Judith Thurman spent seven years interviewing, researching, and writing about the woman who was born Karen Dinesen and later became Tania, Isak, and the Baroness von Blixen. Her reward has been the 1983 American Book Award for biography. Ms. Thurman was given access to correspondence, diaries, and first drafts, as well as the cooperation of surviving family and friends. She is skillful in drawing connections between her subject's life and the stories that won Dinesen worldwide acclaim after publication of ''Out of Africa'' in 1937. This is a truly comprehensive work from which there seem to be no omissions. It is a story of beauty, pain, and inordinate love.
Dinesen's stories showed the keenest insight and profound philosophical reflection. She took the male name Isak (''laughter'' in Hebrew) as her nom de plume. Twice Dinesen was nominated for the Nobel Prize. When it went instead to Hemingway, he graciously deferred to Dinesen by saying, ''It should have gone to that beautiful writer.'' The second time the prize went instead to Camus.
Thurman's biography is divided into five parts, the first dealing with Dinesen's childhood in her mother's house in Denmark; the second with her life as an art student at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen and later in Paris; the third with her sojourn in Kenya as the wife of a coffee farmer and later as an abandoned woman in love with another man; the fourth with the desolation of losing the farm in bankruptcy as well as her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, in a plane crash; and the fifth with the woman who found the courage and talent to transmute her experience into beautiful prose.
What redeemed Dinesen's personal life from tragedy was the deep love that existed between Tania and Denys - who taught her to read Greek, and enjoyed perusing Shakespeare and the Bible with her - and her immediate affinity for the Africans she met. ''They came into my life as a kind of answer to some call in my own nature,'' she wrote. She would awaken in the morning thinking, ''Here I am where I ought to be!'' Later she would say she had ''put her youth and her heart into her coffee company and now (with its loss) felt like Sampson with his hair cut off.''
In letters from Kenya to her mother and brother she reflected on her perpetual woes, lack of money, and insecurity. But these were as nothing beside the sense of failure and loss that marked her eventual return to Denmark. It was then that the artist in her found the courage to turn her lost life into tales. She wrote in English in honor of Denys Finch Hatton. She was translated almost simultaneously into Danish and other languages.
''Out of Africa'' was welcomed with great acclaim, to be followed by other tales over the years. Dinesen became a celebrity, sought after for interviews, traveling, and giving lectures.
Thurman doesn't skirt Dinesen's many years of suffering from venereal disease , contracted from her husband, Bror von Blixen. Dinesen's final writing was done by dictation to her secretary and companion, Clara Svendsen.
To all who have read and reread Isak Dinesen and couldn't get enough of her, Judith Thurman's book is a welcome gift.