Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

...though people do not like their mother’s virtue to be questioned, the frivolities of grandmothers may be charming things to smile at. ~ from The Poet (one of the seven tales)

This is the first work I’ve read by Isak Dinesen – the nom de plume of Danish author Karen Blixen. She is perhaps best known, outside of Denmark, for her memoir Out of Africa, but as I understand it, she is better known in Denmark for this collection of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales. The tales are set in Denmark and Western Europe, mid 19th to early 20th centuries.

This book satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category #3 – A classic by a woman author.

The Seven Tales, as you can probably guess, are of the gothic genre. Some of them also contain a bit of magical realism. I found most of them fascinating – sort of a cross between O Henry and Edgar Allan Poe.

The Deluge at Norderney – an eclectic group of victims are thrown together during a flood. Some with deep dark secrets.

The Old Chevalier – a macabre story of a man experiencing a spontaneous intimate moment with a stranger.

The Monkey – a bizarre story, magical realism, my favorite.

The Roads Round Pisa – a man, some people he meets, a coincidence.

The Supper at Elsinore – two fashionable spinster sisters are visited by the ghost of their long lost brother, the pirate.

The Dreamers – Three men who at different times and places have fallen in love with the same woman. In each instance, just as they are realizing their love, she flees without explanation. They each desperately search, find each other, and then find their mysterious woman.

The Poet – about an aspiring poet, his protégé, and a love triangle.

When expressing my feelings about written works, I usually avoid the phrase, “written beautifully” or anything like it. It seems a bit pretentious to me. I care about the intrigue of the story more than the finery of the prose. But I have to admit, Dinesen turns a very elegant phrase (a few examples below). The stories are fascinating as well (one exception that you can probably pick out from the synopses above).

I believe most have profound meanings – mostly, except in a very vague sense, lost on me.

I stumbled upon Dinesen almost by accident; a very fortunate accident. Have you read Seven Gothic Tales? Isak Dinesen?


There was no distinguishable line of division between the sky and the sea. The sun went down in a confusion of light, itself a dull red like the target upon the promenade. ~ from The Deluge at Norderney

I have always thought it unfair to woman that she has never been alone in the world. Adam had a time, whether long or short, when he could wander about on a fresh and peaceful earth, among the beasts, in full possession of his soul, and most men are born with a memory of that period. ~ from The Old Chevalier

And chivalrousness, I think, means this: to love, or cherish, the pride of your partner, or of your adversary, as you will define it, as highly, or higher than your own. ~ from The Old Chevalier

And human beings cleave to the existing state of things. All their lives they are striving to hold the moment fast, and are up against a force majeure. Their art itself is nothing but the attempt to catch by all means the one particular moment, one mood, one light, the momentary beauty of one woman or one flower, and make it everlasting. ~ from The Monkey

The idea of marriage has been to me the presence in my life of a person with whom I could talk, tomorrow, of the things that happened yesterday. ~ from The Roads Round Pisa

She looked very young and small, but her deep gravity and great self-possession gave her figure a terrible importance, as if a young destroying angel had rushed from the blue sky above them onto the stone terrace, to stand in judgment there. ~ from The Roads Round Pisa

To Morten’s sisters the infrequent news of their brother was manna on which they kept their hearts alive in a desert. ~ from The Supper at Elsinore

Coffee, according to the women of Denmark, is to the body what the word of the Lord is to the soul. ~ from The Supper at Elsinore

But the brightness of the moon upon the water was so clear that it seemed as if all the light in the world were in reality radiating from the sea, to be reflected in the skies. ~ from The Dreamers

To this woman I owe it that I have ever understood, and still remember, the meaning of such words as tears, heart, longing, stars, which you poets make use of. ~ from The Dreamers

Also, though people do not like their mother’s virtue to be questioned, the frivolities of grandmothers may be charming things to smile at. ~ from The Poet

It was that hour just before sunrise when the world seems absolutely colorless, when it gives indeed a sense of negation of color. ~ from The Poet



  1. I read somewhere that Hemingway wanted to see her win the Nobel Prize when he won it in the 1950s. He said she deserved it more than he did.


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