Thursday, September 6, 2012

Seven Gothic Tales - Isak Dinesen (Part 3)

Isak Dinesen (1885-1962)

"The Road Around Pisa" is the forth short story in the collection and like its name the story weaves around, each character passing the narrative batten to the next, creating a chain of events that is almost incomprehensible. It is ultimately the story of misunderstanding and as the pieces of the puzzle slowly are fit together and the characters are confronted with the extent of their mistake, the reader is finally able to glimpse the entire spectrum of the narrative.

An old impotent prince is about to marry a young beautiful woman, afraid that she will run away with her cousin Mario and demand an annulment, he asks his friend Count Nino to take his place in the marital bed and impregnate his wife. Unbeknownst to the prince, his wife has asked her hand maiden to do the same, leaving her to occupy the marital bed while she runs to find Mario and have one final night to say her goodbyes.

When the prince's young wife fails to become pregnant (obviously not understanding the complication involved with the birds and the bees making little birds and bees) the prince challenges his now ex-friend to a duel. At the last second, the wife's handmaiden, who has been dressed as a young boy and following the chain of events from afar runs up to the prince before they begin to take aim and quickly mentions that is was she in the bed that night and not her mistress, the old prince has a stroke and as he gasps, clutching his heart he says "Always we fail because we are too small...Too small I have been, too small for the ways of God." As he dies in one last impotent gesture his gun misfires, shooting skyward and he takes his last breath.

Next in the collection is "The Supper at Elsinore," the story of three siblings struggling to hold onto their grasp of fate. Morten, the only brother, jilts his bride and runs away to become a pirate and live a life in the shadows of adventure and debauchery, alleged to have five wives in different ports around the world. Slowly the family resigns themselves to quietly paying penance for his behavior, and his two sisters dote over his jilted fiance until she is finally betrothed and married to another man.

Madam Baek, who looked after the girls when they were children, and who now tends to the estate when the family is away for the season, makes her way one evening through the snow to the sister's winter estate. She tells them she has seen the ghost of their brother and that he would like to have one last conversation with them. The sisters at first reeling in shock and horror, finally consent and head back to the family estate for one final confrontation.

The sisters are torn between resenting Morten for his irresponsibility and at the same time envying his liberty and freedom. While Morten has lived a full life in defiance of any and all societal norms, the sisters have stayed home, choosing to remain unmarried, perhaps the only decision they have to direct their destiny, yet ultimately resulting in a lonely and dreary existence.

Next, is "The Dreamers," this story, although told through a series of narrations, was much more engaging then some of the previous more complicatedly woven tales. The story opens on a boat with a few men sitting around the mast exchanging stories of their lives under the moonlight.

"The waves looked solid, as if one might safely have walked upon them, while it was into the vertiginous sky that one might sink and fall, into the turbulent and unfathomable depths of silvery worlds, of bright silver or dull and tarnished silver, forever silver reflected within silver, moving and changing, towering up, slowly and weightless."

Lincoln and Mira sit and contemplate the art of storytelling and the meaning of life."What is life, Mira, when you come to think upon it, but a most excellent, accurately set, infinitely complicated machine for turning fat playful puppies into old mangy blind dogs, and proud war horses into skinny nags, and succulent young boys, to whom the world holds great delights and terrors, into old weak men, with running eyes, who drink ground rhino-horn."

Lincoln tells his story, he once fell in love with a prostitute in Rome. He finally persuades her to come away with him and when he shows up the next day to embark on a new life together she has vanished without a trace. He searches and searches for her to no avail and then one night while at a hotel he meets an insecure non-entity of a friend of his, who has stopped along with a self absorbed companion. As the three sit and exchange stories, slowly his friend begins to tell of a recent tragedy that has befallen him. In a comedy of errors, this a-political friend ends up joining a band of militant revolutionaries and shooting and old priest, all at the behest of a beautiful milliner. He is wounded and the milliner ends up nursing him back to health...and then she too disappears. The cocky self absorbed acquaintance at this point is overcome with boredom, being uninterested in anything but himself and begins his story which he is sure will trump the others. He had been impressed with a young virginal nun, and one day on a dare to travel to three cities, drink three bottles of wine and bed three women attempts to take the innocence of this young nun...

Lincoln has a strange suspicion that these two women that have just been described are none other than his precious Olalla. As he ponders this coincidence, who should hurry by in a long cloak with barely a glimpse of her face visible, but this mysterious women that all three men have had chance encounters with. As the three men realize she is the heroine of each of their personal tales, they jump up and head out into the snowy night to follow their muse.

Ultimately the woman they each chase does exist for each of them as they remember. She has become a chameleon of a person, masking her identity to cope with an intense personal tragedy. She has taken on different roles, become different people, constantly donning her endless masks. By living in a world of dreams, fueled by her imagination she is enabled to escape the pain and heartache of life's troubles. "For really, dreaming is the well-mannered people's way of committing suicide."  Finally when she is able to face the reality of who she is, she dies, her last breath solidifying her reconciliation with self.

"The Poet" is the last of the short stories, and describes one man's attempt to direct fate, believing he has the power over destiny. An old councilor has adopted a young couple, the man a young poet and the woman a young widow. As he playfully toys with them, realizing he has them both in his power he realizes that he will marry the young widow and the young man will remain faithful to his master while he pines away. He gleefully unfolds his demands and pleasure, thinking to himself how like an author he is of the lives of those around him, he the protagonist of this small play.

Ultimately his playthings turn against him and the foils of his matchmaking inadvertently murder him, the young man drunkenly shooting him and the young women afraid for the life of her young lover grabbing a rock and ending what little life the councilor has left. Before he is fatally crushed he cries:

"My poor girl, my dove...listen. Everything is good. All, all! Sacred Fransine," he said, "Sacred puppets."

There is more to say, but no time to say it and as he dies he realizes that this story is better than the one he was creating himself, and that although we have volition, we are not wholly the authors of our fate.

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