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Friday, January 15, 2010

Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller

Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller
by Judith Thurman
audio book: 21.5 hours


*** About the Book ***

Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Dinesen, aka Baroness Karen Blixen) was born on April 17, 1885. She became one of the most beloved authors and poets in Denmark, was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and is known as one of the most representative personalities in Danish history. In this biography Judith Thurman reviews Dinesen's life with a strong focus on her writing, looking at how her life both influenced her work and was influenced by it right up until her death on September 7, 1962.

The audio book was narrated by Davina Porter. She did a good job here, but she is not one of my favorite narrators as I don't always like her voice.

*** Why I Read It ***

I LOVE the movie Out of Africa. The last time I watched it I realized that it is based on Dinesen's book by the same name. The book, in turn, is based on her own life in East Africa between 1914-1931. I added the book to my TBR list back in June '08. When I was looking recently through the library's online system for a copy of it, I found Thurman's biography. I figured it would be interesting to learn more about Dineson before diving into OUT OF AFRICA so I checked it out.

This book counts toward the Library and Audiobook challenges.


*** My Thoughts ***

There are two important things about any biography: whether the person is worth reading about, and how well the author writes. Let's start with the person, shall we?

Is it possible to love someone in a movie and yet despise who they are in their real life? Back when I added OUT OF AFRICA to my TBR list I wrote that Karen Blixen "was a fascinating woman living in a fascinating time" but now I'd amend that to say she was an imperious, self-centered, demanding, snobbish, and tyrannical woman living in a fascinating time. Had I known her personally, I don't think I could have stood to be around her.

Maybe I would have liked Dinesen when she was living in Africa; she seems to have been a different person there. In fact, she seems to have been a different person whenever she was able to travel. It was being home in Denmark, surrounded by money worries and the stress of life and her poor health, that always seemed to bring out the worst in her.

And yet, there is something about her ... something that drew people to her even in her old age and frail health, something that is almost magnetic, a pull that I could feel even through this biography ...

Dinesen rebelled against all the societal norms her family expected her to follow, she rejected the idea of a "woman's place" in the world, and she created a religion of sorts with herself as God, directing the lives of everyone around her according to an invented "script" of the way things should be. She lived, for the most part, as she chose to live. [For those reasons this would be an excellent book for the non-fiction portion of the Women Unbound Reading Challenge!]

As for the author, Thurman had fascinating subject matter to work with and she did an excellent job. The book gave me a great deal of insight into Dinesen's writing and I appreciate that; I feel like I will get so much more out of any Dinesen book that I choose to read now. At the same time, I was quite concerned that my dislike for Dinesen would turn into a dislike of OUT OF AFRICA (since it is really about her own life) when I finally read it. I'm glad to say that has not happened; I'm halfway through OUT OF AFRICA now and really loving it. But I'll save my thoughts on that for my review of it. :)


*** Literary References ***

A few things to note ...
  • Ernest Hemingway based the main character in THE SHORT HAPPY LIFE OF FRANCES MACOMBER on Baron Bror Blixen, Isak Dinesen's (ex)husband. That surprised me quite a bit, as I didn't realize there was any connection between Dinesen and Hemingway.
  • While Dinesen was living in Africa her family in Denmark sent her Sigrid Undset new novel KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER. Though she liked it at first, in the end she hated it, saying that it life was simply not that depressing. She felt that Undset sucked the pleasure of out living for Kristin, never really giving her a chance.
  • Dinesen admired Aldous Huxley's books above almost all others. She found his fascination with hallucinogenic drugs very intriguing, especially in the way it influenced his writing. (She and I have directly opposing tastes in books; I absolutely loathed the only Huxley book I ever read.)
  • Dinesen's last work, TEMPESTS, was inspired by a performance she saw of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST.
  • Shortly before her death, Dinesen traveled to America where she met with many American writers who loved and admired her including, among others, Carson McCullers, Arthur Miller, and John Steinbeck.

*** Your Thoughts ***

Has learning more about an author ever made you like or dislike their work when you previously felt the opposite about it? I liked the Oscar Wao book a lot more after hearing Junot Diaz speak, but I have a feeling that I might like OUT OF AFRICA less after learning about Isak Dinesen ...

Have you read either this biography or any of Dineson's works? She's got quite a repertoire of short stories, including the collections SEVEN GOTHIC TALES, WINTERS TALES, and ANECDOTES OF DESTINY.

9 comments:

Kathleen McCleary said...

Heather: It's funny that you say you and Dinesen may have completely opposite taste in books. I loved Kristin Lavransdotter.

I really liked Out of Africa when I read it years ago. I enjoyed your review of the biography. As for authors whose work I love and lives I don't, I loved Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil, which won the Nobel Prize. Then I found out he was a passionate supporter of Hitler and Nazi Germany and yes, it tarnished my love for the book. One of the paradoxes of life.

Valerie said...

I read "Out of Africa" years ago; long ago enough that I should re-read it at some point.

I have to agree with Karen about not liking "Kristin Lavransdatter"...I wonder if she read the whole trilogy, lol.

I don't think that an author's personality would affect my liking of their writing...unless their personality spills over so much into the book that it colors it too much. For example, I wouldn't like reading a bigoted book by a bigot.

Lenore said...

After going to East Africa last November, and just having rewatched Out of Africa last week, I found your post fascinating. I have read some of her short stories (long ago) and remember liking them.

Lisa said...

I read Out of Africa and remembering being so disappointed by it. I LOVE the movie and sadly it is only very loosely based on the book. But I may have to pick it up again and read it without trying to imagine it as the movie. This biography definitely sounds like something I'd enjoy.

softdrink said...

Her feelings about Kristin Lavransdatter crack me up. It seems that most of us who read the book and disliked it are in excellent company. :-D

Bybee said...

I'll never be able to read that Hemingway story again without seeing Klaus Maria Brandauer!

I liked Kristin Lavransdatter, so Isak and I disagree there.

Can't remember if I've read this biography of Dinesen...it looks great...but I'm haunted by a deja vu thing..

Heather J. said...

Kathleen - Ooh, that would definitely change the way I felt about a book! As for KRISTIN, I've heard that you either love it or you hate it. :)

Valerie - I know what you mean about the author's personality possibly bleeding into their work; my concern is that I might not like OUT OF AFRICA because it is about Karen herself.

Lenore - I'm sure that the movie brought back memories of your trip! I'm totally jealous of the btw. :)

Lisa - You're right, the movie is only loosely based on the book. Much more of it comes from her biography. OUT OF AFRICA makes SO MUCH MORE sense now that I've seen the movie and listened to the biography!

softdrink - Yes, I admit I did think of you when I read that part. ;)

Bybee - EXACTLY - his image will be in my mind forever. And I have yet to read KRISTIN so I can't chime in on that one ...

Beth F said...

I have this one on the shelf unread because I read another biography of her and didn't want to burn out. I think I'll do the audio (I love Porter's narration). I was looking all over the house to find the book I read, but I can't find it.

DId you see the movie Babbette's Feast? That was based on on Blixen short story.

Heather J. said...

Beth F - No, I've never seen the movie. I haven't read any of her stories (other than OUT OF AFRICA/SHADOWS ON THE GRASS) ... have you? Are they worth reading?

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