Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen (1934)

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen (1885 – 1962) is a masterful collection of short stories by the Danish author best known for Out of Africa (1937), a now-controversial memoir of her life as a coffee plantation owner in the colonized Kenya of the 1920s.

In 1931, the plantation’s fortunes collapsed, and she returned to her family home in Denmark from Kenya. Karen Christenze Dinesen was the author’s original name, and she was known as Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, or simply Karen Blixen, during her disastrous marriage.

Upon her return to her home country, she began writing in earnest. In 1934, Seven Gothic Tales, a collection of stories she had written in English, was published.

 

A surprise success by a Danish author in the U.S.

Seven Gothic Tales was a surprise success in the U.S., even becoming a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection. It set the stage for the thematic character of her fiction, which was an amalgam of the real and the mythic, and incorporating elements of Persian and West Indian exotica.

Storytelling is actually a part of some of her stories — that is, stories are told within the stories; and characters are sometimes archetypes rather than fully fleshed-out people. She wrote of her work:

“Reality had met me … in such an ugly shape, that I have no wish to come into contact with it again. Somewhere in me a dark fear was still crouching and I took refuge within the fantastic like a distressed child in his book of fairy tales …

I belong to the ancient, idle, wild, and useless tribe, perhaps I am even one of the last members of it, who, for many thousands of years, in all countries and parts of the world,  has, now and again, stayed for a time among the hard working honest people in real life, and sometimes has thus been fortunate enough to create another sort of reality for them, which, in some way or another, has satisfied them. I am a storyteller … ”

 

The use of the term gothic

Commenting on the designation of these tales as gothic, the Karen Blixen Museum offers this insight

“Some of the foremost Anglo-Saxon authors of 19th century had written Gothic tales and novels: Robert Louis Stevenson, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner – all of whom feature in Karen Blixen’s private library. Karen Blixen adopted a very free approach to the traditional Gothic genre, but she worked within a number of its parameters.

The themes of Gothic novels include: the collapse of feudal aristocracy; young heroes and heroines held captive in ancient castles and convents by powerful and manipulative men; the tyranny of the past stifling the hopes of the present generation. Women writers were especially fond of the genre – presumably because its traditional themes of oppression and persecution went hand-in-hand with women’s experience of lack of freedom and independence in a patriarchal society.”

 

Endeavoring to describe the indescribable

In her introduction to the 1934 Modern Library edition of Seven Gothic Tales, Dorothy Canfield Fisher endeavors to describe the unusual flavor, so to speak of the tales:

“Although solidly set in an admirably described factual background somewhere on the same globe we inhabit, in a past mostly no longer ago than sometime in the nineteenth century, although they are human beings, young men, maidens, old men, old women, they are unlike us and the people we know in books and in real life, because the attitude towards life which they have is different from ours, or from any attitude we have met in life or in books …

Where, you will ask yourself, puzzled, have I ever encountered such strange slanting beauty of phrase, clothing such arresting but controlled fantasy? As for me, I don’t know where.”

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Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)

Learn more about Isak Dinesen
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The following 1934 review reflects the accolades the book received in the U.S., even as reviewers attempted to define the ineffable quality of the writing:

 

A 1934 review of Seven Gothic Tales

From the original review of Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen in The Salt Lake Tribune, April 29, 1934:  One will find much difficulty in assaying this volume, in determining just wherein lies ints peculiar fascination. These Seven Gothic Tales, or novelettes, as they might be called have nothing of the manner or style of anything else being written contemporaneously.

There is an air of classicism about them, a suggestion of Bocaccio, of the German romantics, or even the richness of Scheherazade’s tales. Yet only a suggestion; they’re truly unlike anything else one can recall. The author takes us into a world peopled by characters that are strange to us, and who have a way of life that’s unfamiliar.

Filled with Danish history, lore, and legend

Isak Dinesen comes of an old Danish family, we are told, and while she chooses to write in English, it’s a Continental attitude of mind that’s revealed. Some of her tales are filled with Danish history, lore, and legend.

In “The Roads Round Pisa,” it is a young Danish nobleman who, seeking in a journey to Tuscany to learn something of the truth about himself, becomes a spectator at a curious chain of events. For this, as for any of the other tales, a proper preface might be found in the words of a character in “The Dreamers” — “It happened just as I tell it to you … You must take in whatever you can, and leave the rest outside. It is not a bad thing in a tale that you can understand only half of it.”

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Babette's Feast film

Babette’s Feast, the 1958 Short Story by Isak Dinesen and 1987 Film
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Slightly grotesque characters grip the imagination

While the actors in these tales are strange, slightly grotesque, and their experiences fantastic, they grip the imagination. The Gothic mood of the stories grows on us, and while we read we’re bound by the author’s spell, and see these people as she saw them, as though she held some secret vision that we may not share.

All of the tales are set back in previous century, and are intricate in structure, designed like some exquisite early mosaic. “The Dreamers,” full of mystical meaning, tells of the beautiful opera singer who, grieving the loss of her voice, gives up her personality also. She becomes more than one person, a woman who never grows old.

Peculiar qualities of family and romance

That is also the peculiar quality of the family in “The Supper at Elsinore.” Two brilliant sisters, like a “pair of spiritual courtesans,” still keep their admirers; the pirate brother who returns long after his death to call upon these two women who loved him in a strange tryst.

A tinge of eroticism marks most of the tales, most especially “The Monkey.” In this tale, a noble Prioress goes to strange lengths to arrange a marriage to save a dissolute nephew, and a small gray monkey plays a weird part. At dinner with the young woman he is to marry, the thoughts of Boris, the nephew, are described:

“He thought that she must have a lovely, an exquisitely beautiful skeleton. She would lie in the round like a piece of matchless lace, a work of art in ivory … he imagined that he might be very happy with her, that he might even fall in love with her, could he have her in her beautiful bones alone … Many human relations, he thought, would be infinitely easier if they could be carried out in the bones only.”

Delicate beauty of writing

In “The Deluge at Norderney,” the most arresting of the tales, the flood that destroyed a coast town of Holstein — coming in summertime, it assumed “the character of a terrible, grim joke” — becomes the setting for the stories of four people: a cardinal who wasn’t a cardinal, a half-mad spinster of the noble Nat-of-Dag, and two unusual young people. These four are revealed during the hours of the night while the waters rise to the loft where they take shelter.

More than the unexpectedness of these tales, with their startling grotesqueries and fantastic incident, is the delicate beauty of the writing. This mysterious Danish author has mastered an exquisite prose style.

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Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

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