Archive for June 7th, 2010

Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) and Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford) dining elegantly in an African plain (1985 Out of Africa

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been a couple of months now since a group of us on WWTTA read and discussed Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, along with selected stories from Anecdotes of Destiny (“The Immortal Story” and “Babette’s Feast”) and The Winter’s Tales (“Sorrow Acre” and “The Heroine”). We dipped into her letters and read some literary criticism and biographies. At the end a few of us saw some films too, for me they were Babette’s Feast, from which this still of Stephane Audran as Babette is taken:


and Out of Africa. All this occurred over three months.

I just loved both movies, was fascinated (if at times repelled) by Dinesen’s art and visions, and as far as I got was again (as I was in the early 1980s) really absorbed by the woman’s life and writing in her letters. To remember and share this experience, I thought tonight I’d put on this blog my two posting on these wonderful movies and some of the exchanges we had on the stories from Seven Gothic Tales: “The Deluge at Norderney,” “The Old Chevalier,” “The Monkey” and a little on Blixen’s life-writing.

By beginning with Out of Africa, a marvelously pleasurable movie (adult in understanding), I can tell (and link in) something of her life, by going onto Babette’s Feast (a quiet gem), and we can see what distinguishes her art, and in these two tales the qualities of her poetic masterpieces.

A mood study from Out of Africa

The two stills thus far: this is such an artful film that it took 7 editors to make the final cut. A high point in the film is the elegant dinner when on safari between our lovers — with Mozart in the background, a distillation of Dinesen’s own impulse to imagine elegant dinners of high culture and stories told around a fire. The “mere” 14 years Dinesen spent in Africa reminds me of what biographers like Stefan Zweig say of a lives: what is lived richly and intensely counts more than the number of years.

Only in semblance are the outward and inward seasons of a life identical; in verity, wealth of experience is the sole measure of living, and the spirit is timed by another clock than that of the calendar. Under the intoxication of destiny, the mind may traverse lengthy periods in a few days; whereas long years may count for nothing when life is void of momentous spiritual happenings ..” (from his Mary Queen of Scots)

Out of Africa is a heroine’s story — from the time Streep as Dinesen confronts her ex-lover’s brother and negotiates a marriage (bargain), her money for his estate and a Mrs and a place in a world she can try to live in (Denmark is too narrow it seems), to her coming to her wedding, how she copes with this man who betrayed his promise by 1) not making a diary farm and spending her money as he pleased; and 2) not helping her with the farm at all, but leaving the next morning for months on end; to her own daring journey across Africa, her becoming the chatelaine who runs the place and developing bonds and working relationships with her African servants, opening a school; to her accepting the husband gave her syphilis (she does seem not to be permanently angry), and finally throwing him out because he persisted in humiliating her with his affairs (not so much the affairs bothered her as public humiliations — how others regarded her is part of Dinesen’s The Heroine), to the vein in the movie I loved and suppose many others did, the love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton.

Finch-Hatton, our hero is a free spirit, but also a philanderer. but the personality of the man, his values are so alluring that this fault would not seem big except that he too won’t stay with her, won’t make a home with her. He is also irresistibly handsome:

She is to accept his coming and going and it seems for months, nay years she does, only finally does the loneliness become too much. It’s a sad story on one level; she returns to Denmark, leaves these beloved African servants. I noticed all her deep relationships are with men, including the Africans, what African woman do we see but one, the mistress of her friend, Bartley (perhaps an ex-lover of hers too). She is writing away — and the popular myth of a woman inspired to write by her love affair with a man is bowed to (Finch-Hatton encourages her to tell her stories and then to write them down) — but she is also alone.

I certainly can like characters with flaws. It depends on what the flaw is and how it’s presented. Finch-Hatton is presented as humane in some ways, not behaving as a result of egoism, delusions, spite or power mongering (far from it) and to Dinesen in the film his good qualities outweigh his pecadilloes — but are not Blixen’s the kind that destroy other lives. He marries both times to get his hands on a woman’s money. Rationally speaking from a ratioanl standpoint he’s a horror, very bad husband material and Finch-Hatton not much better.

She is the voice-over narrator which is unusual for films, seen in Austen and some women’s films, but rarely in men’s — I think this is a man’s film presented as if a woman’s. The males are excused — or so I thought because we are invited to take pleasure in her sex with them and the trysts. We see the trysts centrally — though also the long years of hardship, not her final deterioration.

Yet it’s a film for pleasure. I found it enormously pleasurable. The photography of Africa, the long retreats into pastoral landscapes.

The romance of the dinners. We see hardly any physical sex, the love is presented as romance, as conversation, as alluring music.

I’d like to see it has a core value system which is against our modern world — it’s embodied in the figure of Finch-Hatton. How handsome is Redford in this one. Sigh. That’s part of it. He is a free spirit; against materialism against ambition, against unkindness too, but also not for education for the black young people. It seems only this one woman is — all the men are dubious. I have read the biography (the film is partly based on Thurman’s biography of Dinesen) and know this is a much softened picture of Finch-Hatton. The woman I worked for years on, Anne Finch, is an earlier woman who married into this old wealthy and powerful clique. He ran away from them in real life, but he also could not have lived as he did had he not been a white aristocrat with an allowance.

It’s also playful — the telling of the stories is part of this, but more Meryl Streep’s performance is terrific. I read the admiration for her accented voice throughout; I thought she conveyed a reciprocal set of sceptical insights in her character that matched Finch-Hatton’s even if she wanted to have a bond with him and him permanently with her at the same time. I thought she made me like Dinesen more than Thurman did — and Thurman’s biography I remember made me like this woman very much. So I’d say this heroine in this out of Africa relates to the heroine of Fran’s story: she is originally impelled to leave Denmark because of the way others would treat her as a woman alone, but we see she learns to be her own woman, though it’s coercive learning. Streep’s Dinesen’s very brave and admirable (to me) throughout.

Fast forward to her as Julia Child. She is a remarkable actress, for she personated both so different types persuasively and with depth.


Philippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), out two other heroines of (Babette’s Feast

The film not as striking as it was the first time I saw it on Bravo in the 1980s. Since then, we have seen art-films cross over into commercial ones (cross-overs) and the unusualness of the story, perspective, treatment in comparison to genre films is not so well, nearly unique. But I found I had remembered a lot.

It does show some of the aspects of Dinesen’s art we have not emphasizes. Its parablelike nature, the use of archetypes, landscape, the simplicity of the patterning of each story individually. Also the religiosity inherent in the apprehensions – here gotten in the Danish landscape and story.

The film had to keep the characters at a distance from us to pull it off — for a great fear in making films is lest they be laughed at. A different self shows up in a theater and certainly a different audience from readerships.

I liked it very much once again — this time I was moved by the compassion the movie projected for these simple petty people who the feast is made for. Instead of despising them, or dismissing them, or (just as bad) idealizing them, we are made to see these ignorant poverty-striken people turn harmonious and show up their best qualities under the influence of what all their lives they have been told doesn’t count: the body. They emerge not having consciously learned anything (they are still resolute the body and appetites don’t matter) but we see how much they do.

There is deep pity for the two daughters who stay with the father — and implicit is his benign tyranny — how much they lost out on life even if it has been peaceful and given them tranquillity. For the two men who don’t marry, both the general who preferred a rich ambitious life (and still does) who makes the feast the decent happening it is — for without him the repression might have not emerged in praise for the food. Because of his rank and prestige they follow what he says.

We see the ancien regime glimpsed and again celebrated in Babette’s cookery — the sweetness of life and by implication another revolution criticized as useless — this one 1871, when in fact huge numbers of peopel were slaughtered in the streets by the French government sources.

A telling reality about the shots of the film: It’s nearly impossible to get a still of all three women in the frame together where we see their faces. Most of the time they are kept apart once the initial meeting at the table where the two older sisters hire Babette and even there you can’t get all the faces at once. For most of the film Babette eats and lives in another space — as befits a servant. The two sisters are often together, and when pictured interacting with Babette, it’s one at a time: for example, the comedy of them showing her how to cook: they buy impoverished terrible stuff and proceed to ruin it dreadfully. Not one of all three together. The closest to this is the end when Babette explains she has no one waiting for her and has spent all her money.

A picturesque Denmark from Out of Africa; in the film Denmark is harsh, unyielding, barren to live in stark, austere

To the tale in relationship to the movie and by itself. The movie is a transposition type: it’s apparently faithful: characters, hinge-points, story line and a good deal of the feel and themes reappears. The story is unusual among those in Seven Gothic Tales: but like those in Anecdotes of Destiny: very straight forward, no tales within tales, simple and plain, unadorned. As is the movie, in its quiet grand gesture long shot way.

There are some revealing differences though: the language of Dinesen’s text encourages us to see something magical in the tale. For example, she calls the red-haired young man who helps Babette her “familiar” and uses words from fairy tale language to evoke Babette’s presence. Babette is a strong good fairy come to live with these pathetically good self-erasing (and therefore sad and deprived) ladies. It seemed to me the text suggested that the money for the lottery came by more than chance, but somehow from some magical force in the universe. I don’t use religious language because I felt it was avoided in the tale: nothing providential was here, rather good magic. That she keeps apart from the sisters is more than the result of the hierarchy in the household. She is a creature apart, not learning the language of the place, but keeping her French language – and self and identity in tact. A kind of Robinson Crusoe fable going on here.

For me the story was marred by the same idea as in Sorrow-Acre — found at the end of the story, Babette mourns the loss of the reactionary powerful people who murdered her husband and son. She is presented as someone who was a revolutionary and stood on the barricades in 1871. As has been written, the massacres at the time were horrific — this time by those running the government and in power and wealthy against the powerless and poor. So we don’t hear so much about this as we do the 1790s bloodbath. The sisters ask her how can she mourn for such people? She says it’s they who pay for and keep the artist up to a high pitch. This is only partly true. While it’s the very rich you can patronize and pay for luxurious art, many of them don’t, they don’t appreciate it at all, prefer to put their money in military might and philistine activities of their families. And it’s true that some governments with public money support the arts soundly: Sweden does, and the UK used to and still does in part. So if this is Dinesen’s reasoning for elevating the ancien regime and its prototypes today, it won’t wash.

We not mentioned how food is so central to women’s existences; Babette is the edible woman par excellence. At the end of the story she is genuinely depleted in all ways; she has given her all. Martine and Philippa have become her children to whom she gave a treat.

Linda’s take:

Yes, the story is striking and memorable. It is also straightforward and unadorned–uncharacteristic for Dinesen–as Ellen says.

Babette is a woman apart. I hadn’t really thought about that detail until now. The only insight we have into her personality is the conversation at the end. We get the impression that she keeps to herself and rarely speaks or interacts with the community. We do get the feeling that Babette found peace among the people of this colony and was now somewhat satisfied with her life.

Her mourning for the people she fought against is a jarring note. I didn’t understand it at first but then persuaded myself it made sense. I didn’t think she upheld these people as patrons of the arts but only of her art–food. Now that they’re gone, there is no one to appreciate the quality of cooking done at the Cafe Anglais–and therefore no one left to pay for it.

Podles’ article mentions the monster turtle, and I was glad someone did. That image is really outstanding. Podles thought it might represent the demonic fury the sisters feared they had unleashed. It also harkens to the magical quality of the film.

Podles also mentions that the bretheren all got drunk. Again I was glad someone else saw that. The transformative power of this wonderful love feast turned, I think, on that simple fact–they were drunk. Without the wine, I don’t know how many fences would have been mended and good feelings aroused.

Aiken or someone called them greedy peasants–but I don’t see that. They were all too old and feeble to be called “greedy.”

A very religious friend of mine–Protestant–told me she loved the movie and thought it beautiful and deeply spiritual. I thought I would mention her take on it. I’m not sure I agree it was spiritual, although it was a portrait of spiritual people.

One article (maybe the one Ellen sent) commented that Dinesen wrote about this sumptuous feast at a time when the author’s illness was causing her to slowly starve to death. Would it be unusual or possibly natural for Dinesen to be proccupied by food and feasts at that time?

That’s all for now.


A catoptric theatre or chest, a box with
several sides lined with mirrors (from La Nuit de Varennes), an object that recurs in Dinesen’s tales

From Seven Gothic Tales: “The Deluge at Norderney” contains stories within stories. One is about a young man who finds that the world overpraises his singing because of who he is (his status, title, relatives); they really hardly pay attention to his singing, and very few like it for real. When he sings where he is no longer known the baron’s son, he can’t get hired.

He says this was poison into his system; an old lady (Miss Malin) counsels him that he must not be embittered and instead of admiring Anderson’s story about the Emperor who is naked he should want a story which shows the Emperor in full splendor with all the people around admiring. She, we have learned from her story just told, has lived a desperate whore’s life shored up by false fantasies of lurid sex which was never so much fun as others suppose — oh boy not.

From Fran:

A strange story or, as you say, whole group of stories within a story framework, and many intertextual references to stories without, such as Shakespeare and his Timon of Athens in particular – here a misanthropic Timon of Assens, the latter both a real place and probably a joking play on the Germanic lisped ‘th’. There’s a lot of play on names in general.

You’ve already mentioned the Scheherazade reference, a woman literally telling stories to stave off death, but another intertextual reference might well be to Marguerite de Navarre’s ‘Heptameron’. Here there are only 7, not 72, stories, but Dinesen’s first starts off in a very similar way with a group of
aristocratic spa visitors dangerously cut off by flooding and distracting themselves from their situation by exchanging stories. The Heptameron also makes a similar association with Noah and the flood.

Given the frequent references to France and its fall from its former aristocratic gloire, the story’s title also seems in echo of Louis XV’s (or maybe Mme de Pompadour’s) phrase, ‘Après moi le déluge’.

What I’ve been wondering is if it’s been obvious to anybody from the text that
the real Norderney is an island, one indeed much beset by flooding and in fact the remnant of a larger island that sank into the sea – perhaps a fitting location for characters bewailing the loss of a supposedly greater whole.

Another thing that has struck me is how strongly the story revolves about shifting sexuality, unstable identity and self- image. You have Miss Malin the eternal virgin convinced she’s been a wanton; the Cardinal who is in fact ‘Kasparson’, yet another assumed name, based on another mysterious pretender Kasper Hauser, in a kind of Chinese box system; the bourgeois Jonathan/’Timon’ whose sense of self is radically challenged by the news that he may be the illegitimate son of an aristocrat and thus fêted by society not for himself and
his talent as he’d assumed and finally Calypso (her name also part of a whole
network of mythological imagery) who very nearly mutilated her feminity because the males around her had convinced her she should have been a man. Interestingly it was the representation of feminine sexuality in art that prevented her.

I wonder if this last also ties in with the pressures on the woman writer which prompt her to write under a male name – yet another mask in a fiction of masquerades.

Carl Van Loo, The Sultaness at Her Tapestry (18th century Scheherazade)

From Seven Gothic Tales: “The Old Chevalier”: just the zigzags. What a complicated set of stories within stories. Talk about indirection.

Our narrator’s father (not the narrator) had a friend Baron old Brackel who comes to tell our narrator a story.

He begins with a drunken young girl who comes up to him on the streets of Paris; he had just parted from a lady who had tried to poison him.

This association diverts him and we go to the woman who tried to poison him (the baron mind you, not the narrator who has now fallen silent or vanished from the present time narrative). We are told how he fell in love with this lady and its heartlessness (I’m skipping many themes, just going over the story), we move into her family and before you know it are told he (Baron again, not narrator) cared more about the husband than the lady, and we are into another angled story of the lady and old baron when young’s struggle over the lady’s husband. (Can’t resist one theme; the lady as described puts me in mind of Barbey D’Aurevilly’s Une Vieille Maistresse, especially as played by Vellini in Catherine Breillat’s film.)

Many pages but suddenly we swerve back to the night the lady tried to poison him; the scene ensues, he escapes.

Downstairs meets streetgirl and takes her upstairs with him (to have sex with her, give her food and drink). The Baron stops to contemplate the meaning of all these and the text is deeply anti-feminist; woman as work of art is celebrated; catoptric images are mentioned; woman as sex object but perhaps we could call this third phase or post-feminism since the woman is presented as a kind of winner while so decorated — if you can forget the poor drunken girl of the streets. End of contemplation, back to story.

Baron when young and girl of streets talk, monkey comes up (very scary and this anticipates our next story (man as beast-monkey); her name Nathalie, was she innocent as a virgin; it’s suggested she is the first girl who had been his. How are we to take this? He has of course to pay; she says Marie downstairs says she should get twenty francs. After love-making which is not presented but rather more luxurious images, themes, because he gave her the 20 she leaves and he loses here. He now wishes he hadn’t.

All a long time ago, but he did see her again, in the form of her skull which someone in Venice showed him. What use to ask the man with the skull? He would not have known anything about it.

A savage story about savagery of people under the rituals of supposed civilization. Wild, whirling again and bitter. Androgyny here: was Marie a murderous woman pimp? a madam. Nothing here is a joke; no tongue-in-cheek here.

In this story there is much anti-feminist rhetoric, Dinesen is materialistic, for prestige and rank (this is Ayn Rand stuff at some level). It is redeemed for me by the story of Nathalie, the street girl who is destroyed. We never know how she feels about the encounter and the tiny amount of money is pathetic. She has to give it to her female pimp it seems (or madam on the streets). She ends a skull.

So much for the underdog and vulnerable of our society. At the close it turn into a chilling female gothic.

And our narrator becomes a kind of Prevost-narrator (of the big stories) telling at a distance of this frightening bejewelled terror filled (out of natural forces too) world. You can’t quite win out by performances and stance the way the valet claimed in Story 1.

The comments to this blog bring together this story and the next. “The Monkey.”


Karen Blixen, her servant Juma and his family (1930 photograph)

I can’t resist just a little about her wonderful life-writing — for it’s what made me fall in love with her in the first place. Out of Africa is her masterpiece, an elusive memoir which does not need me to do justice to it (and I no longer remember it that well). It’s like Edith Wharton’s Backward Glance, much is omitted that Thurman gives us of the private life and that is in the movie. My old copy is much written over, showing how much I was absorbed.

Here just the voluminous detailed Letters from Africa. A writer is someone who loves to write remember. I own a bunch of her books, including some lesser known stories and character sketches of her friends and servants, and good biographies and literary criticism. It’s all at Library Thing. Just as I’m writing this, it’s temporarily “down,” so I’ll come back again tomorrow to link it in.

I like her letters from Africa particularly: they give more of a feel of this woman than any of the fictions: she really was upper class aristocratic in all her associations and how she sees herself; she was also living a highly physical life (went on safaris, shooting, camping, hunting) in Africa and she endured hardships when she defied mores to travel with bands of men so the film reflects realities and real events in Blixen’s life. She thinks she is not prejudiced against blacks and her behavior is far more open and decent and friendly to her servants, but it doesn’t take much to see she regards them as onotologically different — “boys” she calls men; she has a few whipped (as she puts it).

For me this book’s richness shows what a true writer Dinesen was. A writer doesn’t need to be published; she writes to write and keeps writing. These are so rich with detail . The introduction by the editor is revealing about the state of Blixen’s letters and the trajectory of her career, her close relationship with her mother and aunt, and her sufficient closeness to one brother, Thomas. These represent what _survived_. No one destroyed, but some private things would not be written down or saved, and the editor says there are cuts to protect the feelings of the living.


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