Thursday, February 7, 2013

On "Seven Gothic Tales" by Isak Dinesen ***

Each of Dinesen's seven tales revolves in some way around the difference between appearance and reality. In the opening story, "The Deluge at Nordeney" a flood threatens an area of the country, and one set of people--including a priest with a grand reputation--return with a last boat to save a family stuck on its rooftop. The boat won't fit all, so some people have to stay behind, on the roof, and hope that the waters don't rise overnight so far that they don't survive. In the midst of this, the various roofgoers tell stories about their lives, including the famed priest, who turns out not to be who he is thought to be. Add to that a woman, an old maid, who was thwarted at any attempt to love--only, she rejected all suitors and accepted only one suitor she knew would fall away before the marriage could be consummated, thus to win the sympathy of others.

In "The Old Chevalier" a spurned lover walks out to the street after being dumped and is accosted by a beautiful woman who simply wants to spend time with him to ease her own mind and self. In the process, the eases the lover's grief--until she asks for money for spending the night!

In "The Monkey" a man tells his aunt he want to be married, and his aunt suggests a woman, who, it turns out, refuses. She will not marry. The aunt cannot let this stand, so--in a series of events that would likely never be put to print in the current surrounding--invites the woman to dinner and instructs her nephew to rape the woman. He does not, though much can be assumed, since the woman was made so drunk that she does not remember the night. Add to this another element: the man's reputation in town has become such that if he does not marry in a hurry, he will never.

In "The Roads Round Pisa" a count, married to a woman who is jealous, not of other women but of her own riches (and thus refuses to wear them), is caught up in a series of events that puts him into contact with a young man, who it turns out is not a young man at all but a woman. This woman stood in for another in a marital bed, the supposed wife not interested in consummating a marriage to a man much older than herself, especially as she is in love with another. (Ironically, the impotent old man had also employed another to fulfill his obligations, hoping to get his wife pregnant.) A duel results. This seemed to me perhaps the story the most typical of this theme of illusion in the book.

"The Supper at Elsinore" recounts the story of a man and his two never-married sisters. The man, who enjoys life at sea, especially as a pirate, leaves his bride-to-be just before his wedding and never again reappears. Various tales float about regarding his life--or death. The sisters, meanwhile, spurn various lovers as youths and relish complaining of their "old-maid" fate; thus, they are greatly relieved when their brother's former fiancee marries, leaving them as the sole objects of tragedy. In the end, the brother returns, in the form of a ghost.

Three men on a boat serve as the frame in which the main story of "The Dreamers" takes shape, which proves to be a story with yet other stories within. Three men fall for a single lady at various times. And each time, she wanders off and leaves the men, to grieve and search for their lost love. In the end, we discover that each of them love is the same woman and that she is not the same woman that any of them loved at all. Identity, the woman notes, is made to be cast aside. We should be more than one person; we should be many people. Thus the woman, when these three men meet her again, no longer recognizes the men, for she is a different woman altogether. And yet, we also learn the story--the true story--of her life and why she wishes never to be herself again.

"The Poet" concerns a old man who falls in love with a young woman. A problem ensues when a young protege of his also falls for the woman. But who does the woman love, the old man she is to marry or the young man can't stand to leave her. Add to this the idea that this man's "leave taking" is actually a planned suicide (unbeknownst to his acquaintances) and that the suicide turns instead into a jealous murder. Has the old man, all along, been living in a dream world?

The writing throughout was exquisite. Yet I found myself often lost in these tales, not up, at the current moment, for the concentration that is required of stories within stories within stories, as so many of these tales involved. The stories comment on one another and often end up having quite a bit to do with the overall story itself, but this is one collection--as I noted when rereading "The Poet" just to figure out how the details added up--that bears a second reading, even perhaps demands it.

No comments: