Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Birthday Girl: The Baroness
The remarkable creature seen here came into the world 128 years ago today, in a place called Rungsted in the Danish countryside. She went on to become, among other things, a baroness, a farmer, a socialite, a recluse (and then back again, improbably, into a kind of late in life party girl), and possibly the world's most glamorous invalid. Oh, and a writer. A very great writer.
She wrote as Isak Dinesen (except when she was Pierre Andrézel or Osceola); she was born Karen Christenze Dinesen; she was formally the Baroness Blixen-Finecke. Her friends called her Tanne. What her many lovers called her, we will likely never know, for despite being an inveterate self analyst, she did keep some secrets. She was a shape-shifter who reveled in her various identities, playing off the grand-dame aristocrat and the raffish author, among other personae. She was enormously famous in her lifetime, and then her work received another surge of notoriety when a vast, lumbering, and rather terrible movie was made out of her memoir (of sorts), Out of Africa. She has appeared on the Danish currency, is the subject of museums in Denmark and Kenya, and the fact that she was considered for, but never received, the Nobel Prize for literature is a blot on that august institution's record.
Nonetheless, I have a feeling that her work is a little less than fashionable at the moment. Alternately pitilessly searching and extravagantly sentimental, full of high-flying and obscure references to classical antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the eighteenth century, and things like the commedia dell'arte (hence her Pierrot costume here), her works can be off-putting. Then, too, there's her take on colonialism: she liked it.* Rather, she liked (mild word indeed) her years in Africa, running a coffee plantation and discovering that she was more than just a well-bred Danish bluestocking - that she was in fact a woman of passion and intellect, a frightening hard worker, stubborn beyond belief. And, in the end, one destined for tragedy, for, as she wrote in Out of Africa, "The land was in itself a little too high for coffee, and it was hard work to keep it going; we were never rich on the farm."
After the farm was gone, and she returned, wounded, to her childhood home, she started writing in earnest. She wrote about her time in Kenya, and she drew on her memory of childhood stories to tell her tales. She spun yarns of mysterious divas and brilliant cooks and long Nordic winters. at the same time, she lived a singular life, by turns holed up in her father's house, writing and living the life of a country gentlewoman (albeit one whose walls were bedecked with spears and tribal masks, and one whose preferred diet consisted, in nearly its entirety, for long stretches, of Champagne, asparagus, and oysters) and traveling on voyages that came to resemble pilgrimages in reverse - the object of veneration coming to the faithful, rather than vice versa. Never again to Africa, but as far as New York City, where she was lunched by Babe Paley and, famously, met Mrs. Arthur Miller, who had had a couple of identities herself when you stop to think about it.
She had a marvelous time; she was a force of nature and an incredible life force. At the same time, it seems likely, in retrospect, that she romanticized her ill-health (based, putatively, on syphilis passed to her during her unsatisfactory marriage to her Baron) and in the end starved herself to death, a genius and an anorectic.
Whatever she was, however, her works stands on it own, only burnished that much more brightly by the legends of her life. I think she would be pleased to be remembered on her birthday; perhaps I'll have to see if we have any asparagus. I know we have some Champagne.
* If she is a little too warm for current tastes on the idea of colonialism, I think it's important to recognize the extraordinary warmth with which she depicted her Kenyan employees and neighbors, as well as the genuine affection with which they regarded her memory for decades after she left Africa.