Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book 141, Denmark: "Anecdotes of Destiny" by Isak Dinesen

Just been to watch Disney’s Frozen. It’s good! Just awfully American.

This is relevant to our discussion, of course, since it’s based on a work by Denmark’s most famous author: a weird, kinda effed-up, mysteriously sexual and amoral little girl-quest called The Snow Queen. Read it if you haven’t already. - it’s honestly one of his less horrifying fairytales. The Little Mermaid beats The Steadfast Tin Soldier, but is in turn beat by the hair-raising Red Shoes. (Oh man, I just remembered that Death himself appears in The Nightingale. Brrr.)

I’d honestly considered doing Hans Christian Andersen’s autobiography or travel writings, but they were a little too long and uncanonical. What I wanted was something so famous that a film had been made about it, hell, maybe even a local publisher had decided to name an entire line of books after it…

I mean “Babette’s Feast”, of course. It’s just one of the five stories in this collection. Isak Dinesen (whose real name was Karen Blixen, not vice versa) is actually better known for her similarly cinematic novel Out of Africa, which takes place in Kenya.

And hell, these stories are good. Like, break-your-heart, amazeballs, despair-at-your-own-fictive-abilities good. Ohhh, I can’t give away the plot of “Babette’s Feast” – you just have to read it for yourselves – but suffice it to say that it involves a great chef who sacrifices everything for her art.

These are tales of sacrifice, really – of people deciding that the rational way of living judiciously or grasping contentment as it comes is simply not the thing to be done, and how they lead counter-intuitively satisfying lives for all that. Bizarre people. Sexy people, come to think of it. There’s a whiff of fucking or almost-fucking in pretty much all five stories.

What’s more worth emulating for me, possibly, is the way she’s so willing to give every one of her characters a back story – she divides her tales into sections, so that we can step back and examine the youth of each fallen heroine before action properly begins – and there’s a crystalline brevity to each section that makes it impossible to call even the longer stories novellas (maybe novelettes?). These aren’t quite in the short story tradition: they’re tales told round the fire, drawn from faraway lands…

Yeah, for some reason, Dinesen wasn’t into writing about Denmark much. “The Diver”’s set in Shiraz, Iran; “The Immortal Story” in Canton, China; and “Babette’s Feast” and “Tempests” happen in Norway, which happened to be a Danish colony then: the former’s in a colony on the Bervelaag Fjord, while the latter’s in the town of Christianssand.

Bu before you yell that I’ve gotta disqualify this volume, I’ll have you know there are Danish characters, dammit – the Copenhagen theatre troupe owner Herr Soerensen and the innocent 17 year-old sailor Povl Velling from Marstal – and the very last of the stories takes place in the country estate of a young Danish squire, though it doesn’t actually say which part of the country he lives in. But even that Danish tale takes place two hundred and fifty years before publication. These are Arabian nights exotica, to a degree, with events shifted to magical elsewheres all the better to help the reader swallow the oddness that is life itself…

(The melancholy and magic in these tales: are they like Andersen’s? Maybe.)

One little political note: I don’t quite understand why, with “The Immortal Story”, you should choose to set a story in China and not have it feature any Chinese people except servants. Instead we’ve got a Scroogey Englishman, a beautiful and impetuous Frenchwoman, a Jew with Asperger’s and a young, dumb Dane. But perhaps that’s what the spell of Canton was back then – a land where whites ran away to, to survive – and the same reason why Singapore is mentioned in the same story, as a place whereof the less is said, the better.

Leaving my home country at 5pm today, btw. Will be visiting a friend in Hanover, then back to school again! Looking forward and fearing at the same time, would you believe it.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: (from “The Immortal”)  Elishama stood and looked after him. When the big young figure was no longer in sight, he himself lifted the shell to his ear. There was a deep, low surge in it, like the distant roar of great breakers. Elishama’s face took on exactly the same expression as the sailor’s face a few moments ago. He had a strange, gentle, profund shock, from the sound of a new voice in the house, and in the story. “I have heard it before,” he thought, “long ago. Long, long ago. But where?”

Next book: William Heinesen’s Black Cauldron, from the Faroe Islands.

No comments: