I am posting this a bit early because life is uncertain and work a bit too hectic. Do try and remember her on Friday with a kind thought and perhaps a glass of wine. She'd like that.
I was in the final throes of a complicated relationship when I came upon Judith Thurman’s book, “The Life of a Storyteller” at the Atlanta Public Library Book Sale. I thought it would be just a few days’ pleasure as I opened the book - a distraction from the troublesome hours. It turned into a favorite that I would read over and over when I needed a reminder that life is an adventure that we can either choose to live or avoid.
Karen “Tanne” Blixen AKA Isak Dinesen was an amazing woman – she was a genius with words who, as with most geniuses, was flawed in many ways. It takes a lot of living to bring about that language and easy prose. And a lot of hiding to create the intricate tales she wove. She was born just this side of aristocracy and so bent her life like a willow seeking that clear water but never quite managed to shake her roots clear of that dirt of birth. And so the marriage to the Baron…she was 28 when she left the confines of her very maternal family and moved to British East Africa (known later as Kenya).
Like many women, she fell in love with a part of Bror that was noble and good and fierce and chose to ignore his defects. Even when it was obvious that the marriage was done she did not wish to abandon it, happy to let him go and do what he pleased so long as she could remain who and where she was. And she chose to ignore the financial peril that dogged her steps, finding a solace in the land and her words. But by then the land had brought her Denys…
It was, of course, a doomed affair since he was suspected to be at least bisexual but, for her, intelligence was almost the same as sex and a long talk over intellectual matters was very satisfying. It was enough. But then her age began to tick inside and she craved for a time that normal womanly life of home and children. She had to know it was impossible. She was already at least 40 years old. Their relationship became tortured and the rare hot pleasure became rarer and colder still. The pounding drum of financial ruin played louder and louder until there was no ignoring it. She had to leave her precious land and return to that ancient home with all its maternal burden and staid ways.
What was an unbearable time became madness as news of Denys’ death rang through the country just weeks before she was to leave. It is said that Beryl Markham was to ride with him that day but her beau begged her not to go. She thought it was a matter of jealousy but stayed. Later that same day Denys' plane crashed.
Denys was like a god to all of the "old hands" in Kenya what with his handsome demeanor and handsomer ways. He was a gentleman of an older time and respected for being forthright even if he wasn’t always pleasant. I like to think his death made the leaving easier for her – there was nothing left in Africa for her.
And then, in the cold climate of Denmark, she began to write again as she had when she was a child. Just romances and tales woven through with plays on morality and sharp witted jokes about pride. She’d known it all and could look on such matters from a height that most people don’t ever attain. Her stories related those lessons but they were all couched in disguises like her favorite pantomimes.
As she aged, she endured great pains (essentially mercury poisoning from the original treatment of her syphillis) and so ate sparingly – perhaps somewhat anorexic to today’s definition but I think, too, in order to avoid having more weight on her bones than she could stand, thinking, perhaps, that the pain would be worse with that weight. In the end, she was a wisp, a lamp of sardonic skin lit with an intellectual fervor that never faded. Peter Beard's portrait captured it precisely.
She has been and always will be my muse.