Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.25.2018
Book from: Personal collection

On a rainy night in the winter of 1874, on an avenue in Paris, a drunken young girl came up and spoke to me. I was then, as you will understand, quite a young man. I was very upset and unhappy, and was sitting bareheaded in the rain on a seat along the avenue becaues I had just parted from a lady whom, as we said then, I did adore, and who had within this last hour tried to posion me.

This, though it has nothing to do with what I was going to tell you, was in itself a curious story…

from “The Old Chevalier”

I’m so, so very glad that I finally read this, almost 10 years after picking it up in a used bookstore. Dinesen’s gothic tales are very elegant and very strange, in a way that’s difficult to communicate. But their strangeness has to do, I think, with their extreme subtlety (if such a thing can exist), the way that the narrator always seems to be smiling very gently as she delicately manipulates the pieces of the story into a more pleasing – yet curious – configuration. The surprises are frequent and witty yet so quiet that I often ended up laughing not so much at the surprise itself, as at the fact that it almost flowed by me unremarked.

Many of her stories do have a puzzle-box construction, where the pieces gradually become available, and a “solution” is eventually possible, revealing a full picture, a completed tableau. (References to marionette theater are frequent, and the clearest moral and artistic ethic that Dinesen offers is an ideal of humanity as actors arranged through the action of the divine.) Such solutions, if directly addressed by the characters, tend to be declared only in a handful of half-obscured phrases, which leaves one with a sense of a kind of twilight elegance and, again strangeness – frail, fey silhouettes glimpsed from a distance against a sunset sky.

Dinesen loves liminally gendered characters (and so I love her!): cross-dressing women, gay or bisexual men, women of all ages who are obsessed with defending their virginity – but especially old maids, whom Dinesen writes frequently and with fascinating psychological sharpness. They project their unrealized hopes or distorted convictions onto the young around them with such ferocity that they cannot be merely tragic figures.

But back to gayness – one of my absolute favorite Dinesen Surprises is still the “old chevalier” who elaborately bemoans his past difficulties with his lovely mistress, only to drop in after several pages a casual mention that her chief complaint of him was that “I thought more of her husband than I did of her.” And he concludes: “I had no reply, for I knew that she was right […] If I had known him before I met her, I do not think that I should ever have dreamed of falling in love with his wife.”

YES. Just the best way to strike an Emera dead with delighted surprise.

There is also quite a lot of emotional or obliquely suggested incest… again, Gothic tropes executed in the most oblique possible manner. In “The Supper at Elsinore,” for example, a sister realizes with bliss that she has “consummated” her passion for her runaway pirate brother when she learns that he named his beloved ship after her. Weird.

It is surprisingly easy – given how damn much Gothic fiction I read – for me to say that I have never read anything that reads quite like Dinesen. The easiest comparison, and obvious actual literary predecessor, is E. T. A. Hoffmann, for his own brand of twisty, Germanic strangeness. But what I think differentiates Dinesen from the rest of the Gothic is that sense of cool, slightly detached wit: she doesn’t have the frantic heat, the morbid hysteria that typically powers the Gothic.

I suggest that two things account for this aesthetic distance. First, her sense of the workings of the divine, as mentioned above, which creates a subtly more consolatory tone than most Gothic work expresses. Her characters still live in a violent and selfish universe, but nonetheless a sense of intentionality, of a kind of aesthetic and moral balance, underlies everything. Second, her distinct and genuine nostalgia for the fading past – specifically the aristocratic past. I think this aristocratic nostalgia is largely what creates the stories’ air of “long ago, far away, in a twilight, somewhere.” And honestly, it reminds me of Tolkien. All things shall fade and pass into the West, including the French monarchy (boy, is Dinesen hung up on the Revolution) and bisexual chevaliers of surpassing elegance and questionable decision-making capacities…

Related reading:

Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu (1861-1923): review by Emera

Winter into spring, some short fiction reads: review by Emera

“Rappacini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844): review by Emera

3 thoughts on “Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (1935) E”

  1. I’ve never read Dinesen. All I know of her is what I learned from Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. But now I want to read her.

    After six years, I can say that Emera is probably the most literate lady I have ever encountered. Is she a goth, because she looks like one in her photograph(albeit more adorable than a goth is supposed to be).

    1. Everyone should read Dinesen! (Though who am I to talk: I still haven’t read/seen Out of Africa.) I was amazed when I learned that she was considered for the Nobel multiple times, yet most of her work is no longer in the public eye.

      Always a Goth at heart, but the photo is Eli the vampire from Let the Right One In.

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