This is the fifth article in in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
Karen Blixen was born Karen Christentze Dinesen in 1885 into a landed upper-class family on the Rungstedlund Manor, Northern Zealand, Denmark. She grew up lacking nothing: She had multiple servants, her own horses, good education with multiple trips abroad and her family was rubbing shoulders with the nobility. But all was not well.
Her father Wilhelm Dinesen had had an eventful life, fighting in wars and living as a hunter with Native Americans in Wisconsin, before returning to Denmark becoming a landowner and politician. He also wrote books. But in 1895 after some political failure, he hanged himself.
If her father had found it difficult to fit in to the bourgeoise society he came from, how much more difficult must it have been for Karen, who was highly intelligent, but as a woman, was much more restricted in her life choices than her father had been. Though excellent, her education had never been minted at her making a career for herself, but at making her an acceptable wife to some male specimen of her own class. She never accepted the simplified black-and-white values of good and bad, that she had been taught.
Karen wrote her first poems when she was only eight years old, and she continued writing fairytales and plays (that she performed with her sisters) and making drawings and illustrations to Shakespeare and Dickens. She started taking drawing lessons, and in 1907 she got some short stories published under the pseudonym “Osceola”. For most of her life Karen would publish under pseudonyms because of the influence it would have had on the reception of her works if the readers and critics new she was a woman.
She fell in love with the Swedish baron Hans von Blixen-Finecke, but it didn’t work out, and in 1910 she went to Paris to study painting. She didn’t find any happiness there either and she wrote that she was “so tired of the whole existence that I could vomit”.
In her early poem “Wings” the ending goes like this:
“Wonderful is the earth in summertime
when all the roses from their clothing burst,
but in its prison my heart sings
only of wings, only of wings”
If Karen was to find these wings, she would have to take more drastic action.
Karen gave up on her painting aspirations and in 1914 she married Hans’ brother baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke (thus joining the nobility as baroness and taking the surname Blixen) and emigrated with him to British East Africa, where they started a coffee farm together.
During her long stay in Africa, though marred by illness, economic troubles and marital problems (she was divorced from Bror in 1925), Karen found a freedom she had never experienced before:
“Here was finally a place that was able to give that freedom from all conventions, here was a new form of freedom, that I so far had only found in dreams.”
In Africa she met the British big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, with whom she developed a romantic relationship. He took her on safaris and even took her flying in his own little biplane, thus literally giving Blixen wings, and she repaid him with her storytelling. Later Karen and Denys would become estranged and in 1931, shortly before Blixen returned to Denmark because of economic troubles, Denys died in a crash with his airplane. It was also in Africa that she started writing on a more serious level. She would later publish her memoirs of her time in Africa as “Out of Africa”. In 1985 the book was the basis (though Hollywood took its liberties) of the movie of the same name that, won multiple academy awards including the best picture and made Karen Blixen world famous.
In 1934 after Blixen’s return to Denmark she managed to get her book “Seven Gothic Tales” published in the USA under the pseudonym “Isak Dinesen”. She had originally written it in English, during her stay in Africa, though she translated it to Danish and had it published in Denmark in 1935. This enchanting book was her great debut. It consists of seven fantasies of a semi-magical old Europe, where Blixen meditates over the nature and power of storytelling, often with stories inside the story, thus creating a layered structure, where the outermost story is perhaps Blixen’s and her readers own lives. This is also suggested by the use of mirrors as an image throughout the work, suggesting that stories are (twisted) mirrors of the real world.
Since she was a child Blixen had told stories. She cultivated an image of herself as a storyteller throughout her life, comparing herself with the legendary Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights and letting herself be depicted in countless wonderful and very self-consciously eccentric portraits. She never remarried, and though this might have been connected to the illness she contracted during her stay in Africa, it definitely contributed to the mystic, even mythical image promulgated of herself.
It is perhaps as a storyteller that Blixen found her true wings. One of the characters in the short story “Second Meeting” written in 1961, a year before her death, says:
“Certainly it is a great happiness to be able to turn the things which happen to you into stories. It is perhaps the one perfect happiness that a human being will find in life. But it is at the same time, inexplicably to the uninitiated, a loss, a curse even.”
Thus, Blixen, as opposed to her father, did in the end find her wings, though they didn’t come without costs.
In 1962 Blixen died 77 years old at Rungstedlund, highly successful both in Denmark and abroad, and recognized for a number of remarkable works including “Seven Gothic Tales”, “Out of Africa” and “Winter’s tales”.
All of Blixen’s major works are available in English. “Out of Africa” has been translated into Chinese, and the movie of the same name can be found on IQIY and Youku.
Text: Skjold Andreas Arendt