I had known, from Judith Thurman's biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, that Karen Blixen intended her stories to be read aloud and listened to. Hearing Karen Blixen tell her own story in her creaky-resonant voice with her old-lady inflection, I understood why. The story on the page was two dimensions to the oral form's three.
Karen Blixen had a sense of humor, but - unlike Rabelais - it wasn't primarily scatological, physical or premised on misunderstandings. These types of humor are sturdy vehicles that can survive the abuses of time and transmutations into different formats.
Karen Blixen's sense of humor, on the other hand, is a fragile tone, easily lost in the migration of form and context. On the page, I could understand why Karen Blixen might be thought to have been funny. Hearing her tell her story, it was funny. She earned her laughs from the audience.
Moreover, in the oral form of the story, I realized that she was poking fun at herself with her account of how her friends in Denmark thought she was a snob for sending a lion skin to King Christian X; her self-deprecation - obvious in the oral form, muted on the page - made her likable. Listening to Karen Blixen's tale, I was transported to a younger time, when I sat at my grandmother's kitchen table, listening to her tell stories with gentle punch lines. (For this reason, I selected a photo of Karen Blixen, above, that reminds me of my grandmother.)
Beyond the restored humor, however, the oral form of the story took on a completely different meaning. "A Letter from a King" begins by recounting an event that Karen Blixen describes in Out of Africa: a New Year's Day outing that ends with Karen shooting a lion perched on the carcass of a giraffe. When they see the lion, Denys Finch-Hatton hands Karen his rifle and tells her to shoot it. She doesn't like to use his gun; it's too big. But, she says, the shot is for love, so shouldn't it use the largest caliber weapon?
The anecdote is a significant one to Blixenania lore. Karen Blixen herself repeats it in both Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. Errol Trzebinksi begins her biography of Denys Finch-Hatton, Silence Will Speak, with a retelling of the episode. Judith Thurman interprets the shot of love as being for Denys Finch-Hatton.
But when Karen Blixen tells the story, the love is unquestionably for the lion. Hunting, she insists, is like a love affair. Usually, she admits, the passion is one-sided. The hunter is in love; the prey, not so much. But with lions, she insists, it's different: they want to kill her as much as she wants to shoot them.
This meaning (and its attendant humor) were largely lost on me when I read Shadows on the Grass and Out of Africa. I was busy focusing on where the text betrayed clues of her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton (who she refers to as her "friend" in "A Letter from a King").
But this subtextual obsession is exactly what Karen Blixen's oral performance obviates. Reading from the page, I capitulated to the temptation to wander from her path, to sniff - like a pig hunting truffles - for buried treasure, to read with my own agenda. Listening to Karen Blixen tell her tale, however, I was led where she wanted me to go, directed to the treasure before my eyes, engaged by her story in her voice.
For whatever reason - whether the clamor of her personal life has deafened readers to her literary voice, or whether English is too foreign a vehicle for her voice to carry on the page, or whether she's simply a storyteller in the ancient model of epic poet, and her tales work better orally - Karen Blixen's storytelling voice only emerged fully for me when I heard the recording.
It's a voice worth hearing.
The Karen Blixen Museum would do well to make her oeuvre available, where possible, in podcast.
(Photograph of Karen Blixen by Hugo Hellsten, taken at Rungstedlund, in 1957, on Kulturplakaten)