Friday, June 26, 2009

Guest Post from C.B. James @ Ready When You Are, C.B.: Winter's Tales - Isak Dinesen

I am so happy to offer you this special treat today. Today's guest post is by C.B. James of Ready When You Are, C.B.. Many of you already know C.B. James...daddy of Dakota, the book-eating Basset Hound, exceptional blogger, the coolest middle school teacher ever, and host of Short-Story Sundays. He was also one of the first official followers of my blog (I'm not counting relatives, for whom following my blog was compulsory). He graciously agreed to participate in a guest post while I am away, offering a review one of his amazing collection of short stories, which will be posted at his site on 6/28. So without further ado...

The low, undulating Danish landscape was silent and serene, mysteriously wide-awake in the hour before sunrise. There was not a cloud in the pale sky, not a shadow along the dim, pearly fields, hills and woods. The mist was lifting from the valleys and hollows, the air was cool, the grass and the foliage dripping wet with morning dew. Unwatched by the eyes of man, and undisturbed by his activity, the country breathed a timeless life, to which language was inadequate.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking Isak Dinesen was a 19th century writer. The opening passage from her short story "Sorrow-acre" quote above certainly sounds like 19th century writing to me, not something a mid-20th century author admired by Ernest Hemingway would produce. Isak Dinesen's writing seems world's away from the writing in "A Clean Well-Lighted Place," in fact, it seems a century away. Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) did not become a writer until mid-life. Born in Denmark in 1885, she married, divorced and ran a coffee plantation in Kenya until the early 1930's when the depression brought it to an end. This experience was the basis for her memoir Out of Africa. She returned to Denmark where she lived until her death in 1962. While she is a 20th century writer, she is also a writer in love with the past. The stories in Winter's Tale are set in the previous century which suits her formal, elegant writing style.

"Sorrow-acre" is set in the Danish countryside during the closing days of the manor system. A young man, Adam, has returned to his family estate to visit his uncle, the lord of the manor, and his uncle's new, much younger wife. Adam's cousin has recently died, making Adam the next-in-line to inherit the estate unless the new wife can bear his uncle a son. Much is at stake for the current lord of the manor. Should Adam decide to remain in Denmark the situation could become very difficult.

"Sorrow-acre" takes place over a single day. In the early morning one of the local peasants, an old woman, comes to the lord of the manor to plead for her son who has been sentenced to ten years in prison for a crime she says he did not commit. The woman insists that this will be the death of her as she has no one but her son to take care of her in her old age. The lord agrees that he will pardon her son if she can harvest the grain on the plot of land in front of them. The woman agrees without hesitation, though everyone knows the plot is too big for a single person, let alone and old woman, to harvest in one day. The lord of the manor insists that no one help the woman and stations his men around the field to ensure that no one does. The woman works steadily throughout the morning without stopping and soon it becomes clear that she may actually complete the task before nightfall. Everyone from the surrounding area abandons their work to watch the old woman. Adam and his uncle watch as well. Once, Adam understands that while the old woman may earn her son's freedom, she is clearly working herself to death, he abandons his uncle and Denmark and heads back to his new home in England.

Dinesen creates a different kind of heroic female in "The Heroine." The main character in "The Heroine" is Frederick, an Englishman who is studying in Berlin in the 1870's. When the Franco-Prussian War breaks out he is forced to join a group of refugees fleeing for France. He is arrested by the Germans in a border town and faces execution for espionage along with the priest, two nuns, a commercial travelers and the beautiful young woman, Heloise, who shared the hotel he was staying in. A German officer offers them all their freedom if Heloise will come to his rooms in the nude. She replies:

"Why do you ask me? ....Ask those who are with me. These are poor people, hard-working, and used to hardships. Here is a French priest," she went on very slowly, "the consoler of many poor souls; here are two French sisters, who have nursed the sick and dying. The two others have children in France, who will fare ill without them. Their salvation is, to each one of them, more important than mine. Let them decide for themselves if they will buy it at your price. You will be answered by them in French."

None of her party agree to the German officer's demands so they are all taken into the courtyard to be shot. At the last minute, the officer relents and gives them all a pass to return to France. Years later, Frederick meets Heloise again when he finds her performing on stage and in the nude. His conversation with her after the show sheds a new light on everything that happened with the German officer. Like the last few lines in a Henry James story, the ending forces the reader to see that nothing was as it first seemed.

Now, tell me, honestly, does this sound like the work of a 20th century author to you?


The Bumbles said...

What an inspiring author. Always looking for strong women writers - and not a reader of short stories. You have piqued my interest CB. And you are right - she sounds like someone writing from much farther in the past.

Literary Feline said...

It indeed does sound like it's straight out of the 20th century. Your descriptions of both stories have intrigued me. The author's life story also has me quite interested. I'll have to look for her other work as well. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Hi all. How are you?