Gothic Tales

'Seven Gothic Tales' were Karen Blixen's (writing as Isak Dinesen) first published book, soon to be followed by the hugely successful memoir, 'Out of Africa'.

I have, thus far, read the first four - a family reconciliation effected by a stranger in nineteenth century Italy, an old remembered encounter with a prostitute in restoration France, a confessional night a midst a flood; and, a fraught marriage proposal (both in nineteenth century Denmark).

They were all written in the 1920s and they all have the temperament of emerging out of an earlier age. Their values are aristocratic where honour and duty shape and contest passions of the heart. You are in the world of Jane Austen rather the world of modernism - excepting that Dinesen's world is darker, more socially diverse and stranger than Austen's and, more overtly, theological.

God stalks Dinesen's imagination. He spills into her characters' thoughts, imaginings and conversations with familiar ease and He is wholly unconventional.

Would not God want us to assume masks and play, asks one character in a night time of confessional story telling, as they sit, stranded in a loft, as the flood waters uncertainly rise towards them. He knows our inward truth without us having to pronounce it, so may He not rather wish us to inhabit life as a stage and don mask after mask? It might be liberatory and, in fact, free us precisely into a better appreciation of ourselves and others?

I can sense the presence of the theatre director, Peter Brook, hovering approvingly at that last remark - thinking of his work on masks in drama - they hide yet reveal, simplify so that a purity of expression can be found (freed of the internal critic). I had a small experience of this yesterday. I had contracted diarrhea (a familiar enough happenstance of travel), taken my pills, not eaten for 24 hours and now wanted to eat something light. I dropped into a restaurant and watched all the familiar habits of how one should behave in a restaurant kick in - I was about to order too much food (in a proper combination) when I thought 'eccentric Englishmen', ordered a strange combination of food, enjoyed (rather than recoiled from) the waiter's puzzled look and got what I needed and tipped heavily out of the pleasure of it!

Meanwhile, God is fundamentally forgiving. In her greatest story, Babette's Feast, God's grace is, like Babette's extravagant banquet, utterly gratuitous and available to all. It is we who live lives to short of the vision necessary to imagine it and live towards it and in it.

With the freedom of that grace comes the continuous possibility of error and failure but what Dinesen seems to suggest is that honouring our risky, thrown createdness is what makes us human, and living it to the depths (including suffering the dregs) is all God asks and invites us to.


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