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What a piece of work is Karen Blixen

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Karen_Blixen.jpgI don't think I'm competent to judge whether Karen Blixen is any good as a writer.  I admire good plotting and page-turnability too highly.  I fall in love with authorial voices that don't take themselves too seriously, that mock themselves, that deliver the heavy news with the light tone.  I value substance over facade too much to venerate aristocracy. 

In short, Karen Blixen probably couldn't speak to me with her writing, even if she was any good, which I can't tell whether she is.  Certainly, she's maddening.  In "Sorrow-Acre," the second story in Winter's Tales, a five-page tangent about the 17 year-old bride of a 60-plus aristocrat - during which the young mistress yearns for someone who is never present and meditates on a flea's willingness (alone among creaturedom) to risk its life for her blood - leads nowhere.  In "The Pearls," another story from the same collection, Henrik Ibsen makes a baffling appearance, and a cobbler's revelation that he added a pearl to the protagonist's necklace ruins her marriage - why that might be is anyone's guess.  In "Alkmene," also from Winter's Tales, a mysterious foundling child insists on watching an execution after her adopted father dies - she hints that the purpose of observing the spectacle is to deter her from committing murder like the condemned man - and then, upon receiving a marriage proposal from the story's narrator, claims that she herself has died, whereupon she moves to the country with her adopted mother and runs a sheep farm. 

Reading Blixen's stories, I was reminded of Tim Parks' frustrated review of Anne Enright's The Gathering in The New York Review of Books.  Enright's extraordinary talent, as I see it, is her bizarre ability to evoke the experience - captivation, terror, revelation, relief - of dreaming (in fact, her work fades for me after I close the covers, just as dreams do upon waking).  But the ability of a dream to cast its spell on a non-dreamer is limited - indeed, to the outsider, a dream is often an easily-dismissed irrationality - and Enright, like all stylists, cannot be appreciated by a reader who doesn't get her style.  (Imagine your consternation - to pace Tim Parks' - if what appears to be someone else's dream-babble won the Booker.)

But Blixen herself may have cut closer to the truth in her final story in Winter's Tales, "A Consolatory Tale."  In it, a character explains,

What exactly [the imposter to the Prince] has told the people I cannot report, partly because his sayings seem to be deep and twofold, so that those who have heard them do not remember them, and partly because he really does not say much.  But the impression which he has made is sure to be very profound.

(p. 298.)  Later, the imposter utters the following enigma: "Life and Death are two locked caskets, each of which contains the key to the other."  (p. 303.)  In other words, this imposter bore a striking resemblance to Kahlil Gibran (or his modern day incarnate, Paulo Coelho).

Stylist or fraud, that's the question.

(Photo courtesy of Tate Britain.)

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