Having thoroughly enjoyed Judith Thurman's Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller and having described it here [in Modern Fiction Studies] as "competent, compelling . . . full and complex," I was at first suspicious of a dust jacket claim on Isak Dinesen: The Life and Imagination of a Seducer that "little information on the life of Isak Dinesen exists." Nevertheless, this latest study's author, Olga Anastasia Pelensky, quickly made me a believer. In a brief introductory section, she acknowledges Thurman's "fine work," then goes on to show she has extended and enriched it. While Pelensky's new book is not by any stretch of the imagination on a par with Thurman's comprehensive biography, I liked its directness and honesty. It lists new sources and tells how each shaped a slightly different view of Isak Dinesen's fascinating life and personality. [End Page 526]
Pelensky's view of Dinesen differs of necessity from Thurman's. All three—Dinesen and her biographers—see personality as an exaggerated sum of the looker and the person looked upon, an elusive quaity that writers struggle unsuccessfully to describe. As Thurman puts it, "So your own self, your personality and existence are reflected in the mind of each of the people whom you meet and live with, into a likeness, a caricature of yourself, which still lives on and pretends to be, in some way, the truth about you. Even a flattering picture is a caricature and a lie." Thus, Polensky, using new materials, creates an image of her subject, askew from Thurman's but just as true and false. Among her sources are recently discovered rare manuscripts at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of Texas, the Library of Congress, Vanderbilt, and the Boston Public Library; "the private collections of Parmenia Migel"; new interview sources; information on the history of Denmark; correspondence and literary manuscripts from the University of Copenhagen; newspapers from the British Museum and the Nairobi Library; new correspondence housed at Columbia; and the private papers of Eugene Haynes and Aager Henriksen.
What do these new sources yield? A surprising number of fresh insights into her subject. Several of these insights pertain to biography. While not denying Thurman's view of Dinesen's father's family as "sensuous-esthetic," Pelensky emphasizes the effect on Dinesen of the family's "tradition of adventure, of militarism, of the military class." Although Thurman tends to dismiss the importance to Dinesen's development of the "problematic" Westenholzes, Pelensky thinks the strong Westenholz women proved positive, powerful models for Dinesen. Acknowledging as Thurman does that Dinesen was profoundly affected by her father, Pelensky emphasizes more than Thurman does the influence on Dinesen of the father's psychopathology.
Pelensky's access to new sources also causes her to assert the importance of certain less frequently noted themes in Dinesen's writing. She sees in Out of Africa, for instance, Dinesen creating a record of English "colonialism as myth." She concludes that several Dinesen stories were inspired by the "Danish history of romance and masquerade". According to Pelensky, fedualism, commedia dell'arte, and pantomime also figure more prominently in Dinesen's fiction, along with the ideas of Darwin and Nietzsche.
As her title indicates, Olga Pelensky views Isak Dinesen's writings as "seducers" of their readers' imaginations. Similarly, by making herself into an art object, through, as Pelensky puts it, "studied self-creation," Dinesen "seduces" Pelensky and other biographers who struggle to capture on paper that created self. Though they are seduced, they (and we) are not abandoned, merely mystified. And that is as it should be. [End Page 527]