We are told that after his professional triumphs in Stockholm, the great opera singer Achille Papin ‘laid his way back to France round the Norwegian coast.’ This is not an implausible journey if he were visiting that country’s south-eastern shores, say Oslo or Kristiansand, but he finds himself – and the heavenly singing voice of Philippa – in the very far north, at Berlevåg, one of the last human dwellings before the Arctic, a literal end of the world. Achille Papin is indeed lost in his soul, but that’s a northward diversion of about fifteen hundred sea miles.
The traveller Karen Blixen must know, so she must not mind. Which reminds us again of the fairytale force of her storytelling: its light and confident once-upon-a-time-ness. The sisters have Three Visits – Lorens, Achille and Babette – and the last is the revelation that makes sense of the others. They live in a yellow house; their father walked upon the water; the General is haunted by the huldre; suddenly years pass. But this quality in Blixen is mixed with profound human insight, as if a tale spun by Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm had slowed down and made luminous the actual passing moments.
I have tried in the retelling to do justice to both qualities, spinning the big and little wheels of time, while letting her people sound their hearts. Babette’s Feast is the kind of crystalline story through which all readers can trace their own different paths of light. What I saw was Babette Hersant, her husband and son both slain in the carnage of 1871. To the Communards she’s a hero, to her government a terrorist, and as Paris descends into chaos the prospect of Berlevåg, a safe and peaceful haven, a welcoming fireside, must seem to Babette more fairytale than likelihood, more blind faith than sure belief. Yet she flees her home to save her life, baffles and is misunderstood by those who greet her in the far North – and yet they shelter her, welcome her, save her, and are at last rewarded beyond all expectation, on a night they could only have imagined taking place in their Heaven. It seems we dwell now in a country where open arms for the wretched can only be imagined. We had better take our Heavens where we find them.