Interviews

Isak Dinesen, The Art of Fiction No. 14

Interviewed by Eugene Walter

It was, in a sense, typecasting, when a few years ago a film was planned that would have shown us Garbo playing the role of Isak Dinesen in a screen version of Out of Africa . . . for the writer is, like the actress, a Mysterious Creature of the North. Isak Dinesen is really the Danish Baroness Karen Christentze Blixen-Finecke and is the daughter of Wilhelm Dinesen, author of a classic nineteenth-century work, Boganis’ Jagtbreve (Letters from the Hunt). Baroness Blixen has published under different names in various countries: usually Isak Dinesen, but also Tania Blixen and Karen Blixen. Old friends call her Tanne, Tanya, and Tania. Then there is a delightful novel she preferred not to acknowledge for a while, though any reader with half an eye could guess the baroness hiding behind the second pseudonym, Pierre Andrézel. Literary circles have buzzed with legends about her: She is really a man, he is really a woman, “Isak Dinesen” is really a brother-and-sister collaboration, “Isak Dinesen” came to America in the 1870s, she is really a Parisienne, he lives at Elsinore, she stays mostly in London, she is a nun, he is very hospitable and receives young writers, she is difficult to see and lives a recluse, she writes in French; no, in English; no, in Danish; she is really—and so the buzzing never stopped.

In 1934 the house of Haas & Smith (later absorbed by Random House) brought out a book called Seven Gothic Tales which Mr. Haas had accepted on first reading. It became a best-seller. A favorite among writers and painters, the book was discussed from first appearance as of some permanence.

Outside the canon of modern literature, like an oriole outside a cage of moulting linnets, “Isak Dinesen” offers to her readers the unending satisfaction of the tale told: “And then what happened? . . . Well, then . . .” Her storyteller's, or ballad maker's, instinct, coupled with an individual style of well-ornamented clarity, led Hemingway, accepting the Nobel Prize, to protest it should have gone to Dinesen.

 

SCENE ONE

Rome, Early Summer, 1956. The first dialogue takes place in a sidewalk restaurant in the Piazza Navona, that long space, once flooded, where mock naval battles raged. The twilight is darkening the sky to an iris color; against it the obelisk that stands amidst Bernini's figures seems pale and weightless. At a café table sit Baroness Blixen, her secretary-traveling companion, Clara Svendsen, and the Interviewer. The Baroness is like a personage from one of her own tales. Slim, straight, chic, she is dressed in black, with long black gloves and a black Parisian hat that comes forward to shadow her remarkable eyes that are lighter in color at the top than at the bottom. Her face is slender and distinguished; around her mouth and eyes play the faint ghosts of smiles, changing constantly. Her voice is pleasing, being soft but with enough force and timbre for one to hear at once that this is a lady with opinions of both grave profundity and of most enchanting frivolity. Her companion, Miss Svendsen, is a fresh-faced young person with a charming smile.

 

ISAK DINESEN

Interview? Oh, dear . . . . Well, yes, I suppose so . . . but not a list of questions or a third degree, I hope. . . . . I was interviewed a short time ago . . . . Terrible . . . .

MISS SVENDSEN

Yes, there was a man who came for a documentary film . . . . It was like a catechism lesson . . . .

DINESEN

Couldn't we just talk together as we've been doing, you could write down what you like?

INTERVIEWER

Yes, then you could scratch out some things and scribble in others.

DINESEN

Yes. I ought not to undertake too much. I've been ill for over a year and in a nursing home. I really thought I should die. I planned to die, that is, I made preparations. I expected to.

SVENDSEN

The doctor in Copenhagen told me: “Tania Blixen is very clever, but the cleverest thing she's ever done is to survive these two operations.”

DINESEN

I even planned a last radio talk . . . . I have made a number of radio talks on all kinds of subjects, in Denmark . . . . They seem to enjoy me as a radio speaker there . . . . I planned a talk on how easy it was to die . . . . Not a morbid message, I don't mean that, but a message of, well, cheer . . . that it was a great and lovely experience to die. But I was too ill, you know, to get it done. Now, after being so long in the nursing home and so ill, I don't feel I do really belong to this life. I am hovering like a seagull. I feel that the world is happy and splendid and goes on but that I'm not part of it. I've come to Rome to try and get into the world again. Oh, look at the sky now!

INTERVIEWER

Do you know Rome well? How long since you've been here?

DINESEN

A few years ago, when I had an audience with the Pope. I first came in 1912 as a young girl, staying with my cousin and best friend, who was married to our Danish ambassador to Rome. We rode in the Borghese Gardens then, every day. There were carriages with all the great beauties of the day in them, and one stopped and chatted. It was delightful. Now look at these motors and motor-bicycles and noise and rushing about. It's what the young today want, though: Speed is the greatest thing for them. But when I think of riding my horse—I always had a horse when I was a girl—I feel that something very precious is lost to them today. Children of my day lived differently. We had little in the way of toys, even in great houses. Modern mechanical playthings, which furnish their own motion, had hardly come into existence. We had simpler toys and had to animate them. My love of marionettes springs from this, I think. I've tried my hand at writing marionette plays. One might, of course, buy a hobbyhorse, but we loved better a knotted stick personally chosen in the woods, which our imagination could turn into Bucephalus or Pegasus. Unlike children of today, who are content from birth to be observers . . . we were creators. Young people today are not acquainted with the elements or in touch with them. Everything is mechanical and urban: Children are raised up without knowing live fire, living water, the earth. Young people want to break with the past, they hate the past, they don't want to even hear of it, and one can partly understand it. The near past to them is nothing but a long history of wars, which to them is without interest. It may be the end of something, of a kind of civilization.

INTERVIEWER

But loathe leads to love: They may be led in a circle back to a tradition. I should be frightened of indifference more.

DINESEN

Perhaps. And I myself, you know, I should like to love what they love. Now, I love jazz. I think it's the only new thing in music in my lifetime. I don't prefer it to the old music, but I enjoy it very much.

INTERVIEWER

Much of your work seems to belong to the last century. For instance, The Angelic Avengers.

DINESEN (laughing)

Oh, that's my illegitimate child! During the German occupation of Denmark I thought I should go mad with boredom and dullness. I wanted so to be amused, to amuse myself, and besides I was short of money, so I went to my publisher in Copenhagen and said, Look here, will you give me an advance on a novel and send me a stenographer to dictate it to? They said they would, and she appeared, and I started dictating. I had no idea at all of what the story would be about when I began. I added a little every day, improvising. It was very baffling to the poor stenographer.

MISS SVENDSEN

Yes, she was used to business letters, and when she'd type the story from her shorthand notes, she'd put numbers sometimes like “the 2 terrified girls” or “his 1 love.”

DINESEN

I'd start one day by saying, “Then Mr. So-and-so entered the room,” and the stenographer would cry out, “Oh dear, but he can't! He died yesterday in Chapter Seventeen.” No, I prefer to keep The Angelic Avengers my secret.

INTERVIEWER

I loved it, and I remember it had excellent notices. Did many people guess that you had written it?

DINESEN

A few.

INTERVIEWER

And what about Winter's Tales? That came out in the midst of the war—how did you get the book to America?

DINESEN

I went to Stockholm—not in itself an easy thing to accomplish—and what was even more difficult took the manuscript with me. I went to the American embassy and asked them if they didn't have planes going to the United States every day, and if they couldn't take the manuscript, but they said they only carried strictly political or diplomatic papers, so I went to the British embassy and asked them, and they asked could I supply references in England, and I could (I had many friends in the cabinet, among them Anthony Eden), so they cabled to check this, then said yes they could, which started the manuscript on its way to America.

INTERVIEWER

I'm ashamed of the American embassy. They surely could have taken it.

DINESEN

Oh, don't be too hard on them. I owe a lot to my American public. Anyway, with the manuscript I sent a letter to my American publishers just telling them that everything was in their hands, and that I couldn't communicate with them at all, and I never knew anything of how Winter's Tales was received until after the war ended, when suddenly I received dozens of charming letters from American soldiers and sailors all over the world: The book had been put into Armed Forces Editions—little paper books to fit a soldier's pocket. I was very touched. They sent me two copies of it; I gave one to the King of Denmark and he was pleased to see that, after all, some voice had spoken from his silent country during that dark time.

INTERVIEWER

And you were saying about your American public?

DINESEN

Yes, I shall never forget that they took me in at once. When I came back from Africa in 1931, after living there since 1914, I had lost all the money I had when I married because the coffee plantation didn't pay, you know; I asked my brother to finance me for two years while I prepared Seven Gothic Tales, and I told him that at the end of two years I'd be on my own. When the manuscript was ready, I went to England, and one day at luncheon there was the publisher Huntington, and I said, “Please, I have a manuscript and I wish you'd look at it.” He said, “What is it?” and when I replied, “A book of short stories,” he threw up his hands and cried, “No!” and I begged, “Won't you even look at it?” and he said, “A book of short stories by an unknown writer? No hope!” Then I sent it to America, and it was taken right away by Robert Haas, who published it, and the general public took it and liked it, and they have always been faithful. No, thank you, no more coffee. I'll have a cigarette.

INTERVIEWER

Publishers everywhere are boneheaded. It's the traditional lament of the author.

DINESEN

The amusing thing is that after the book was published in America, Huntington wrote to Robert Haas praising it and begging for the address of the author, saying he must have the book for England. He had met me as Baroness Blixen, while Mr. Haas and I had never seen one another. Huntington never connected me with Isak Dinesen. Later he did publish the book in England.

INTERVIEWER

That's delightful; it's like something from one of the tales.

DINESEN

How lovely to sit here in the open, but we must be going, I think. Shall we continue our discussion on Sunday? I should like to see the Etruscan things at the Villa Giulia: We might chat a little then. Oh, look at the moon!

INTERVIEWER

Splendid. I'll find a taxi.

 

SCENE TWO

Rainy, warm Sunday noon. The Etruscan Collection in the Villa Giulia is not too crowded because of the weather. The Baroness Blixen is now attired in a suit of reddish brown wool and a conical ochre-colored straw hat that again shadows her extraordinary eyes. As she strolls through the newly arranged Etruscan figures, pottery, and jewelry, she seems as remote as they from the ordinary gallery goers who are pattering through. She walks slowly, very erect, stopping to gaze lingeringly at those details that please her.

 

DINESEN

How could they get that blue, do you suppose? Powdered lazuli? Look at that pig! In the north we give a great mythological importance to the pig. He's a kind of minion of the sun. I suppose because his sweet fat helps to keep us warm in the darkest and coldest time. Very intelligent animal . . . . I love all animals. I have a huge dog in Denmark, an Alsatian; he's enormous. I take him walking. If I survive him, I think I shall get a very small dog—a pug. Though I wonder if it's possible to get a pug now. They used to be very fashionable. Look at the lions on that sarcophagus. How could the Etruscans have known the lion? In Africa it was the animal that I loved the most.

INTERVIEWER

You must have known Africa at its best. What made you decide to go?

DINESEN

When I was a young girl, it was very far from my thoughts to go to Africa, nor did I dream then that an African farm should be the place in which I should be perfectly happy. That goes to prove that God has a greater and finer power of imagination than we have. But at the time when I was engaged to be married to my cousin Bror Blixen, an uncle of ours went out to Africa big-game hunting and came back all filled with praise of the country. Theodore Roosevelt had been hunting there then, too; East Africa was in the news. So Bror and I made up our minds to try our luck there, and our relations on both sides financed us in buying the farm, which was in the highlands of Kenya, not far from Nairobi. The first day I arrived there, I loved the country and felt at home, even among unfamiliar flowers, trees, and animals, and changing clouds over the Ngong hills, unlike any clouds I had ever known. East Africa then was really a paradise, what the Red Indians called “happy hunting grounds.” I was very keen on shooting in my young days, but my great interest all through my many years in Africa was the African natives of all tribes, in particular the Somali and the Masai. They were beautiful, noble, fearless, and wise people. Life was not easy running a coffee plantation. Ten thousand acres of farmland, and locusts and drought . . . and too late we realized that the table land where we were located was really too high for raising coffee successfully. Life out there was, I believe, rather like eighteenth-century England: one might often be hard up for cash, but life was still rich in many ways, with the lovely landscape, dozens of horses and dogs, and a multitude of servants.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose that you began to write seriously there?

DINESEN

No, I really began writing before I went to Africa, but I never once wanted to be a writer. I published a few short stories in literary reviews in Denmark when I was twenty years old, and the reviews encouraged me, but I didn't go on—I don't know, I think I had an intuitive fear of being trapped. Also, when I was quite young, for a while I studied painting at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts; then I went to Paris in 1910 to study with Simon and Menard, but (she chuckles) . . . but I did little work. The impact of Paris was too great; I felt it was more important to go about and see pictures, to see Paris, in fact. I painted a little in Africa, portraits of the natives mostly, but every time I'd get to work, someone would come up and say an ox has died or something, and I'd have to go out in the fields. Later, when I knew in my heart I should have to sell the farm and go back to Denmark, I did begin to write. To put my mind to other things I began to write tales. Two of the Gothic Tales were written there. But earlier, I learned how to tell tales. For, you see, I had the perfect audience. White people can no longer listen to a tale recited. They fidget or become drowsy. But the natives have an ear still. I told stories constantly to them, all kinds. And all kinds of nonsense. I'd say, “Once there was a man who had an elephant with two heads . . . ” and at once they were eager to hear more. “Oh? Yes, but Memsahib, how did he find it, and how did he manage to feed it?” or whatever. They loved such invention. I delighted my people there by speaking in rhyme for them; they have no rhyme, you know, had never discovered it. I'd say things like “Wakamba na kula mamba” (“The Wakamba tribe eats snakes”), which in prose would have infuriated them, but which amused them mightily in rhyme. Afterwards they'd say, “Please, Memsahib, talk like rain,” so then I knew they had liked it, for rain was very precious to us there. Oh, here's Miss Svendsen. She's Catholic, so she went off today to hear a special cardinal. Now we'll go buy some postcards. Hope there is one of the lions.

SVENDSEN

Good morning.

DINESEN

Clara, you must see the delightful lions; then we'll get some postcards and go for lunch.

 

Postcards are found, a taxi is summoned, umbrellas opened, the party runs for taxi, drives off through the rainy Borghese Gardens.

 

SCENE THREE

The Casino Valadier is a fashionable restaurant in the Gardens, just above the Piazza del Popolo, and commands a fine view of Rome. After a brief glimpse of the rain-grayed city from the flooded terrace, the party goes into a brocaded room, with considerately shaded girandoles, brightly colored carpets, and pictures.

 

DINESEN

I'll sit here so I can see everything.

(Lights cigarette.)

INTERVIEWER

Pleasant place, isn't it?

DINESEN

Yes, very pleasant, and I recognize it. I was here in 1912. Every now and again here in Rome I recognize very vividly a place I've visited then. (Pause.) Oh, I shall go mad!

INTERVIEWER (startled)

What is it?

DINESEN

Look how crooked that picture is!

(Indicates blackened portrait across room.)

INTERVIEWER

I'll straighten it.

(Goes to it.)

DINESEN

No, more to the right.

INTERVIEWER

Like this?

DINESEN

That's better.

(Two solemn gentlemen at table beneath portrait indicate bewilderment.)

SVENDSEN

It's like that at home. So much traffic passes, and I have always to straighten the pictures.

DINESEN

I live on the North Sea, halfway between Copenhagen and Elsinore.

INTERVIEWER

Perhaps halfway between Shiraz and Atlantis?

DINESEN

. . . Halfway between that island in The Tempest and wherever I am. 

(Waiter takes order; luncheon is served.)

DINESEN

I'll have a cigarette now. Do you mind if we just stay here for a while? I hate to change once I'm installed in a décor I like. People are always telling me to hurry up or come on and do this or do that. Once when I was sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and there were albatrosses, people kept saying, “Why do you stay on deck? Come on in.” They said, “It's time for lunch,” and I said, “Damn lunch.” I said, “I can eat lunch any day, but I shan't see albatrosses again.” Such wingspread!

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about your father.

DINESEN

He was in the French army, as was my grandfather. After the Franco-Prussian War, he went to America and lived with the Plains Indians in the great middle part of your country. He built himself a little hut and named it after a place in Denmark where he had been very happy as a young man—Frydenlund (“Happy Grove”). He hunted animals for their skins and became a fur trader. He sold his skins mostly to the Indians, then used his profits to buy them gifts. A little community grew up around him, and now Frydenlund is, I believe, the name of a locality in the state of Wisconsin. When he returned to Denmark, he wrote his books. So you see, it was natural for me, his daughter, to go off to Africa and live with the natives and after return home to write about it. He also, incidentally, wrote a volume of his war experiences called Paris Under the Commune.

INTERVIEWER

And how is it that you write in English?

DINESEN

It was quite natural to do so. I was partly schooled in England after being taught always by governesses at home. Because of that, I lack knowledge of plain facts which are common coinage for others. But those governesses were ambitious: They did teach languages, and one of them put me to translating The Lady of the Lake into Danish. Then, in Africa, I had been seeing only English people, really. I had spoken English or Swahili for twenty years. And I read the English poets and English novelists. I prefer the older writers, but I remember when I first read Huxley's Chrome Yellow, it was like biting into an unknown and refreshing fruit.

INTERVIEWER

Most of your tales are laid in the last century, aren't they? You never write about modern times.

DINESEN

I do, if you consider that the time of our grandparents, that just-out-of-reach time, is so much a part of us. We absorb so much without being aware. Also, I write about characters who together are the tale. I begin, you see, with a flavor of the tale. Then I find the characters, and they take over. They make the design, I simply permit them their liberty. Now, in modern life and in modern fiction there is a kind of atmosphere and above all an interior movement—inside the characters—which is something else again. I feel that in life and in art people have drawn a little apart in this century. Solitude is now the universal theme. But I write about characters within a design, how they act upon one another. Relation with others is important to me, you see, friendship is precious to me, and I have been blessed with heroic friendships. But time in my tales is flexible. I may begin in the eighteenth century and come right up to World War I. Those times have been sorted out, they are clearly visible. Besides, so many novels that we think are contemporary in subject with their date of publication—think of Dickens or Faulkner or Tolstoy or Turgenev—are really set in an earlier period, a generation or so back. The present is always unsettled, no one has had time to contemplate it in tranquillity . . . . 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.

INTERVIEWER

Have you written poetry?

DINESEN

I did as a young girl.

INTERVIEWER

What is your favorite fruit?

DINESEN

Strawberries.

INTERVIEWER

Do you like monkeys?

DINESEN

Yes, I love them in art: In pictures, in stories, in porcelain, but in life they somehow look so sad. They make me nervous. I like lions and gazelles.

 

SCENE FOUR

Now we are on the parapets of the central tower of the Castle of Sermonetta, perched on a hill amidst a clustering town, about an hour and a half south of Rome. We have crossed a moated drawbridge, climbed a rickety ladder-stair. We have seen remains of fourteenth-century frescoes, and in the tower stronghold seen scrawled phrases and drawings on the wall, fresh as new, from when Napoleonic soldiers were incarcerated here. Now the party comes out, shading their eyes. Below, the Pontine plain stretches green and gold to the sea, bathed in bright afternoon sunlight. We can see tiny figures miles below working amidst the bean fields and the peach orchards.

 

INTERVIEWER

I think it is curious that practically no critic nor reviewer in either America or England has pointed out the great comic element in your works. I hope we might speak a little of the comic spirit in your tales.

DINESEN

Oh, I'm glad you mentioned that! People are always asking me what is the significance of this or that in the tales—“What does this symbolize? What does that stand for?” And I always have a difficult time making them believe that I intend everything as it's stated. It would be terrible if the explanation of the work were outside the work itself. And I do often intend a comic sense, I love a joke, I love the humorous. The name Isak means “laughter.” I often think that what we most need now is a great humorist.

INTERVIEWER

What humorists in the English language please you?

DINESEN

Well, Mark Twain, for example. But then all the writers I admire usually have a vein of comic spirit. Writers of tales always do, at least.

INTERVIEWER

Who are writers of tales that appeal to you, or with whom you feel a kinship?

DINESEN

E.T.A. Hoffman, Hans Andersen, Barbey d'Aurevilly, La Motte Fouqué, Chamisso, Turgenev, Hemingway, Maupassant, Stendhal, Chekhov, Conrad, Voltaire . . .

SVENDSEN

Don't forget Melville! She calls me Babu after the character in Benito Cereno, when she doesn't refer to me as Sancho Panza.

INTERVIEWER

Heavens, you've read them all!

DINESEN

I am really three thousand years old and have dined with Socrates.

INTERVIEWER

Pardon?

DINESEN

(laughing and lighting a cigarette). Because I was never told what I must read or what I mustn't read, I did read everything that fell into my hands. I discovered Shakespeare very early in life, and now I feel that life would be nothing without him. One of my new stories is about a company of actors playing The Tempest, incidentally. I love some of the Victorian novelists no one reads anymore: Walter Scott, for instance. Oh, and I like Melville very much, and the Odyssey, the Norse sagas—Have you read the Norse sagas? I love Racine, too.

INTERVIEWER

I remember your observation on the Norse mythology in one of the Winter's Tales.* It's very interesting to me, incidentally, how you have chosen the tale for your form.

DINESEN

It came naturally to me. My literary friends at home tell me that the heart of my work is not in the idea but in the line of the tale. Something you can tell, like one can tell Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves but one could not tell Anna Karenina.

INTERVIEWER

I should be most interested to know a little of how you work; for instance, how such a tale as The Deluge at Norderney took shape. It seems so ordered and inevitable, yet on study one is amazed at the design, of the tales-within-the-tale.

DINESEN

 (Smiling mischievously). Read it, read it, and you'll see how it's written.

 

EPILOGUE

For epilogue here, let's append a passage from the Baroness Blixen's Albondocani, a long series of connected tales still unfinished at the time of the author's death in 1962. This excerpt is from “The Blank Page,” published in Last Tales (1957). An old woman who earns her living by storytelling is speaking:

 

“With my grandmother,” she said, “I went through a hard school. ‘Be loyal to the story,’ the old hag would say to me, ‘Be eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story.’ ‘Why must I be that, Grandmother?’' I asked her. ‘Am I to furnish you with reasons, baggage?’ she cried. ‘And you mean to be a story-teller! Why, you are to become a story-teller, and I shall give you the reasons! Hear then: Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence. Whether a small snotty lass understands it or not.’

“Who then,” she continues, “tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page. When a royal, and gallant pen, in the moment of its highest inspiration, has written down its tale with the rarest ink of all—where, then, may one read a still deeper, sweeter, merrier, and more cruel tale than that? Upon the blank page.

 

*“And I have wondered, while I read,” says the young nobleman in “Sorrow-Acre,” “that we have not till now understood how much our Nordic mythology in moral greatness surpasses that of Greece and Rome. If it had not been for the physical beauty of the ancient gods, which has come down to us in marble, no modern mind could hold them worthy of worship. They were mean, capricious and treacherous. The gods of our Danish forefathers are as much more divine than they as the Druid is nobler than the Augur.”

 

 

 Author photograph from the Karen Blixen Museum