Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Happy Birthday Isak Dinesen, a Modern Scheherazade

Meryl Streep played her on film; Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe courted her; she flew in planes and hunted lions with Denys Finch Hatton in 1930s Africa, and was a bestselling author.

Born on April 17, 1885, Isak Dinesen (aka Baroness Karen von Blixen) was the Danish author of "Out of Africa" and many, many stories, some of which have been made into film (e.g. "Babette's Feast").

According to Isak Dinesen, The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman, Dinesen and Finch Hatton were great fans of Baudelaire, and "Friends remember that Denys and Tania liked to experiment with the sensations hashish, opium, or miraa could give them. Denys arranged the cushions on the floor before the fire and reclined there, playing his guitar. Tania sat 'cross-legged like Scheherazade herself' and told him stories." (Miraa is kava, an indigenous African herb that has a mild hallucinogenic effect. Dinesen refers to it in her story "The Dreamers" by its other name, murungu.) In another of her tales, "The Monkey," an old abbess drugs her dinner guests with a love potion, leading to an evening of "exalted lewdness" (Thurman). 

Streep as Dinesen in the film "Out of Africa"
with Robert Redford as Finch Hatton.
Dinesen wrote to her mother from Africa in 1924, "The greater part of humanity needs excitement, some slight intoxication, pleasure, and danger too. I think that if it were in my power to do anything at all for humanity, I myself would like to amuse them. I think it is wonderful that such delightful peacable people as you exist; but there is need for more than this, and I shall allow myself to make use of Shakespeare's words: 'Dost thou think, because thou are virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? Yes, by St. Anne, and ginger shall be hot I' the mouth too."

Dinesen died in 1962, but her stories live on. Orson Wells, a fan of Dinesen's who planned to make a series of films from her stories, directed a 1968 film starring Jeanne Moreau based on Dinesen's "The Immortal Story." "Babette's Feast," a film based on another of her short stories, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1987. 

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