To make big things small . . . . . . and small things big
When we heard Olga Polensky was at work on a critical literary biography of Isak Dinesen, we asked if she could let us have a few words from her researches. The results show another facet of the celebrated Danish author who is currently being recalled by Meryl Streep's screen portrayal of her in ``Out of Africa.'' LATE one afternoon, as white boats sailed along the sea running to Elsinore, a neighbor of Isak Dinesen's talked about her over tea. He was Steen Eiler Rasmussen, an architect who was often visited by her. Born Karen Kristenze Dinesen, she was nick-named ``Tanne.'' And Tanne, Rasmussen remembered, was intrigued by the dollhouse he had made for his daughters, a tiny replica of his own house.
She told his daughters how, when they were asleep, she would make her-self small and enter their dollhouse. Astonished, they asked her how she would be able to do that, and she replied, ``Oh, a book has been written on that, but it has not yet been translated into Danish.''
``It was, of course, `Alice in Wonder-land,' '' said Rasmussen.
When Tanne discovered that the doll-house had no bathroom (since the doll-house was a replica of only half of Ras-mussen's house), she told his daughters that she had been in Rungstedlund with no bathroom. Then she had been without a bathroom in Skagen when she wrote ``Out of Africa'' and had so longed for one -- and would not now long for a bathroom a third time in their dollhouse.
Tanne was very careful about gifts, said Rasmussen. One year she gave her mother a motorcar, and a doll was seated at the driver's wheel to show that Tanne would always be on call as chauffeur. To Rasmussen's daughters for Christmas she sent the gift of a tiny basin and all of the other miniature fixtures for a bathroom.
When Isak Dinesen herself was a little girl, talk around the table in her home at Rungstedlund was of the inventions of Edison, Daguerre, and Alexander Graham Bell. Her father had laughed at the scratchy voice coming from the telephone box, and no one thought much of the invention.
The new inventions had not yet brought the mechanical whir of expensive toys into children's play. Tanne recalled:
``One might, of course, buy oneself a hobbyhorse, but generally speaking an individually selected knotty stick from the woods, upon which imagination might work freely, was dearer to the heart. . . . Our knotty stick . . . in appearance and as far as actual horsepower went, came nearer to Bucephalus and eight-hoofed Sleipner, or to Pegasus himself, than any magnificently decorated horse from a smart store.''
With the imagination, motionless objects were made to fly, the impossible made possible.
Riding Pegasus on their gnarled wooden sticks, Tanne and her sisters and small brothers could, in the dead of winter, see the ice frozen in pearl-gray swirling peaks on the sea outside their home. Through the long windows they could watch their father ride past the heavy woods down to Klampenborg where the train would be caught for ``Merchant's Haven'' -- Copenhagen.
Along the winding canals at Kongen's Nytorv, fishwives in red scarves sold their wares. Nearby, Hans Christian Andersen had lived among the brightly colored houses blooming flat against each other. And the Dinesen children's grandfather had traveled in Europe with the legendary spinner of shadowy fairy tales. Andersen's stories ran through their heads, as Tanne played in the summer with her sisters and brothers around Thumbelina's riding place atop the water lilies spreading in the pond beneath the footbridge at the back of their home.
In a little-known introduction to Andersen's ``Thumbelina,'' Isak Dinesen's ability to recapture the innocence of childlike belief and simplicity is apparent: ``I lived in the country, and there were horses there that I loved to ride on, but they were so big that without assistance I could not get onto them or off them. He [Andersen] now made them quite small, like my kittens, and me, myself, much smaller than I was, and I had some lovely gallops round and round the bedroom with my slippers as hurdles. . . . ''
Here was the ingenuousness of the naif, nurtured when she was a child by play that was unhampered by the artifice of mechanical wheels.
Like Hans Christian Andersen, Isak Dinesen ``had that talent . . . [to] make big things small and small things big.'' She had learned early on that the imagination made it possible to rearrange and recreate the world.
Isak Dinesen, who always longed for wings to fly with, told the readers of ``Thumbelina,'' with its diminutive, gauzy-winged heroine, about an imaginary talk she had had as a child with Hans Christian Andersen:
``For you can make big things small and small things big and everything talk, and I am much braver since I have known you than I was before. Just wait till I grow up, and you will see that because I have known you, I am not even afraid of lions.'' Like Denmark's earlier magician of fantasy, Isak Dinesen had the courage to freely transform her world.