Friday, 6 February 2015

Book Review: Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen) award of a literary prize usually implies that others who would deserve it just as much or even more get nothing. It goes without saying that among the unlucky losers of the Nobel Prize in Literature there have been several women writers, too. Eliza Orzeszkowa (»»» read my portrait of her) and Concha Espina (»»» read my review of The Metal of the Dead) were two of them and for today’s review I chose a short story collection of another almost-laureate of the Nobel Prize, namely Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen aka Karen Blixen. Having been nominated for it several times and on the shortlist of 1961 (together with Graham Greene, John Steinbeck and the winner Ivo Andrić), the Danish author might have outdone John Steinbeck in 1962, hadn’t she died in September, thus before the official announcements in October.

Isak Dinesen is one of several pen names that Danish author Karen von Blixen-Finecke used and that made her famous although today she may be better known as Karen Blixen. She was born Karen Christenze Dinesen in Rungsted, Denmark, in April 1885. After having studied art in Copenhaguen, Paris and Rome she married her Swedish cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke in 1913 and moved to Kenya with him. Only after her divorce ten years later and her definite return to Denmark in 1931 she began her career as a writer although she had published stories already before. She also turned to telling her stories rather in English than in her native Danish. Her first book to appear was the short story collection titled Seven Gothic Tales (1934) which was followed by her famous autobiographical novel Out of Africa (1937; »»» read my review of the film). During the war she brought out Winter’s Tales (1942) and the alegorical novel The Angelic Avengers (1944; under the pseudonym Pierre Andrezel). Anecdotes of Destiny (1958; including Babette’s Feast), Last Tales (1957), and Shadows on the Grass (1960) were the last of her books that came out during her lifetime. Karen Blixen died in Rungsted, Denmark, in September 1962.

The collection titled Winter’s Tales combines eleven short stories which are mostly set in Denmark and mostly in the nineteenth century. The Young Man with the Carnation, however, takes place in Antwerp where a young Danish writer joins his sleeping wife in a hotel room. A young man with a carnation knocks at the door and is startled not to find his lover, but the writer doesn’t pay attention to him because he has just decided to leave his wife and his suffocating life of easy circumstances. By contrast Sorrow-Acre is the story of a Danish mother’s superhuman efforts fulfilling a bargain with the landowner who asks the impossible of her to rescue her son from jail. Also The Heroine is about the inner strength of a person at the mercy of authority, in this case soldiers of a late-nineteenth-century conflict between France and Germany. The Sailor Boy’s Tale, on the other hand, is a testimonial of magic. A Lapp woman saves the sailor because years before he saved her from certain death when she was on a mental travel in the form of a peregrine falcon. The Pearls revolves around a young married couple on their honeymoon in Norway and her wedding gift, a string of precious pearls that breaks. The Invincible Slave-Owners are two young women on summer holidays who do their best to keep up appearances as rich girl and governess although they are sisters really. For a day a wealthy Dane takes on the role of their old and loyal servant on whom they can fully rely. When The Dreaming Child is adopted by a prosperous Danish couple, the boy believes to simply return to where he truly belongs, but the poor and dark past remains in his heart. Alkmene, too, is an adopted child. She grows up in the house of a village parson and always feels inexplicably drawn towards an extravagant life-style until she witnesses the execution of a convict. The thirteenth-century Danish King Eric is the protagonist of the story telling how the ring of beautiful Ingeborg Hvide was found in The Fish he was served. Peter and Rosa are cousins and have grown up together since they were both six years old. When they are fifteen, Peter confides to Rosa that he intends to run away and asks her to help him. The final story is called A Consolatory Tale which actually is a fairy-tale about a Persian Prince and his beggar double which shows that everything in the world is interconnected and needs its counterpart.

For their setting in space and time all stories of Winter’s Tales have a strong touch of legend, fable and fairy-tale about them that reminds of the author’s famous fellow-countryman Hans Christian Andersen who had died scant ten years before Karen Blixen was born. Her narrative style which is characterised by the broad and skillful use of picturesque descriptions of landscapes as well as of living conditions adds to this impression. To a certain degree this choice of approach will also have served to mask her criticism of the Nazi regime that at the time when the stories were written occupied Denmark and terrorised people just like the landlord in Sorrow-Acre or the soldiers in The Heroine. The fact that several characters are parsons mirrors the important role of Christian belief in Danish life in the nineteenth century. Other stories, notably The Sailor Boy’s Tale and The Fish are explicitly mystical or even magical, while the story within A Consolatory Tale felt like a blend of The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights and Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. Although Karen Blixen’s first language was of course Danish, the author preferred to write her stories in English and excelled at it to such a degree that even native speakers praised it for its beauty and lyrical grace. Despite all the author’s language must be called somewhat old-fashioned and a bit flourishy, even baroque, which doesn’t lessen the pleasure of the read, though.

Altogether reading Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen) has been an enjoyable experience which calls for more. Certainly there's much behind them that isn't obvious at first sight and requires some contemplation. And since I'm always pleased with books that make me think, I warmly recommend this one.

* * * * * review is a contribution to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015, namely to the category Classic by a Woman.

»»» see also my sign-up post with my complete reading list for the challenge.

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