Seven Gothic Tales – Isak Dinesen

“Do you know,” he said, “do you know why I look to, why I cleave to, God? Why I cannot do without him? Because he is the only being toward whom I need not, I cannot, I must not, feel pity. Looking at all the other creatures of this life I am tortured, I am devoured by pity, and I am bent and crushed under the weight of their sorrows. I was sorry for the Cardinal, very sorry for that old man who had to be great and good, and who wrote a book on the Holy Ghost like a little spider hanging in the great space. But in the relation of God and me, if there is any pitying to be done, it is for him to do it. He will be sorry for me.

Originally published in 1934, Seven Gothic Tales, the first book by “one of the finest and most singular artists of our time” (The Atlantic), is a modern classic. Here are seven exquisite tales combining the keen psychological insight characteristic of the modern short story with the haunting mystery of the nineteenth-century Gothic tale, in the tradition of writers such as Goethe, Hoffmann, and Poe. 

Dinesen’s world is a dark fairytale, painted with the hues of slowly unveiled fantasy reminiscent of the Grimm Brothers or Edgan Allan Poe’s horror tales. Unlike the former though, Dinesen’s sophisticated, poised prose acts like a charm that transfixes the reader through its receding succession of symbolic patterns that defy the classic boundaries of limiting the tales by beginnings and endings. Set in the 1830s, times of unrest and change in Europe, there is no such thing as a linear timeline or a straight cast of characters in the elliptic shape of stories told in the fashion of Russian Dolls, of stories within stories, disguised identities, androgynous traits that conceal gender and sexuality; only the sensuous pleasure of lingering in the act of storytelling in a continuous mirage of distorted fiction.

Love, with very young people, is a heartless business. We drink at that age from thirst, or to get drunk; it is only later in life that we occupy ourselves with the individuality of our wine. A young man in love is essentially enraptured by the forces within himself. You may come back to that view again, in a second adolescence. I knew a very old Russian in Paris, enormously rich, who used to keep the most charming young dancers, and who, when once asked whether he had, or needed to have, any illusions as to their feelings for him, thought the question over and said: “I do not think, if my chef succeeds in making me a good omelette, that I bother much whether he loves me or not.” A young man could not have put his answer into those words, but he might say that he did not care whether his wine merchant was of his own religion or not, and imagine that he had got close to the truth of things. In middle age, though, you arrive at a deeper humility, and you come to consider it of importance that the person who sells or grows your wine shall be of the same religion as you yourself. 

I found the book hard to read at points and the ideas a big jumpy -from love, to death, to despair – the true gothic principles. And when man is not pitted against other man, he is pitted against divinity, which seems to be playing with us.

I have always thought it unfair to woman that she has never been alone in the world. Adam had a time, whether long or short, when he could wander about on a fresh and peaceful earth, among the beasts, in full possession of his soul, and most men are born with a memory of that period. But poor Eve found him there, with all his claims upon her, the moment she looked into the world. That is a grudge that woman has always had against the Creator: she feels that she is entitled to have that epoch of paradise back for herself. Only, worse luck, when chasing a time that has gone, one is bound to get hold of it by the tail, the wrong way around. Thus these young witches got everything they wanted as in a catoptric image.

And yet, there seems to be an element of desire snuck into the pages.

The comfort of the warmth of the fire on her skin, after the clinging of her wet and tumbled clothes, made her sigh with pleasure and turn a little, like a cat. She laughed softly, like a child who quits the doorstep of school for a holiday. She stood up erect before the fire; her wet curls fell down over her forehead and she did not try to push them back; her bright painted cheeks looked even more like a doll’s above her fair naked body.

I think that all my soul was in my eyes. Reality had met me, such a short time ago, in such an ugly shape, that I had no wish to come into contact with it again. Somewhere in me a dark fear was still crouching, and I took refuge within the fantastic like a distressed child in his book of fairy tales. I did not want to look ahead, and not at all to look back. I felt the moment close over me, like a wave. I drank a large glass of wine to catch up with her, looking at her.

A tale with the narrative frame of a Chinese box, of stories that sprout from stories, which in turn lead to new stories, there is a playful game of masks, veiled and unveiled, that dance in a sneaky masquerade that is never completely revealed to the baffled reader

Margaret Atwood loves this 1934 short story collection, which is what drew me to it in the first place. In the second place, I enjoy the gothic, plus I’d never read this author before. Triple win, right? Unfortunately for me, some of the stories fall a bit short, their complexity being their downfall.

Dinesen, looking gothic and glam

Therefore, it is, more often than not, the old who are the heroes of these stories. These characters are from an earlier era, lingering leftovers, “the last of the old illustrious race”. Their days are numbered, they know the world has moved on and they are considered foolish remnants, and yet, and yet, they have tales to tell that will take your breath away. There are plenty of young characters as well, but the ones we are meant to like are descendants of this older type, or so otherworldly as to not count as a part of the future. To this dying company, Louis-Phillippe, the common place King that everyone knows too much about, is the enemy- and yet one they must support for lack of other choices- to try to keep up the illusion of the gods. As one young aristocratic lady in the early 20th century wrote: “Heaven preserve me from littleness and pleasantness and smoothness. Give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve me from the neat little neutral ambiguities. Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent. Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously.” Our protagonists here have either done this, spend much time pretending they have, wishing they had, or reaping the consequences for this- trying, as one of the characters in The Dreamers describes it, to get life to drink them down, swallow them whole.

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