isak being Hebrew for “the one who laughs.” And laugh she did, as the book’s success ended up attracting the interest of the same British and Danish presses that had turned her down initially.
At 50, as her literary star started to ascend, her physical deterioration also accelerated. Dinesen responded by moving on to the next project. In Out of Africa, she shifted from folktale to memoir, painting a gorgeous, lyrical picture of her time in the Ngong hills. She may have polished some events to a high gloss, and skipped over others — her marriage and illness, for instance — entirely. But the book is no less stunning for it, particularly her descriptions of native life, both human and animal: giraffes “in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing”; a couple of rhinos who “looked like two very big angular stones rollicking in the long valley and enjoying life together”; elephants “pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world.” The prose swoops from loving attention to detail to the expansiveness of the land as viewed from Finch Hatton’s bright yellow biplane — “In the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space” — in a way both intimate and thrilling. Published in Europe and America in the fall of 1937, the book was enormously well received and cemented her reputation. In 1985 Sydney Pollack’s film version, starring Meryl Streep as Dinesen and (a jarringly un-British) Robert Redford as Finch Hatton, brought Dinesen’s work to a wider audience.
The long days of the German occupation during World War II returned Dinesen to her allegorical mode with Winter’s Tales. The tone of the stories reflects the times: melancholy, introspective, romantic yet lonely. Dinesen turned once again to the landscape for inspiration. This time she was looking at the windswept Danish countryside and waterways rather than the hills of Kenya, but the ambiance is every bit as sumptuous:
[H]e was down by the harbor and stood upon the wharf, his portmanteau in his hand, gazing down into the water. It was deep and dark, the lights from the lamps on the quay played within it like young snakes. His first strong sensation about it was that it was salt. The rainwater came down on him from above; the salt water met him below. That was as it should be. He stood here for a long time, looking at the ships. He would go away on one of them.
To entertain herself during the tedium of the occupation, Dinesen next turned to crime fiction with The Angelic Avengers, her “illegitimate child” — a novel she considered such a throwaway she wrote it under the pseudonym Pierre Andrézel, denying any connection to the book even in the face of its popularity. Her health declined further, exacerbated by reliance on amphetamines and, probably, anorexia, but she continued to write: in 1950, “Babette’s Feast” was published in Ladies Home Journal; then followed Last Tales, in 1957, and the lighter Anecdotes of Destiny in 1958, as well as scattered essays and stories. In 1960, she gathered the last of her African notes into a short epilogue to Out of Africa titled Shadows on the Grass.
By that time, the woman who had once been addressed honorifically as “Lioness Blixen” had grown to resemble not a lioness, but perhaps one of the camels she described so elegantly: “haughty, hardened products of the desert, beyond all earthly sufferings, like cactus, and like the Somali.” She struggled to keep her weight above 85 pounds and smoked incessantly; it was as if life had burned through Tanne Dinesen with a brilliant flame, leaving just the husk. She once told a young acquaintance, in typically self-dramatizing style, “I promised the Devil my soul, and in return he promised me that everything I was going to experience hereafter would be turned into tales.”
The tale of Isak Dinesen, Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, Tanne and Tania, finished on September 7, 1962. Her final years were filled with endless hospitalizations, and she spent much of the second half of her life lonely for a soulmate. But she was her own work of art, her own carefully woven and rewritten story that she controlled both on the page and in life. A bereft child, a conflicted adult, and a difficult, demanding old woman, she managed to remake the dark places of her life into the stuff of fables, herself into their fearless conjurer.
And her time in Africa, which ended in bankruptcy, illness, and heartbreak, became poetry. When Eugene Walter, in a 1956 Paris Review interview, asked what had taken her so long to write about her experiences, she explained, “I was a painter before I was a writer. . . and a painter never wants the subject right under his nose; he wants to stand back and study a landscape with half-closed eyes.” Dinesen studied her landscape well, and over time, she became “her own heroine,” severe and uncompromising, an iconic role she earned with some of the last century’s most evocative writing. And we are all the more fortunate for that.