If names carry a portion of fate with them, or if they affect in any way the course of the bearer’s life, then it can safely be assumed that the name “Karen Blixen” was never meant to be celebrated. Almost completely unnoticed in a year ripe with jubilees went the 50th death anniversary of the once-famous Danish novelist whose life and work were used as the basis for the legendary Hollywood production, Out of Africa. These days, some of the more experienced cinephiles might remember Meryl Streep in one of her (seemingly innumerable) Oscar-nominated performances, acting alongside Robert Redford in the gorgeous settings of the Kenyan countryside, but even among those who do, few will remember the name of the author of the book.
In some sense, Blixen has herself to blame. Born as Karen Christenze Dinesen in Rungsted, some 30 kilometers north of Copenhagen, in 1885 to a bourgeois family active in politics, she was orphaned of her father when he committed suicide in 1895. Karen showed an interest in literature from an early age, publishing her first stories in 1907 and her first collection, Carnival, two years later, all of them under the pseudonym Osceola. By then, however, she had already met her second-cousins, the twin brothers Hans and Bror Blixen-Finecke, who were also Barons. After a short-lived affair with Hans, Karen finally was engaged to Bror in 1913, and embarked on an extraordinary adventure with him, as they departed for Kenya to develop a coffee plantation.
Karen’s relationship to Bror was troubled from the start. They married in 1914, just months before the break of The Great War, but she returned to Denmark in 1915, only to find out that she had contracted syphilis from her husband. Eventually cured, she returned to Kenya the following year to press on with her enterprise together with Bror, but by 1919 their relationship had deteriorated to the point where she returned to Denmark for over a year. She eventually separated from him in 1921, keeping the farm, and finally divorced in 1925. By then, her friendship with Denys Finch Hatton, Robert Redford in Out of Africa, had grown so intense, he began using her house as home base when he was not out leading his safari hunting tours.
Having devoted more than ten years of her life to the coffee experiment and with Bror out of her life, Blixen turned back onto her early passion: writing. She published a short comedy in 1926 in Denmark, titled The Revenge of Truth, and returned to Kenya after a year in Scandinavia. But the farm continued to take most of her time, not least through constant efforts to make it profitable. The prospects of achieving this became increasingly far-fetched with the advent of the Great Depression in 1930. In 1931, Karen sold the farm and only a few months later Finch Hatton, her companion since her separation from her husband, ten years earlier, died in an accident involving his de Havilland DH 60 biplane. For Blixen, the African adventure was over after 17 years without a profit.
If, of course, Out of Africa is taken out of the equation. Because Blixen spent 17 years living an extraordinary tale that she would later narrate, expertly, certainly, but also rather uniquely, with a certain matter-of-factness, a characteristic focus on what happened, on the plot, that would always identify her as a writer and make her stand out. Or, rather, it would make Isak Dinesen stand out, the male alter ego she unearthed from what she might have been, had she not been a woman, and used to present her work as soon as she returned and recovered from her African sojourn. In 1934, Dinesen (Isak, that is) published a collection of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales, which was well received both in the UK and in Denmark. Three years later her memoirs of her time in Kenya were published in London by Putnam, and in 1938 they were taken by Random House in New York. Suddenly, Isak Dinesen became a hallmark name.
Not particularly prolific in her trade, Blixen became a highly respected figure in the literary scene through her thoughtful, delectable prose. Isak Dinesen published another collection of short stories in the 1940s, Winter’s Tales, and two more in the 50s, Last Tales and Anecdotes of Destiny, which includes the famous “Babette’s Feast”, and another of Blixen’s noms de plume, Pierre Andrézel, issued forth The Angelic Avengers (1944), the only novel she ever wrote. Through her long career as a writer, primarily of short stories, Blixen was awarded remarkably few prizes, although it is often said that she came close to claiming the Nobel Prize, for which she was nominated several times. Her style, however, sprinkled with the realist inclinations of Scandinavian literature of the early XX century and still influenced by the Existentialism of Kierkegaard, rather than the hard-boiled version of Sartre, made of her something less than a celebrity but something far greater than just another writer.
Shielded behind the masks of the amateur Osceola, of the short-story writer, Isak, and of the novelist Andrézel, sheltered, even, by her title as Baroness, by the aristocratic clang of the Blixen-Finecke, and by the thousands of miles that separated her hometown, Rungsted, from her farm in Kenya, Karen even created a persona for her more personal, intimate behavior: among friends and family she was known as Tania, not Karen. These days, the myriad names that go with the many facets of the great Danish writer all stand in the shadow of Sydney Pollack’s cinematographic version of her memoirs, and by the towering figure of Meryl Streep. Fifty years after her decease, Blixen’s name is slowly fading from the collective memory; yet, her work is still well and alive. And most writers would be satisfied with that.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday, September 22, 2012.