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Triptych: Isak Dinesen in Three Parts Bonnie Marranca Prologue Dear Hanne, On my desk sit a few stones I picked up on the beach across from Rungstedlund the last time I was in Denmark. Do you remember? Two years ago / had only a passing interest in Isak Dinesen-Karen Blixen, to you Danes-so I did not stop to see her home there, nor the beech tree that shelters her grave. Now I must ask these stones to conjure her up for me-the sound of the Sound, the whisk of the air, the restless water that slinks back and forth from Denmark to Sweden. "Where does this water live?" her Farah would have said. The stones are pastel like Danish evening light, and only slightly harsh to the touch, like the softest grade of sandpaper . I wonder if she had once picked them up and rolled them around in her hand, vowels that might have told a story. More likely, she told them one. How does one tell a story of Isak Dinesen? For her, the finest tale was the silence of the blank page. I look at this white silent sky before me, I try to read its transparency, to glimpse her image, elusive as a firefly that sets off intermittent sparks in dark night. Like all writing one longs to live in, the more comfortable it feels, the more quickly it vanishes, as if it were an extraordinary sound in a landscape that leaves one helpless to search out its source. OIsak Dinesen, on which of these little pebbles, compelled to act the part of runic stones, is your life written? 91 A Writer, A Story One day in Africa, as she lay deathly ill from an accidental overdose of arsenic, Karen Blixen recalled a passage in Alexandre Dumas's La Reine Margot in which the King is cured from arsenic poisoning by a concoction of milk and egg whites. It was not the last time writing saved her life. Of course, the humor of this opera buffo would not have been lost on the distraught woman who lay in bed, surrounded by her worried servantchorus . European culture was always the ironic root of the African bush she inhabited , for although Blixen went to Kenya to escape the old Europe that had produced her, along with her china, silver, and hardwood furniture, she brought its repository of texts, its myths, and her own itinerant mind that was a remarkable center where paganism, protestantism, and romanticism flourished in triangular splendor. It was a very special, come and gone, life of modernism poised between two worlds-the over-cultured and the underdeveloped -that Blixen would live between two wars. She was not merely a woman, but a world. The young lady who came to Africa in 1914 and married the Baron Bror von Blixen-Finicke whom she did not love, had that Chekhovian blues characteristic of listless, longing womanhood dying of a nineteenth-century obsolescence , in the best castles, manor houses and mansions Denmark could offer. The three sisters were educated at home and one of them, Karen, went to Africa: it would irrevocably change her life, and make her the most celebrated Dane of letters in the twentieth century. She was liberated-by disease, violence and the sheer struggle to survive-in the Ngong hills of Kenya. It is no small irony that when Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, he generously announced that it should have gone to the woman who was now known to the world as Isak Dinesen. She was, after all, a lion hunter. (Another woman whose writing Hemingway admired was Beryl Markham who as a child ran barefoot in the African wild, with young Masai warriors.) From the male perspective, Bror Blixen became Hemingway's model in the "Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber." These were no ordinary people but the stuff of myth. The Baroness Blixen was a woman who could ride the open plains where no human had ever been, wearing a string of pearls; who could drink a toast from crystal goblets to celebrate a lion hunt, in terrain so unknown even water had not yet traveled...


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