- The Pact: My Friendship with Karen Blixen, and: Aksel Sandemose: Exile in Search of a Home
As we celebrate the centenary of Karen Blixen's birth, an English translation of Thorkild Bjørnvig's Pagten will be a welcome addition to the growing body of literature about Blixen available to those who do not know Danish. First published in 1974, Bjørnvig's account tells of his friendship with Blixen from their first meeting in 1948 (when Bjørnvig was a young poet of only thirty) to a long painful coda of resentment and misunderstandings. The book, which reads much like a novel, gives a fascinating—sometimes sympathetic, sometimes repellent—picture of Blixen, much of it through letters and conversations. The first chapters of the book describe ecstatic conversations with her: in Bjørnvig's words, "spontaneous agreement . . . simply guided . . . [the conversation] quickly past all nonessentials, and, as if by mighty inertia, into a kind of happy, productive dimension." The pact that Blixen came to demand from Bjørnvig far exceeded the limits of normal mentor-protegé relationships: although at first seen positively as absolute mutual trust, it came to assume more threatening dimensions. "I must spontaneously wish what she wished and if I had difficulty grasping it, that was just too bad. . . . she presumed that although the wings were mine it was she who controlled them." Throughout the narrative, Bjørnvig swings between admiration for and bitterness toward Blixen.
Bjørnvig's poetic genius is admirably suited to the task of depicting a person as complicated as Blixen. He is able, with a minimum of verbiage, to create memorable images and scenes, as when he describes the baroness descending by ladder from a broken elevator "with great dignity, like a great bird that decides not to fly down so as not to cause an unnecessary disturbance." Equally deft, albeit more appalling, is Bjørnvig's account of how, in a later meeting, Blixen trained a revolver on him. [End Page 444]
The Pact can be read on several levels. I rather question its suitability as a tool for critical studies about Blixen. William Jay Smith states in his Introduction that "because her relationship with Bjørnvig is a reflection of her affair with Finch-Hatton, we can gain from the reflection insight into the darker aspects of that earlier and more important involvement." The Pact can, of course, illuminate Blixen's story "Echoes" (Last Tales, 1957), her poetic account of the pact, and Bjørnvig gives his opinion about several of Blixen's later works, but the book is also a valuable document about Bjørnvig himself. Not only does The Pact describe the composition of several of his poems, but we also gain insight into Bjørnvig's development as a poet—and as a person, an aspect he does not overlook or embellish. For students of postwar Danish literature, we gain a feeling for the current literary scene—with brief explanatory footnotes.
The text is augmented with eight pages of well-reproduced photographs of Blixen, Bjørnvig, and other important Danish literary figures. Great consideration is shown for the reader with regard to quotations of verse: Bjørnvig's verse is given in English (and one might add that Schousboe has separately published translations of Bjørnvig's poems), and quotations from German poetry are given in English and the original.
Although The Pact is not of primary value as a study of Blixen as an author, it is a fascinating glimpse at an enigmatic personality.
In all likelihood Aksel Sandemose will never be well known to an American nonspecialist public. Very few of his novels have been translated into English from the original Danish and Norwegian. Moreover, Sandemose is not particularly subtle, and readers used to the more experimental forms of twentieth-century fiction might not find him...