Dinesen: a triumph of words; :Daguerreotypes and other Essays, by Isak Dinesen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. $12.95
Isak Dinesen called herself Scheherazade, but she was more than a spell-binding spinner of tales, as this collection of eight occasional pieces proves once again.
She was an intellectual who loved to turn ideas round and round, like a roast on a spit over a fire. And she was a warm, vulnerable woman who enjoyed her celebrity and liked being recognized in department stores or on the street.
She also loved holding court in her homeland in Denmark and in America, where she was a best-selling Book-of-the-Month Club author. Vivacious and with a flair for the dramatic, she dazzled her ardent admirers but was saved from vanity by her wit.
In "Rungstedlund," an essay about her castle home, she makes light of a deathbed speech she once prepared during an illness but never gave because she lacked strength at the time -- and after all, she didn't die, "so the point of it was lost."
Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Baroness Karen Blixen (1885-1962), who published her first book, "Seven Gothic Tales," when she was close to 50 and had endured two great tragedies -- the forced sale of the coffee plantation she managed alone for 10 years in her beloved Kenya, where she lived for two decades , and the death of Denys Finch-Hatton, an Englishman who had become central to her life there.
Her second book, "Out of Africa," is a poignant account of those years of exquisite beauty and heartbreaking struggle. Her Somali gun bearer gave her the name "Lioness Blixen," and she tells us in the essay "On the Mottoes of My Life" that were she now, "after my return from those happy hunting grounds, to advise a person looking for a motto, I should tell him that Je responderaym (I will answer) is a happy sign under which to live."
On her farm, alone and facing disaster, she began to write, and at home in Denmark, to publish. Her next motto was "Pourquoi pas?"m (why not?) And the next , "Be bold, be bold, be not too bold."
Of the latter, she explains: "I have been very strong, unusually so for a woman, able to walk or ride longer than most men; I have bent a Masai bow and have felt in a moment of rapture a kinship with Odysseus. The pleasure of having been strong is still with me; the weakness of today is the natural continuation of the vigor of former days."
When literary stature has been achieved, the question arises as to whether every word, even of a favorite author, is sacred. I think not. And several essays included in this collection bear this out: "The Riding Master" is a book review, and "On Orthography" might have been written by an educator with a gift for words.
The foreword to this volume by Hannah Arendt does Dinesen little service, making her bravery seem foolish and her life less a series of events over which she did not have God-like control and more like an intellectual's ruthless and calculated plan. It makes Dinesen's triumph with words not so much a soaring victory of the spirit as a psychiatric journey on a couch -- which it was not.