Out of Blixen | Karen Blixen / Isak Dinesen: Paul Tickell

Out of Blixen | Karen Blixen / Isak Dinesen: Paul Tickell

All of Blixen’s stories grip you – what is going to happen next? All of them evoke an intriguing atmosphere and sense of place. Whether it’s a rough bar in a seaport, the opulent boudoir in a country mansion, or the cloistered solitude of an abbey, Blixen takes you there on her magic carpet. Many of her stories are set in the 18th and 19th century but they feel like they belong as much to dreamtime as to any historical period.

In spite of this sense of enchantment and of a parallel universe, Blixen’s gaze is detached, unflinchingly trained on the violence, eroticism and disturbed mental states which lie below the surface. Everything is presented with great, even classical control lending her prose a rationalist, 18c feel. But this very control, together with her search for the right word and her measured powers of description, allows her the license to delve all the deeper into the darkness of the human psyche.

It’s a perverse, even cruel place laid bare but echoing with laughter. Displaying irony and a wit, Blixen is like a dandy dancing over the abyss – a pierrot or clown entering the lion’s den.

It’s this sense of risk and playfulness which gives her work a very modernist sensibility. This is further reflected in the innovative form and structure of the stories. Many of them are stories-within-stories, a Chinese-box effect which plays with the reader’s sense of the real – especially when tales are told not just by one but several narrators.

The shifting tone is further enhanced by the seamless way in which Blixen weaves together mythology, folklore and the ancient story-telling traditions of the the bible and the Arabian Nights. Then there is the range of her political philosophical reference, drawing in particular on the feminism which began to emerge out of the 18th century Enlightenment.

But she also embraced what has been called the Dark Enlightenment, the revival of interest in magic, hermeticism and the occult. Her work teems with characters who are magicians and witches.

She once described herself as a witch. But she was also very aware of the tawdry, fake side of magic – reflected in all those mountebanks, charlatans and tricksters who also populate her work. There is a thin line between the artist and the con artist, between Jesus the miracle worker and Simon Magus the magician for hire. Along this thin line Blixen drives a coach and horses, all the while its occupants conveying stories to each other.

Blixen knew that as a writer she could never return to the oral tradition of story-telling. But she does evoke it, particularly the female tradition of the pre-literate storyteller in The Blank Page. Women, like their male counterparts – sailors, ploughmen and masons – would tell stories while they worked, weaving cloth and spinning yarns. Textiles and the text: they share the same etymological root, the story and the cloth, the narrator and the weaver. Blixen’s typewriter is her loom.

Paul Tickell

April 10, 2017