Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Seven Gothic Tales - Isak Dinesen (Part 1)

Isak Dinesen, (1885-1962)

Karen Blixen, a  Dutch baroness, began writing under the pen name Isak Dinesen in the early 1930's. Among the most well known and highly regarded of all her works, Seven Gothic Tales, has become enshrined in the archives of modern literature. Her tales hearken toward the grotesque and unexpected and have at times an almost magical quality about them. Dinesen is primarily concerned with the nature of fate and destiny, emphasizing the story rather than the characters and searching a deeper understanding of personal identity.

The first story in the collection is "The Deluge at Norderney," a tale of a flood that takes place along the Atlantic coast of Holstein in 1835. Four people are trapped in the loft of a barn and as the story opens they look at their compatriots and ask themselves "How will these people do to die with?" The castaways are comprised of a rabidly virginal old maiden of great wealth and of an old illustrious race, Miss Malin and with her a young, perpetually quivering and perhaps somewhat mousy girl of 16, the Countess Calypso van Platen. The third person, Cardinal Hamilcar, bandaged and bruised from his escape from the whirling maelstrom of the sea and lastly Jonathan Maersk, a young Dane suffering from an extreme bout of melancholia.

As they make themselves comfortable in the hay they begin to tell each other their stories. Miss Malin starts, she was once, despite her fanatical virginity, still a favorite in society. She took the biblical passage "whoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath already committed adultery with her in his hearth" quite seriously and made it her moral imperative to avoid being looked at as much as possible. Despite her somewhat extreme views, a young prince falls in love with her, having already attained everything in life there was to attain and that rather cheaply. Because she poses a challenge he becomes charmed and eventually impressed.

"About Miss Malin there was nothing striking but price. That this thin, big nosed, penniless girl, two years older than he, would demand not only his princely name and a full share in his brilliant future, but also his prostrate adoration, his life-long fidelity, and subjection in life and death and could be had for nothing less,-this impressed the young Prince."

Eventually her would be lover is killed within a fortnight of his proposal on the battle field of Jena, leaving Miss Malin now more than ever married to the promise she had made him, prepared to pursue a life of fidelity and honor and slightly mad. Having assumed that a multitude of men had indeed committed adultery with her, she devoted  the rest of her life to paying penance for being an accomplice in their sins.

After Cardinal Hamilcar tells his story, Jonathan tells his. He is basically too popular and despite his loathing of the aristocracy has somehow become their poster-child. Even while standing on a bridge, contemplating suicide, he knows if he carries out his plan it will become all the rage, with young people wandering around in black, sick with melancholia and jumping off bridges just to keep up with the veritable Joneses.

As his story finishes Miss Malin says,"You complain of people looking at you. But what if you were bent down by the opposite misfortune? What if nobody could or would see you, although you were, yourself, firmly convinced of your own existence?"

She then tell the story of Calypso, a young woman whom no one has taken the time to see, who has grown up under the impression that only men were valuable members of society and if the unfortunate fate of being a woman befell one, the best remedy was to shroud all traces of womanhood and try your best to disappear. Calypso's uncle, who has charge of her, does his best to remove all traces of the feminine, hoping to salvage her spirit. "But when he lectured to her upon the infinite loveliness of the circle, she asked him : if it were really so fair, what color was it - was it not blue? Ah, no, he said, it had no color at all. And from that moment he began to fear that she would not become a boy."

The Cardinal and Miss Malin decide the young people should not have to die alone and quickly put together an impromptu wedding and as the dusk fades and the water rises, the young, now married couple shyly fall asleep in the hay, just the tips of their fingers touching, leaving the elders to finish drinking their gin and waiting for the continually rising flood to engulf them.

Each character tells a story, opening themselves up to a vulnerability that allows them to step back and ascertain who they really are. As each of them discover, we are more than our stories would lead us to believe and even our stories can sometimes deceive us.

As the water makes it's way to their feet, swirling about their shoes, the Cardinal removes his bandages and reveals that he is not actually the Cardinal, but the valet and actor Kasparson. He has killed the Cardinal and it was in this instance that "mated his soul with destiny." And the destiny granted him was to play one more role, and perhaps the finest role left to play.

Although momentarily shocked, Miss Malin realizes that none of us are truly who we pretend to be and she accepts the solipsistic Kasparson for who he is. As the water reaches the hem of her skirt he kisses her and the "proud old maid" does not go to the grave unkissed.

The next story in the collection is "The Old Chevalier," and it tells the story of a young man who after just parting from a lady he adores who attempted to poison him, wanders through the rainy streets  and meets a woman, equally as wet and extremely beautiful. He somehow convinces her to go back to his room with him, unable to believe his good luck! Truly this innocent young woman must have stepped down from heaven, sent by the gods for his good pleasure!

"I thought it after all only reasonable, only to be expected that the great friendly power of the universe should manifest itself again, and send me, out of the night, as a help and consolation, this naked and drunk young girl, a miracle of gracefulness."

He blushingly undresses her by the fire and they proceed to have champagne, half clothed sitting by the warmth of the hearth. Eventually after sharing their souls, he realizes all other relationships, all other loves truly pale in comparison to what they have shared, they make their way to the bed, where he takes away her presumed innocence and breaths a satisfied sigh, there is or rather must be a sort of karma. He has deserved this woman! And as he sits mulling over his good fortune, the woman rises and as she gets dressed says "Maria said that- she said that I should get twenty francs."

Again the theme is that life is unexpected and that we can never truly anticipate what fate will bring. After he realizes this woman is a prostitute he tries to rationalize what could have driven such a young innocent woman to such a dire lifestyle. For the first time he recognizes her as a human being, with an "existence of her own, not as a gift for me." The play is over.

Two of my favorite quotes from this short story are: "most women, when they feel free to experiment with life, will go straight to the witches' Sabbath. I myself respect them for it, and do not think that I could ever really love a woman who had not, at some time or other, been up on a broomstick." The implication is that for all truly interesting and original women, they must be willing to think for themselves and be willing to defy the expectation of society.

"I remember that she told me, rather sadly to begin with, a story of a very old monkey which could do tricks, and had belonged to an Armenian organ-grinder. Its master had died, and now it wanted to do its tricks and was always waiting for the catchword, but nobody knew it."

I feel like I can totally empathize with the monkey, I have tricks and talents just waiting to be appreciated, but they go perpetually undiscovered. Perhaps, since I have been given the gift of language I can someday teach someone the catchword.

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