Friday, June 27, 2008

Gothic, with a philosophical twist

This painting, "Frederiksborg Castle by Moonlight" (detail) by Danish artist Ferdinand Richardt, looks the way that Dinesen's work feels.

A few days ago I finished Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (aka Baroness Karen Blixen), a dense and somewhat mysterious book. Dinesen, a Dane who wrote in English, got excellent reviews in Anglophone countries when this book appeared in 1934; yet her countrymen were confused, because Seven Gothic Tales doesn't fit into any literary tradition. It is not "modernist," or modern, at all. The tales all take place in the 1800s, in a world of aristocrats and the artists they patronize. They are moody, refined, and definitely seem to come out of a vanished past.

I mentioned that knowing French is a big help when reading Seven Gothic Tales; German and Italian would be useful too. Plus a knowledge of European high-culture icons from the Renaissance to 1900: Dante, Mozart, Goethe, etc., all get referenced. Dinesen was also very influenced by her Christian upbringing, and often alludes to Bible stories or thinks about them in new ways. Her characters are the kind of people who spend long evenings reading leather-bound books by candlelight, and talk in aphorisms derived from what they have learned.

"Gothic" can imply cheap thrills and melodrama, but the Seven Gothic Tales are reflective and rather nostalgic/elegiac. They go off on tangents, they contain stories nested within other stories, and though some of them contain macabre or fantastical elements, not all of them do. And even the fantastical elements are intended to make you think, not merely to shock you. Indeed, Seven Gothic Tales is about as philosophical as I like to get with my reading--I am not a particularly abstract thinker and don't get much pleasure from reading books and articles of pure philosophical thought. But in Seven Gothic Tales, the philosophical insights are grounded in the narration or in parable form. Some of Dinesen's favorite concerns: God, fate, and the nature of storytelling.

Dinesen's use of a male pen name is interesting to consider in conjunction with how her stories depict male-female relations. Her characters often talk about wanting a world where men are men and women are women, full of essential, mysterious, captivating femininity...a very retrograde attitude. Yet while Dinesen's female characters are often very beautiful and bewitching, they couldn't be described as conventional. She is drawn to old spinster ladies, prostitutes, women of adventure, country girls who dream of revolution.

Oh, and except for "The Dreamers," which partly takes place on a raft off the African coast, there are no other clues that these stories were written by someone who is currently most famous for "having a farm in Africa." Seven Gothic Tales is Continental to the core.

Here are some thoughts on the individual stories:
  • The Deluge at Norderney--This novella-ish piece (79 pp) is a classic example of an "Elevator Story," where you find a way to get several people in a room and talking. In this case, a renowned Cardinal, a deluded old lady, her quiet young goddaughter, and a melancholy young man are all in a barn loft trying to escape a flood. A good introduction to Dinesen's style, it is mysterious and allusive, yet there is a sense of a larger design and it's up to you to puzzle it out.
  • The Old Chevalier--This is the shortest story in the collection, a melancholy reminiscence from an old man. Contains some of the provocative ideas on male-female relations discussed above, and a little macabre shiver at the end.
  • The Monkey--I'm not sure if the flagrantly fantastical ending of this story actually works. But there's a lot of other good stuff here: an old prioress with a sinister agenda, delicate allusions to homosexuality, a young woman of immense strength and integrity.
  • The Roads Round Pisa--This story has an involving and somewhat mysterious plot centered around a duel. The climax reveals the connections between everything in a surprising way, although you'd get more out of it if you are able to read Dante's Italian.
  • The Supper at Elsinore--One of my favorites, a ghost story that is not merely creepy/shocking, but has psychological depth to it. The ghost of a sailor returns to have supper with his two spinster sisters, and the results are slightly unsettling and very believable.
  • The Dreamers--I'm not sure I understand the African framing device for this story, but as one character says, "It is not a bad thing in a tale that you understand only half of it." The nested story is also bizarre, but in a good way, and features one of Dinesen's most unforgettable women.
  • The Poet--For most of its length, this story of an ill-fated love triangle in a provincial town is more reminiscent of 19th-century realistic fiction than of the "Gothic." But at the end, in a deft twist, it becomes a story about the art of storytelling and narrative compared with the unpredictability of real life. A great way to end the collection.


BasiliskFang said...

is there a larger version of that painting?

Marissa said...

I don't know -- have you tried googling for it? I got it off some website that was a gallery of Danish paintings.