I read the first four stories in Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales several years ago. I have no idea why I then put the book aside, since I liked those stories quite a bit. I’ve now read the last three tales in the collection, and I’m even more impressed. Isak Dinesen is probably better known today under her real name, Karen Blixen, thanks to the success of the 1980s movie version of her book Out of Africa.
Karen Blixen was born in Denmark in 1885. She lived for some years in Kenya, returning to Denmark in the 1930s. She died in 1962.
Seven Gothic Tales, published in 1934 when she was 49 years old, was her first book. Oddly enough, although she was Danish she wrote in English. She then translated them herself into Danish. Even more confusingly, her books were published in some countries under the name Isak Dinesen and in other countries under her own name.
Although they are described as gothic tales don’t expect the usual gothic clichés (although ghosts do make an occasional appearance). In some ways her writing resembles that of the magic realists, but it’s a very subtle kind of magic realism. Odd things sometimes happen, but they’re never bizarre or spectacular odd things. They’re just enough to let you know that Dinesen has no interest in the kinds of naturalism or social realism that were approved by literary critics at the time she started writing.
Her plots are intricate and often involve stories within stories, or in the case of The Dreamers stories within stories within stories. She is fascinated by the stories we tell about ourselves, and the way we define our personalities according to the way others perceive us.
The Supper at Elsinore tells of two sisters and the brother who disappeared many years before. From time to time they hear tales of him, tales which may or may not be true. In his absence he dominates their lives to a greater extent than he could ever have done by his presence.
The Poet is the story of a man who, when young, had literary ambitions of his own. He has now abandoned ideas of writing and seeks to fulfil those ambitions by nurturing a young poet, and by creating this young man as his own invention, as a kind of work of art. The Dreamers, a magnificent story, unfolds like a series of Chinese nested boxes, and tells the story of a woman who may or may not be three other women.
Seven Gothic Tales was a stunning literary debut, and I can’t recommend it too highly.