undefinedIllustration by Michael Batterberry, 1956.

 

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.