Dinesen's early letters; Letters from Africa, 1914-1931, by Isak Dinesen. Translated by Anne Born. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. $25
Here is a rich new biographical perspective on the brilliant storyteller whose sophisticated romantic fiction ("Seven Gothic Tales," "Winter's Tales," and other work) made her an international success and a perpetual candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Before she became "Isak Dinesen," Karen Blixen (born Dinesen, in 1885) married her cousin and went with him to Kenya to manage a coffee plantation. His several failures, his faithlessness, and their eventual divorse only strengthened Karen's resolve to continue her discovered "life-work." Her family financed her successful stay there, until the collapse of the coffee market (coinciding with the accidental death of her lover, and her own continuing illnesses) forced her to return to her family's estate (Rungstedlund) in Denmark , where she remained until her passing in 1962.
These letters, written mostly to her supportive mother and younger brother, contain the raw material that was later transformed into her classic memoir "Out of Africa" (1937). They also reveal her as a highly intelligent and sensitive analyst of a strange new world.
At first embarrassed by her helplessness ("how pampered and unaccustomed I Blixen quickly grew to love her harsh environment, delighting in its scenic beauty, admiring the stolidity and simple decency of "her" natives ("I think they are better people than we are"), making herself into an efficient businesswoman, and even a dedicated huntress. She interested herself in the progress of the European war, and responded to implied questioning of her increasing independence by penning involved argumentative defenses of sexual equality.
Her urge to be usefulm seemed to increase her introspective powers, as it did her intellectual restlessness. She understood more clearly than any other observer the motives for her long immurement in Africa ("I am God's chosen snob, and if I cannot be with the aristocracy or the intelligentsia I must go down among the proletariat, . . . the natives, because I cannot live with the middle class").
Unfortunately, when at was to exertion", Karen her analytical best Karen Blixen was at her most longwinded. Omission of many of the overly long letters would have improved the book.
Still, we are given valuable glimpses of Blixen/Dinesen's direct and vigorous prose, her humor ("believe me, a charging lion has an expressive face"), and that empathic curiosity about alien lives and beliefs that gives her fiction such power.
here's no doubt, however, that the Isak Dinesen who interests us most is the (postm-1931) writer of those marvelous tales. Our interest in the earlier Dinesen is more than satisfied by the masterly "Out of Africa." Scholars may want to reread that book side by side with "Letters from Africa." The general reader, though he'll find this new volume intermittently mined with riches, will find it considerably less interesting than the Isak Dinesen work already extant.