When I first read Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen’s ‘Seven Gothic Tales’ back in my early twenties they had quite an impact on me, so I was a bit miffed forty years on to find how much I had forgotten of them. The most powerful of the stories, ‘The Monkey’, I’d forgotten completely, whereas the one I’d enjoyed most at the time, ‘The Dreamers’, now seemed a little too ‘Gothic’, although still a thrilling read. It is also the only story of the group that is (nominally) set in Africa in what is a very Eurocentric book.
But what an odd book this is! Published in 1934, set in the early 19th century harking back to the 18th, it is almost as though the First World War and ensuing modernist revolution has never happened, save for the deep seam of nostalgia and lost Romanticism. Although Blixen officially wrote the stories when she permanently returned to Denmark from Kenya, I can’t believe that they weren’t recited, written, written, recited (all those stories within stories) the many long evenings with or without company she spent in her stately colonial redoubt on her coffee farm (no electronic distractions). The very fact they were written in English is testament to this; she had spoken nothing else for seventeen years. Like Conrad and Nabokov, Blixen’s English is not entirely natural, but unlike them, she aims for a refinement and purity rather than a virtuosic verbosity, at one with her aristocratic ideals. She puts everything she wants to into these tales, they are her own private creative fantasy for her own entertainment before others, and the odd conjunctions and anachronisms arising from her individual indulgences are a large part of their originality and charm.
It was that originality that struck me most that first reading, and this time as well. I could see how Blixen had borrowed from Hoffman and Stevenson, and probably Poe, she might have read Poe in Baudelaire’s translation, but it seems to me that none of these writers contain the psychological depth and complexity of Blixen, so we can assume that the modern psychological novel, James certainly, has also had an influence. And Shakespeare, of course, who she references continually. But why are they ‘Gothic’ and what does this mean? Without trotting out the usual bells and whistles readers bring to mind when they think of Gothic Lit., and certainly most of those are here (an actual ghost appears and chats in ‘The Supper at Elsinore’ which seems entirely natural in context), beyond the merely sensational and melodramatic, what is fascinating about the Gothic is how it was used as a device to show and discuss the subconscious. Well before Freud tried to pin them down, the Romantic poets and the Gothic novelists extensively evoked subconscious urges in metaphor and symbol. It’s the underlying power in works such as ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, and so too in these stories. And you can’t pin them down here, because they are the stories themselves, so as you read, the writing is always radiating various possibilities of meaning.
Has this book dated? In terms of sexual mores, yes, certainly, one aspect that will put off some modern readers, but all Blixen’s values are of a piece, bundled up with her personal (feudal) aristocratic take on the world, specific modes of behaviour with God at the top and a descending order of being. Although the money for the farm came from her side of the union with Baron Blixen, Karen Blixen went to Africa partly so she could be an aristocrat, even a ‘noble’. Her marriage gave her the title, and colonial Africa gave her the castle and the serfs, and also many opportunities for noblesse oblige. By our post-colonial lights, this is all wrong, and anyway it was never going to last, that’s largely what ‘Out of Africa’ is about, but Africa allowed Blixen to live the way she felt she ought to live, what she was born for, and that view of life and its values are embedded in these tales.
Uppermost is honour, acting honourably, or failing to. ‘The Old Chevalier’ as a young chevalier treats a prostitute as a princess and so she briefly becomes one, whereas the young soldier in ‘The Monkey’ practically rapes an innocent to force her into marriage to hide his homosexuality, and with this act releases physical evil into the world. The differing settings/societies Blixen presents are all elaborately coded, characters wear many masks; they deceive others, or, as in ‘The Poet’, deceive themselves. The reader is often second guessing (what is really going on here?) giving the stories at times the tension of a thriller, as for example in ‘The Deluge at Nordeney’ where the final revelation, like a modern detective story, evokes a sort of existential despair. And I really never did work out what was going on in ‘The Roads around Pisa’ which presented to my mind like one of those Celtic patterns, always elaborately turning in on itself.
Endlessly fascinating and compelling, escapist but also genuinely disturbing, there is nothing quite like ‘Seven Gothic Tales’, well nothing I’ve come across. Do yourself a favour and curl up with this book one dark and stormy night, or even one bright and sunny day.