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I don't know if Karen Blixen ever read Guy de Maupassant's story, "Boule de suif
" - probably she did. She'd lived in Paris as a student and spoke French. Maupassant was (and still is) a writer who enjoyed wide popular acclaim; his work would likely have been unavoidable for young Blixen.
The question arose because my first thought on reading "Boule de suif" was its remarkable parallels with a (much later written) story by Karen Blixen, "The Heroine," which appeared in her second collection, Winter's Tales
Both stories take place during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71. In both stories, a band of French travelers are stopped by Germans. A German officer in both stories demands sexual favors from one of the French women. In both stories, the woman works in the sex trade. And in both stories, the woman's companions - who, in both stories, include a pair of nuns - are instrumental in the outcome. Yet the two stories are totally different.
In "Boule de suif," the woman, Elisabeth Rousett (known as "Boule de suif" or "suet dumpling") is a prostitute. Her companions in her traveling coach initially snub her, but they welcome her into their society after she shares her food with them. When the German officer arrests the progress of their party, however, Boule de suif's companions pressure her until she relents and complies with his demands. The German officer allows their party to proceed, and the companions regress into their haughty exclusion of Boule de suif. The story ends with everyone in the coach refusing to share their food with her, while she cries, and one of the men hums "The Marseillaise."
In "The Heroine," the woman, Heloise, appears to be a lady of some distinction. She and her companions at an inn are trying to cross from Germany into Luxembourg. A German officer tells Heloise that he will grant the laissez-passer if she comes to him naked. She demands that the officer present the request to her companions. Led by an elderly priest, who weakly waves his arms, they all give some sign of refusal, and the party is sent outside. They fear they will be shot. But a German officer comes with the laissez-passer and a bouquet of flowers, which he presents to Heloise, "to a heroine."
After the war, one of the men who'd been with Heloise that night, a scholar named Frederick, goes to a nightclub in Paris where he sees Heloise - far from being a woman of distinction - performing naked in a titillating show called "Diana's revenge." After the show, Heloise has a drink with him, during which she muses that, during their showdown with the German officer, their companions were running a worse risk than being shot. Had they made her do what the German had demanded,
[t]hey would have repented it all their lives, and have held themselves to be great sinners. . . . for those people it would have been better to be shot than to live on with a bad conscience.
(p. 86). When Frederick asks her why she is sure of this conclusion, she replied, "Oh, I know that kind of people well . . . . I was brought up amongst poor, honest people myself." (Id.
This comparison between Maupassant's "Boule de suif" and Blixen's "The Heroine" brings Blixen's romanticism into sharp relief . . . and possibly some ridicule. Romanticism in and of itself doesn't deprive a work of its plausibility - people behave romantically often enough - but as the side-by-side with "Boule de suif" clarifies, Blixen's romanticism was normative, not descriptive. She wrote about how people should be, not about how they are. And how Blixen thought people should be can seem a bit ridiculous today.
In Maupassant's hands, the social pressure exerted on Boule de suif to force her to comply with the German officer's request that she perform exactly what she would do for her job seems dehumanizing and cruel. In Blixen's telling, Heloise's refusal to ensure the safe passage of herself and her companions by doing exactly what she does for her job seems foolishly proud; and Heloise's insistence that her companions would have been better off being shot, than having supported her in her honor, seems naive, if not offensive.
At the end of the stories, it is Maupassant, not Blixen, who has made me feel empathy for the prostitute, who has inspired me to insist on her dignity, on her human entitlement not to be sexually degraded, whatever she does to earn a living. Who, then, is the romantic? Maupassant, who lays the groundwork for realization of an ideal by showing us reality; or Blixen, who shows us a peculiar ideal, the realization of which seems not merely impossible, but ill-advised?
If Karen Blixen did read "Boule de suif" before writing "The Heroine," she didn't appear to take from it its most salient lessons.
(Image of Guy de Maupassant from Narrative Magazine
Today is the closing date for the "NotAboutKarenBlixen" exhibition at The Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark. A collection of collaborative work between Kenyan, Danish and other artists from around the world, "NotAboutKarenBlixen" featured an installation performance art piece called "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" by Gillion Grantsaan (pictured above) and Ato Malinda (pictured below). Gillion and Ato constructed a shanty outside Karen Blixen's writing studio (pictured below), an artistic home for homeless real and imaginary writers in migration. Gillion and Ato invited a number of writers (including myself) to collaborate on the installation. Below is the piece I wrote in connection with the installation, which - consistent with the installation's themes of nomadism, immigration, displacement, alienation and assimilation - I developed in Denmark, wrote in Italy, and mailed to the The Karen Blixen Museum from England.
Maya Alexandri's stream-of-consciousness meditation on themes relating to Gillion Grantsaan's and Ato Malinda's installation "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" in the "Not About Karen Blixen" show at The Karen Blixen Museum, Rungstedlund, Denmark
Boats are destabilizing.
On a boat, humans come closest to experiencing the movement of the planet. Standing on the deck of a water bus in Venice, with the deck rocking beneath me, I place my backpack at my feet and worry about it slipping between the slats of the gangway gate and sinking. I watch an older couple standing at the wheel of a speedboat passing us. Neither member of the couple looks to be in great shape, and I am amazed that they remain upright as the lagoon bounces their speedboat into an imitation of an airplane taking-off.
Perhaps because of their ability to connect humans with the reality of the earth's motion, boats are vehicles of momentousness. Pirates sail on boats. Slavers carried their human cargo across the world on boats. Karen Blixen sailed to Kenya, and Paul Gaugin to Tahiti, and King Claudius banished Hamlet to England by boat.
Hamlet was kidnapped by pirates.
At Kronberg Castle in Helsingor, Hamlet's abode, the Maritime Museum contains a small visual memento of Denmark's slave trade: a painting of a slave ship below deck (pictured right). Black people, naked, peer out from where they are stacked in horizontal berths. Descending into their squalor are a black cabin boy and a black steward, both impeccably dressed. The painting is beautiful: did the artist think he was documenting a horror?
In a later room in the Maritime Museum, in an exhibit about Danish emigrants to the United States, the display is accompanied by the following blurb:
In the early days of emigration the voyage was made by sailing ship with the emigrant supplying his own food and drink, which had to keep for up to six weeks without refrigeration. Added to this was the lack of ventilation and bad hygiene, not to mention seasick passengers. Even though steamships and increased competition gradually improved conditions one can still safely conclude that a trip in emigrant class was often like a trip on a slave ship - an experience for life!
Whatever the phrase, "experience for life," means, emigrants, colonists and slaves all have it. Transplants, (mal)adjusters, uprooted, disconnected, identity-inventors - all. The difference is choice and humanity. Those who choose to uproot themselves may be crazy, but they're not property.
Paul Gaugin was crazy. Although he may have been born with a predisposition in this direction, at his death, the cause of his mental illness was syphilis. Who knows how long syphilis addled his brain?
When he arrived in Tahiti and learned that missionaries had banished paganism and converted the island a hundred years previously, he was despondent. He carved his own pantheon of pagan gods. He was going to out-savage the savages. He was determined to paint like a primitive.
What did Gaugin think "painting like a primitive" meant? Was he seeking a visual palette free from the overbearing influences of the Old Masters, of the Romantics, of the Impressionists? Was he enraptured by the stereotype of pure, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, uncivilized primitives? Did he think painting like a primitive was beautiful? Or was he just crazy?
Mette Gad probably regretted that Gaugin was a colonist (a pariah within the French colonial system in Tahiti, perhaps, but still a colonist), and not a slave. A crazy husband with no property was no good to her and their five children, freezing in Copenhagen while Paul was sunning his syphilitic phallus in Tahiti. At least if he'd been a slave, she could have sold him. (Being married to Paul Gaugin must have been an experience for life.)
Paul Gaugin never enriched Mette Gad, though. Carl Jacobsen was another matter. Gaugin's Danish wife correlated with a disproportionately large number of Gaugin's paintings landing in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the museum in Copenhagen housing Jacobsen's collection. In the Glyptotek's sophisticated, well-appointed nineteenth century art wing, Gaugin's paintings don't look particularly primitive. They don't have the appearance of paintings best viewed on a boat.
I wonder if Karen Blixen ever saw the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection. If she did, what did she feel? A visual artist before she was a writer, Karen, too, had painted "primitives." She, too, had sailed on a boat to live among primitives. She, too, sought to understand their customs, religion and mindsets. She, too, had syphilis. She, too, was a prominent authority on whom Danes relied for information about primitives. Did she see Paul Gaugin as her kindred?
Boarding my own boat - my imagination - I slip my toes inside Karen Blixen's feet and peer from her eye sockets at Paul Gaugin's painting, "Manao Tupapau." No, he is not my kindred. He is not noble; he represents nothing beyond himself. He's a sexual adventurer among the savages. I know his kind, and he wouldn't know the Crusades from the Renaissance.
(Isn't there always dissension among the ranks? Geniuses tend to despise each other. Byron and Shelley would've eventually hated each other if their premature deaths hadn't prevented them from doing so. Wordsworth's ultimate treatment of Coleridge is abominable. Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez couldn't remain friends.)
Imagining Karen Blixen viewing the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection, I am in a kind of matryoshka boat: a boat, within a smaller boat, within a boat smaller still. In the boat of my imagination, I sail on a boat of another sort: Denmark. For islands are boats more than other landmasses are. And the ground in Denmark is moving perceptibly.
Homogenous cultures breed conservatism that may mask the movement beneath the feet, but in the end it emerges because it exists: boats are destabilizing. Shaky ground is not the place for an unstable structure, but instability is relative. Paul Gaugin no doubt sailed on leaky ships, the Venetians rebuilt the Palazzo Ducale on its fire-damaged hulk, and a wobbly ladder didn't prevent Gillion and Ato from constructing the shack. Instability, after all, lasts only until it is assimilated or eclipsed by the next cataclysm.
Every life - if we're lucky - includes more than one experience for life.
(All photographs taken by Maya Alexandri)
On 24 September 2010, I gave a talk at the Karen Blixen Museum
in Rungstedlund, Denmark, about my process of researching Karen Blixen's life for purposes of writing my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband
. In my talk, I emphasized the differences between historical research to establish verifiable facts and literary research to spark the imagination. I described the reading, travel and blogging that formed the better part of my process, as well as the issues that arose in the course of my research and how I resolved them. You can listen to my talk here
(the full talk is an hour and thirteen minutes).
At the Karen Blixen Museum
in Rungstedlund, Denmark, floral arrangements complement the displays of furniture, paintings and tchotchkes from Karen Blixen's house. The flowers come from a special garden, specifically tended to provide fresh flowers for the Museum's arrangements. (After a slug invasion in the early nineties, a special, shin-high, slug-proof metal fence was erected around the garden to protect the flowers.)
The care and attention paid by the Museum to the details concerning the flower arrangements are because Karen Blixen herself was an accomplished floral arranger and considered arranging flowers a form of art. Photographs were taken of arrangements she'd made during her life, and the Museum claims that it "recreates" her arrangements.
Learning of this attempt at recreation, I thought of the Jorge Luis Borges story, "The Witness
." In this slender piece, a man dies in a stable. He dies in the Kingdom of England,
but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn, he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.
(p. 161.) Borges goes on to remind us that,
one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man's or woman's death . . . . In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of one man.
.) He wonders, "What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world?" (Id
.) His proposals, in contradistinction to the preceding examples, are intimate, personal and apparently historically insignificant:
The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?
Perhaps Borges believes that he has written down everything he witnessed worth preserving, so that when he dies all that remains will be meaningless outside his personal context. Or perhaps Borges believes that he lives in a time that cannot parallel the greatness of the ancients, so that anything he witnesses cannot be of historical significance. In any event, nothing in "The Witness" suggests a propensity on Borges' part to preserve his bar of sulfur in the drawer of his mahogany desk, and to project over it (on an endlessly repeating loop) an image of a bay horse in the vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, accompanied by a soundtrack of the voice of Macedonio Fernández.
In contrast to Borges' modesty, the efforts of the Karen Blixen Museum to ensure that Karen Blixen's flower arrangements do not die with her suggest a certain hubris that often accompanies hagiography. Immodest and immoderate love cannot distinguish the important from the trivial aspects of the beloved.
Similarly, the Karen Blixen Museum doesn't seem to appreciate that recreating Karen Blixen's floral arrangements is the kind of silly tribute that obsessives pay their objects of attention. The effort doesn't present itself as an obvious priority for a museum dedicated to preservation of and promotion of a legacy that, like Karen Blixen's, is thoughtful, subversive, humorous, and controversial. Rather, the emphasis and labor expended on the flowers suggests a focus on the fleeting and the decorative aspects, a preference for the pretty over the challenging.
In this respect, if not others, the world is a little poorer for Karen Blixen's death.
(Photograph of a flower arrangement in the Karen Blixen Museum gift shop taken by Maya Alexandri)
Visiting the Karen Blixen Museum
today in Rungstedlund, Denmark, I took advantage of the opportunity to listen to a 27-minute recording of Karen Blixen reciting her story, "A Letter from a King," in English, before an audience.
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
Storytellers don't have to be reliable to be entertaining. Great narrative voices can be widely off the mark - P.G. Wodehouse's marvelous Bertie Wooster is an example - and yet their own haplessness with facts and reality only deepens our delight in hearing what they have to say.
Lord Cranworth is an interesting example of an entertaining, unreliable narrative voice. Unlike Bertie Wooster, who is fictional, Lord Cranworth was real. And diverting further from Bertie Wooster, whose lack of reliability was the conscious intent of his creator, Cranworth didn't mean to be unreliable.
Cranworth has become unreliable in part because the passage of time has rendered so many of his opinions politically incorrect. "I dislike making contact with a black race which emphatically dissents from the superiority I claim for my race and colour," he writes of Ethiopians. (Lord Cranworth, Kenya Chronicles
But Cranworth has also become unreliable because his account of factual events diverges from other contemporaneous accounts. Here, for example, is Cranworth's version of the events leading up to the deportation of Galbraith Cole:
Galbraith Cole was one of the earliest pioneers, a brother-in-law of Lord Delamere, and deservedly one of the most popular inhabitants both with black and white. He had suffered repeatedly from thefts of cattle and sheep from his farm on Lake Elmenteita [sic], abutting the Masai Reserve. One day he caught a party of Masai red-handed driving off his sheep, and, having a rifle, fired a shot to frighten the delinquents. By an unfortunate mischance the shot struck one of the party, who subsequently died. The Government were placed in a position of difficulty. No local jury would, or indeed could, convict Cole of any major crime, and the tribe in question, with whom the punishment for cattle-stealing from time immemorial had been death, saw no justifiable grounds for complaint. On the other hand, a considerable opinion at home said that in the interest of our own rule and good name an example must be made. And again it is hard to dissent from that view. The Governor decided that it was a case for deportation, unpopular though the course might be.
His account omits several salient facts that Karen Blixen mentions about the event:
When Karen Blixen lectured at Lund University in 1938 she gave an example of Galbraith Cole's unswerving conviction, which a man of less fibre would have easily betrayed. Like the Masai he had killed, he paid his price without question:
The Judge said to Galbraith, 'It's not, you know, that we don't understand that you shot only to stop the thieves.' 'No,' Galbraith said, 'I shot to kill. I said that I would do so.'
'Think again, Mr. Cole,' said the judge. 'We are convinced that you only shot to stop them.'
'No, by God,' Galbraith said. 'I shot to kill.' He was then sentenced to leave the country and, in a way, this really caused his death.
Errol Trzebinksi, Silence Will Speak
76 (1977) (quoting Donald Hannah, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: the mask and the reality
In highlighting this disparity, I am not so much interested in which version is accurate, but in the relationship between an accurate grasp on facts and the formation of opinions that endure the test of time. My guess is that Cranworth wasn't just unlucky that public opinion shifted away from his conviction of white superiority; rather, I hazard that a certain disposition on his part to tamper with facts supported the formation of opinions that could not survive the eventual triumph of reality. Hence, the man could write of his early years in British East Africa:
Settlers were coming in with a steadily increasing flow. New, beautiful and undeveloped territories were being discovered and occupied. New crops were being tried out and new possibilities became probabilities almost monthly. Land values improved with great rapidity and the native population became more prosperous and infinitely happier and safer. No stigma rested at that time on the white settlers for the work that they were doing.
at 29 (emphasis added).)
Amusing to read now, but not very credible.
(Photo of Berkeley Cole and Lord Cranworth from Kenya Chronicles