Originally published in 1934, Seven Gothic Tales, the first book by "one of the finest and most singular artists of our time" (The Atlantic), is a modern classic. Here are seven exquisite tales combining the keen psychological insight characteristic of the modern short story with the haunting mystery of the nineteenth-century Gothic tale, in the tradition of writers such as Goethe, Hoffmann, and Poe. From the Trade Paperback edition.
2. "The Old Chevalier" is told by an elderly yet still fashionable gentleman at some evening gathering of a group of younger men. It is the winter of 1874; the chevalier, a young man then, emerges onto a Parisian boulevard in the rain after his lover has tried to poison him. One can guess at his startled and benumbed state of mind. On the street he is approached by a "young drunken woman" who he proceeds to take home, viewing her as some Gift of Providence meant to get him through a rough patch. Slowly he undresses her. As he does so the narrative is interrupted by an ever so elegant disquisition on the changing nature of women during his adult years--not just changes in their dress, which is vividly discussed , that's only the point of departure, but their roles as "keeper of the mystery" that is Woman, too. Beautifully told and my favorite of the two stories so far.
3. "The Monkey" is set in the early 1800s in a "Lutheran country of Northern Europe." A young officer, Boris, in trouble with certain ecclesiastics at court for his libertine ways, travels in haste to a cloister run by an aunt to seek her help in getting married. The Prioress recommends a nearby woman, one Athena, daughter of Count Hopballehus. Yes, the intended's name does foreshadow somewhat her athletic rejection of the nephew, but it does not--cannot--prepare us for the wild scenes that follow in which both the aunt and nephew press their suit. The aunt's pet monkey, which has been away from the cloister for some weeks on an annual lark, returns at the height of negotiations to turn matters on their ear. Hints of Ovid.
4. "The Roads Round Pisa" This story is hobbled by a baroque circuitousness of plot. What the hell is going on? It doesn't hang together. Most unsatisfying and my least favorite of the stories here.
5. In "The Supper at Elsinore" the elderly Madam Bæk, servant to the famous de Coninck family around the time of the Napoleonic wars, recalls the heady times of that family. In particular the lives of the two daughters, Elsie and Fanny, and the son, Morten. The story of the sisters' social success, and the tragic fate of the brother, are recollected in a third-person narrative which is largely a recapitulation of Mme. Bæk's exultant, highly colored, romantic memories. Fanny and Elsie de Coninck were the belles of the balls who could never believe they were genuinely loved by the local men. But Mdm. Bæk knew better "when she saw the swains of Elsinore grow pale and worn, [and] go into exile or become bachelors from love of them." The sisters are skeptics, melancholiacs, whose collective mood swings from desolation to ecstasis and back. Morten's leads a swashbuckling life as a privateer, then when privateering is outlawed he goes rogue, taking up the pirate's life. He disappears from Elsinore on the day of his wedding, jilting his betrothed, and is later reported hanged at Havana. Now in 1840, Mme. Bæk travels by carriage to Copenhagen to report to her ladies that she has seen the long-dead brother, Morten, in the house on several occassions, once staring fixedly at their portraits. The sisters then return to Elsinore for a final encounter with their sibling.
These stories defy classification. They combine the gothic chaos of Poe with the romantic sweetness of Austen. Dinesen takes the sorrows, struggles and fears of real people and refracts them through the prism of her storytelling, creating a new kind of modern mythology in the process.
An unusual reading experience, but one I was glad to be along for.
Blixen's theme is primarily masks - and what they reveal of the wearer. Her protagonists are often thrown together in situations outside of their usual experience: A drunken chevalier decides to take a prostitute home; a exiled Englishman reminisces about his strange first love; a motley collection of people weather the night in the loft of a flooded barn. Every tale has a twist in it, but not in the facile ironic sense we have come to expect. Blixen's twists are more akin to rotating an object so - viewed from a different angle - it takes on an entirely new, and oft-times confounding aspect.
The stories themselves are also masked. Framing devices such as we almost never see today are employed with a wonderful adroitness. Characters will stop, seemingly mid-stream to share a story, other stories will surface; stories within stories and more. Readers of Lucas' The Priest, or Anne Radcliffe, or even the Decameron will instantly recognise and respond to this grand tradition of storytelling. Which is the primary narrative? Sometimes it's easy to ascertain, and at other times not so clear; the shorter story may contain the true heart.
The characters - wise old men, mysterious Jews, and beautiful, beautiful young people - come straight from the gothic tradition. The young people are especially voluble, philosophers and raconteurs all; by turns impassioned, cynical, confused, in love and more. This kind of drama is rarely seen any more, and it's gothic in the true sense: heady, emotive, romantic, and truly counter-enlightenment.
Blixen's prose is equally anachronistic. The closest 20th Century analogue I can think of is someone like Thomas Mann. Descriptive, dialogue-heavy and constructed like Georgian furniture: this stuff is built to last. But it can be heavy-going at times. Like a true gothic, Blixen is interested in emotion above all, and the intensity and canorous prose of Seven Gothic Tales can feel like the literary equivalent of gauvage at times - you are being stuffed full of words, emotions and ideas with no end in sight (the end comes after a dense +500 pages). Also, Blixen absolutely refuses to condescend to her readers. A solid knowledge of classic myths and legends will serve the reader well, as will basic French, German, Italian and Latin (!). I confess, I think of myself as quite well read, but there were moments in every tale where I was simply at sea with the references, allusions, quotes or languages being tossed about so very casually by the stricken protagonists.
But don't let this put you off. A polyglot's knowledge will certainly enrich your experience of Seven Gothic Tales, but it's by no means required. Anyone with a hankering for the unusual, for carriages in the moonlight, for duels, for lovers who aren't what they say, for erudite young men and women, for a tour of European locales that puts Kon Tiki to shame, for a fascinating byway in 20th century & European literature, for something that reminds them of The Priest, or The Mysteries of Udolpho, or The Castle of Otranto - will find something in this book at least worth their consideration. A very interesting read, and one that would reward multiple visits, I feel.
Dinesen says of the young protagonist of "The Monkey" and his fellow officers that A sanctimonious clique of the capital, led by the Court Chaplain, of all people, who had the ear of high personages, had under pretense of moral indignation, lifted their voices against these young flowers of the land and that the ladies of the convent had learnt to connect [the problem] with those romantic and sacred shores of ancient Greece which they had till now held in high esteem, she is telling us that the young man and his friends have been outed, as we say nowadays. The story makes much more sense once this is understood -- but none of the commenters I have found seem to have noticed.