Isak Dinesen is probably the most influential champion in the twentieth century of the primitive power of story. In "The Cardinal's First Tale," Dinesen's Cardinal makes a distinction between "story" and a new art of narration which, for the sake of realism and individual characters, sacrifices the story. Whereas this "novel" literature, the Cardinal says, is a human product, "the divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story." And within our whole universe, he continues, "the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: 'Who am I?'"
By story" I understand the Cardinal to mean that same linguistic phenomenon which Claude Lévi-Strauss refers to as myth--that "part of language where the formula traduttore, tradittore reaches its lowest truth value," for its "substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells. Story means that which the Russian Formalists defined as the sequence of actions existing prior to and independent of any particular discursive presentation of the events, and thus to be distinguished from plot, "sujet," or discourse.
Karen Blixen had been working on the stories that make up Seven Gothic Tales for ten years before she tried to get them published in English under the masculine name Isak Dinesen. After being turned down by three publishers she sent the manuscript to American writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who liked it so much that she urged a publisher friend of hers to publish it, even though no one really believed that it would make any money. However, when the book appeared in January 1933, it was not only enthusiastically received by critics, it was chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month-Club and eagerly snapped up by readers.
The title of the collection is in some ways a misnomer, for there are many more tales here than seven; Dinesen, like the medieval and romantic storytellers from whom she draws her inspiration, often makes use of the insert tale; thus, her stories contain tales within tales within tales. Dinesen's plots are often so complex that they are difficult to describe briefly, but since plot is so important in the Gothic romance in general and in Dinesen's stories in particular, a short summary of some of the stories is necessary to get some idea of their thematic implications.
The first story in the American edition of Seven Gothic Tales, "The Deluge at Norderney," has been called one of Dinesen's most characteristic tales because it contains so many of her typical themes and motifs. The story takes place in 1835 when a great storm strikes a summer resort on the coast of Denmark. A famous Cardinal, Hamilcar von Sehestedt, is trapped in a farmhouse with three others awaiting rescue: the eccentric Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag, her companion the young Countess Calypso, and a young man. In the tradition of Boccaccio's Decameron, the four tell stories while they wait. Discovering a spiritual union as a result of their stories, the two young people are joined in marriage by the Cardinal, who then reveals he is not the Cardinal, but rather Kasperson, the Cardinal's secretary, a former actor. Miss Malin "marries" him in a spiritual union just before the water reaches them.
"The Old Chevalier" is a story told by a Danish nobleman, Baron von Brackel, about his adventure one wintery night in Paris in 1874 when his mistress tried to poison him. Escaping into the night, he encounters a young girl who he takes to his apartment. Although their lovemaking is idyllic, on awakening, the Baron asks what he must pay for the experience. When the girl asks for twenty francs, the ideal of the night before becomes the cold reality of daylight.
"The Monkey" is a supernatural story in which the Prioress of a secular convent tries to get her young nephew, Boris, who has been involved in a homosexual scandal in his regiment, married to Athena, the gigantic daughter of a count. The young woman refuses to marry Boris until, following her to her room one night, he forces her to kiss him--an attack that takes on all the implications of a rape in the light of the following day. The climactic scene occurs when the Prioress's pet monkey jumps on her and tears off her cap, revealing that she is the monkey disguised as the Prioress, whereas the monkey is really the true Prioress of the Cloister.
"Supper at Elsinore" focuses on two sisters who, after the disappearance of their brother, remain old maids. When the ghost of the brother appears when they are in their fifties and tells them of his adventurous life as a pirate who has had five different wives, they must confront the ghostliness of their own lives.
"The Dreamers" is about the greatest opera singer of all time, Pellegrina Leoni, who loses her voice in a theater fire and take up a life of wandering under various disguises. Three different men tell stories of their encounters with three different beautiful women, only to discover that all three were Pellegrina. Pursued by the men, Pellegrina jumps over a precipice and dies.
The word "Gothic" in the title does not primarily refer to the Medieval Gothic tradition, but to its romantic revival in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries, specifically identified in the imagination of Isak Dinesen with Horace Walpole, the author of the gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, and Lord Byron, the great romantic poet. Seeing this period as the "last great phase of aristocratic culture," Dinesen has said that she set her tales in the past because it was a finished world, a world that she could easily "recompound" in her own imagination and one in which her readers would not be tempted to look for realism. As is typical of the gothic romance form, the characters in these stories are less realistic individuals than they are representatives of basic human desires and fears.
And indeed it is the romance form of Dinesen's stories that has always drawn readers to them--not the romance associated with the cheap gothic thriller or the romantic melodrama, but rather the romance of the nineteenth-century decadence of Baudelaire and Huysman. Dinesen has often been compared with Scherazade, the mother of all storytellers in The Arabian Nights, because of her fantastic plots and inset stories; but she has also been compared to Henry James for her psychological insight and her careful use of language.
Dinesen's stories are not about time-bound social issues, but rather about timeless universal desires. The one-night relationship of Baron von Brackel and the young woman he meets on the street in "The Old Chevalier" represents a basic human yearning for the actualization of the ideal. "The Monkey" is an allegorical tale about the split between human spirituality and physicality. The sisters' desire for their brother in "Supper at Elsinore" is not a realistic treatment of incest, but rather a romantic and symbolic embodiment of narcissism and idealism.
Dinesen's stories can only be understood in terms of the Kantian philosophic foundation that underlies and informs them. Her aesthetic point of view affirms that art is more real than everyday reality, that identity is never absolute but always shifting, that life is like a marionette theater in which we live in plots determined by God, and that the quest for the ideal is the inevitable heroic gesture that must end in inevitable tragi-comic conclusion. What readers looking for realism have criticized as Dinesen's focus on aristocratic decadence and sexual perversion is but the means by which Dinesen explores basic human desire.
It is for these philosophic reasons that Dinesen's stories are often about fiction-making and storytelling. In following her fantastic stories within stories, the reader becomes increasing cut off from ordinary reality, entering into a world of pure creation and imagination. Dinesen's gothic tales are the stuff that dreams are made on--not dreams that allow escape from reality, but rather those that plunge one deeper into the very heart of darkness that is the human psyche.
Because of the fantastic, romantic nature of her stories and the elegant, aristocratic stature of Dinesen herself, she has become almost an iconic image of the archetypal storyteller--a wise elfin creature--more than a little witch-like--who has the magical ability to create self-sustaining worlds that, even as they strike us with their strangeness, evoke some deep sense of recognition of the mysteries that lies at the very heart of all human kind.