Karen Blixen

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Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke
Blixen3b41298u.jpg
Karen Blixen, 1959. Photo: Carl Van Vechten
Born 17 April 1885
Rungsted, Denmark
Died 7 September 1962(1962-09-07) (aged 77)
Rungsted, Denmark
Occupation Writer
Notable works Out of Africa, Seven Gothic Tales, Shadows on the Grass, "Babette's Feast"

Karen von Blixen-Finecke (Danish: [kʰɑːɑn ˈb̥leɡ̊sn̩]; 17 April 1885 – 7 September 1962), née Karen Christenze Dinesen, was a Danish author also known by her pen name Isak Dinesen. She also wrote under the pen names Tania Blixen, Osceola and Pierre Andrézel. Blixen wrote works in Danish, French and English.

Blixen is best known for Out of Africa, her account of living in Kenya, and one of her stories, Babette's Feast, both of which have been adapted into highly acclaimed, Academy Award-winning motion pictures. Prior to the release of the first film, she was noted for her Seven Gothic Tales, for which she is also known in Denmark.

Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, described it as "a mistake" that Blixen was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature during the 1930s.[1] Although never awarded the prize, she finished in third place behind Graham Greene in 1961, the year Ivo Andrić was awarded the prize.[2]

Biography[edit]

Early years[edit]

The Mattrup seat farm, 1861
Karen Blixen with her brother Thomas on the family farm in Kenya in the 1920s.

Karen Dinesen was born on 17 April 1885 in the manor house Rungstedlund north of Copenhagen, as the daughter of writer and army officer Wilhelm Dinesen, and his wife Ingeborg, nee Westenholz, and was the older sister of Thomas Dinesen. Her mother came from a wealthy Unitarian bourgeois merchant family. From August 1872 to December 1873, Wilhelm Dinesen had lived among the Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, where he fathered a daughter, who was born after his return to Denmark. Wilhelm Dinesen hanged himself in 1895, when Karen was ten. He suffered from syphilis which resulted in bouts of deep depression.

Karen spent some of her early years at her mother's family home, the Mattrup seat farm near Horsens. She was later schooled in art in Copenhagen, Paris, and Rome. She began publishing fiction in Danish periodicals in 1905 under the pseudonym Osceola.

Life in the African Great Lakes[edit]

In 1913, Karen Dinesen became engaged to her second-cousin, the Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, after a failed love affair with his brother. The couple moved to Kenya, which was at the time part of British East Africa. In early 1914, they used family money to establish a coffee plantation there, hiring local workers; predominantly the Kikuyu people who lived on the farmlands at the time of their arrival. About the couple's early life in the African Great Lakes region, Karen Blixen later wrote,

Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams![3]

The two were quite different in education and temperament, and Bror Blixen was unfaithful to his wife. She was diagnosed with syphilis toward the end of their first year of marriage. According to Dinesen's biographer Judith Thurman, there is reason to doubt that Bror Blixen was the cause. Although Dinesen's illness was eventually cured (some uncertainty exists), it created medical anguish for years afterward. The Blixens separated in 1921, and were divorced in 1925.

During her early years in Kenya, Karen Blixen met the English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, and after her separation she and Finch Hatton developed a close friendship which eventually became a long-term love affair. Finch Hatton used Blixen's farmhouse as a home base between 1926 and 1931, when he wasn't leading one of his clients on safari. He died in the crash of his de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane in 1931. At the same time, the failure of the coffee plantation, as a result of the worldwide economic depression and the unsuitability of her farm's soil for coffee growing, forced Blixen to abandon her beloved farm. The family corporation sold the land to a residential developer, and Blixen returned to Denmark, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Life as a writer[edit]

Jurij Moskvitin (middle) accompanying Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen (right) meeting composer Igor Stravinsky (left) at the Copenhagen City Hall in 1959.

On returning to Denmark, Blixen began writing in earnest. Her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, was published in the US in 1934 under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. This first book, highly enigmatic and more metaphoric than Gothic, won great recognition, and publication of the book in Great Britain and Denmark followed. Her second book, now the best known of her works, was Out of Africa, published in 1937, and its success firmly established her reputation as an author. She was awarded the Tagea Brandt Rejselegat (a Danish prize for women in the arts or academic life) in 1939.

During World War II, when Denmark was occupied by the Germans, Blixen started her only full-length novel, the introspective tale The Angelic Avengers, under another pseudonym, Pierre Andrezel; it was published in 1944. The horrors experienced by the young heroines were interpreted as an allegory of Nazism.

Her writing during most of the 1940s and 1950s consisted of tales in the storytelling tradition. The most famous is "Babette's Feast", about a chef who spends her entire 10,000-franc lottery prize to prepare a final, spectacular gourmet meal. The Immortal Story, was adapted to the screen in 1968 by Orson Welles, a great admirer of Blixen's work and life. Welles later attempted to film The Dreamers, but only a few scenes were ever completed.

Blixen's tales follow a traditional style of storytelling, and most take place against the background of the 19th century or earlier periods. Concerning her deliberately old-fashioned style, Blixen mentioned in several interviews that she wanted to express a spirit that no longer existed in modern times, that of destiny and courage. Indeed, many of her ideas can be traced back to those of Romanticism. Blixen's concept of the art of the story is perhaps most directly expressed in the story "The Cardinal's First Tale" from her fifth book, Last Tales.

Though Danish, Blixen wrote her books in English and then translated her work into her native tongue. Critics describe her English as having unusual beauty.[who?] Her later books usually appeared simultaneously in both Danish and English. As an author, she kept her public image as a charismatic, mysterious old Baroness with an insightful third eye, and established herself as an inspiring figure in Danish culture, although shunning the mainstream.

Blixen was widely respected by contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote, and during her tour of the United States in 1959, writers who visited her included Arthur Miller, E. E. Cummings, and Pearl Buck. She also met actress Marilyn Monroe with her husband Arthur Miller. The socialite Babe Paley gave a lunch in her honour at St.Regis with Truman and Cecil Beaton as guests, and Gloria Vanderbilt gave her a dress by Mainbocher. The photographer Richard Avedon took one of his famous pictures of her during her stay in New York. She was admired by Cecil Beaton and the patron Pauline de Rothschild of the Rothschild family.

She was awarded the Danish Ingenio et Arti medal in 1950.[4] In 2012, the Nobel records were opened after 50 years and it was revealed that Blixen was among a shortlist of authors considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with John Steinbeck (winner), Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell and Jean Anouilh.[5] Blixen became ineligible after dying in September.[5]

Illness and death[edit]

Karen Blixen's grave in Rungstedlund, Denmark

Although it was widely believed that syphilis continued to plague Blixen throughout her lifetime, extensive tests were unable to reveal evidence of syphilis in her system after 1925. Her writing prowess suggests that she did not suffer from the mental degeneration of late stages of syphilis, nor from cerebral poisoning due to mercury treatments. She did suffer a mild permanent loss of sensation in her legs that could be attributed to chronic use of arsenic in Africa.

Others attribute her weight loss and eventual death to anorexia nervosa.[6]

During the 1950s Blixen's health quickly deteriorated, and in 1955 she had a third of her stomach removed because of an ulcer. Writing became impossible, although she did several radio broadcasts.

In her analysis of Blixen's medical history, Linda Donelson points out that Blixen wondered if her pain was psychosomatic even though she blamed it in public on the emotive syphilis: "Whatever her belief about her illness, the disease suited the artist's design for creating her own personal legend."[7]

Unable to eat, Blixen died in 1962 at Rungstedlund, her family's estate, at the age of 77, apparently of malnutrition. The source of her abdominal problems remains unknown, although gastric syphilis, manifested by gastric ulcers during secondary and tertiary syphilis, was well-known prior to the advent of modern antibiotics.

Rungstedlund Museum[edit]

The Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark

Blixen lived most of her life at the family estate Rungstedlund, which was acquired by her father in 1879. The property is located in Rungsted, 24 kilometres (15 mi) north of Copenhagen, Denmark's capital. The oldest parts of the estate date to 1680, and it had been operated as both an inn and a farm. Most of Blixen's writing was done in Ewald's Room, named after author Johannes Ewald. The property is managed by the Rungstedlund Foundation, founded by Blixen and her siblings. It was opened to the public as a museum in 1991. In 2013 The Karen Blixen Museum joined the Nordic museum portal CultureNordic.com.

Legacy[edit]

The Nairobi suburb that stands on the land where Blixen farmed coffee is now named Karen. Blixen herself declared in her later writings that "the residential district of Karen" was "named after me".[8] And Blixen's biographer, Judith Thurman, was told by the developer who bought the farm from the family corporation that he planned to name the district after Blixen.

Blixen was known to her friends not as "Karen" but as "Tania." The family corporation that owned her farm was incorporated as the "Karen Coffee Company". The chairman of the board was her uncle, Aage Westenholz,[9] who may have named the company after his own daughter Karen. However, the developer seems to have named the district after its famous author/farmer rather than the name of her company.

There is a Karen Blixen Coffee House and Museum in the district of Karen, located near Blixen's former home.

Karen Blixen's portrait was featured on the front of the Danish 50-krone banknote, 1997 series, from 7 May 1999 to 25 August 2005.[10][11] She also featured on Danish postage stamps that were issued in 1980[12] and 1996.[13]

Family[edit]

Blixen's great-nephew, Anders Westenholz, was also an accomplished writer, and has written books about her and her literature, among other things.

Quotes[edit]

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. – Out of Africa, 1937

To be lonely is a state of mind, something completely other than physical solitude; when modern authors rant about the soul's intolerable loneliness, it is only proof of their own intolerable emptiness. – Out of Africa, 1937

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea. – The Deluge at Norderney, Seven Gothic Tales, 1934

When in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them." – Out of Africa, 1937

He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for." – About General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, German commander during the East Africa Campaign.[14]

Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!" – "Babette's Feast", 1953

Works[edit]

Some of Blixen's works were published posthumously, including tales previously removed from earlier collections and essays she wrote for various occasions.

  • The Hermits (1907, published in a Danish journal under the name Osceola)
  • The Ploughman (1907, published in a Danish journal under the name Osceola)
  • The de Cats Family (1909, published in Tilskueren)
  • The Revenge of Truth (1926, published in Denmark)
  • Seven Gothic Tales (1934 in USA, 1935 in Denmark)
  • Out of Africa (1937 in Denmark and England, 1938 in USA)
  • Winter's Tales (1942)
  • The Angelic Avengers (1946)
  • Last Tales (1957)
  • Anecdotes of Destiny (1958) (including Babette's Feast)[15]
  • Shadows on the Grass (1960 in England and Denmark, 1961 in USA)
  • Ehrengard (posthumous 1963, USA)
  • Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (posthumous 1977, USA)
  • Daguerreotypes and Other Essays (posthumous 1979, USA)
  • On Modern Marriage and Other Observations (posthumous 1986, USA)
  • Letters from Africa, 1914–1931 (posthumous 1981, USA)
  • Karen Blixen in Danmark: Breve 1931–1962 (posthumous 1996, Denmark)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Rising, Malin. "Poets buzzed about for Nobel literature prize". AP (Google). 7 October 2010. "There were some prizes that went wrong, there were a number of people that the academy missed," Englund said. "This is not the Vatican of literature, we are not infallible in that way." Englund declined to name the prizes that he believed went wrong, but said it was a mistake to not give the prize to Danish author Karen Blixen, also known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen, who wrote Out of Africa about her life in Kenya in the early 1930s. Other famous writers who did were not awarded the prize include Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Graham Greene.
  2. ^ Flood, Alison (5 January 2012). "JRR Tolkien's Nobel prize chances dashed by 'poor prose'". The Guardian. 
  3. ^ Donald Hannah, "Isak Dinesen" and Karen Blixen: the mask and the reality, Random House, 1971, p.207
  4. ^ "For videnskab og kunst medaljen Ingenio et arti" [For science and art: the Ingenio et Arti medal]. Litterære priser, medaljer, legater mv [Literary prizes, medals, scholarships, etc]. Retrieved 20 September 2010. List of recipients. Self-published, but with references (Danish). 
  5. ^ a b Alison Flood (3 January 2013). "Swedish Academy reopens controversy surrounding Steinbeck's Nobel prize". The Guardian. Retrieved January 3, 2013. 
  6. ^ Stuttaford, Thomas (20 September 2007). "Let’s all go pear-shaped: In an age of obesity and anorexia it’s vital to understand the best shape and composition for our bodies". Times. London. [dead link]
  7. ^ Donelson, Linda. "Karen Blixen's Medical History: A New Look". karenblixen.com. Retrieved 25 December 2010. Excerpted from Donelson 1998. 
  8. ^ Dinesen, Isak, Shadows on the Grass, from the combined Vintage International Edition of Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, New York 1989, p. 458.
  9. ^ Thurman, Judith, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, St. Martin's Press, 1983, p. 141
  10. ^ The coins and banknotes of Denmark. Danmarks Nationalbank. 2005. pp. 14–15. ISBN 87-87251-55-8. Retrieved 7 September 2010. 
  11. ^ "50-krone banknote, 1997 series". Danmarks Nationalbank. Retrieved 7 September 2010. 
  12. ^ "Literary Stamp Collecting". Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  13. ^ "Post Denmark, Stamps & Philately". Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  14. ^ Farwell, The Great War in Africa, p. 105.
  15. ^ "Digital commons", JRF (Un Omaha) 16 (2) .

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]