Karen Blixen is one of the great Danish literary legends on par with Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard. As different as they are, they have all avoided the pitfall that awaits artists with a dramatic destiny – that their creations are eclipsed by the legend of their life.
By Ebbe Mørk
As with all great writers their personal life and destiny become an integral part of their work. It is this synthesis of life and literature that adds a compelling dimension to their work, causing it to live on as literary classics long after their death. Karen Blixen lived her life as intensely and imaginatively as the characters she depicted in her gothic tales, but her own myth has – despite its powerful nature – never overshadowed the stories she told. It was, after all, Karen Blixen’s *Babette’s Feast* from the short story collection *Anecdotes of Destiny* which secured Danish film director Gabriel Axel’s 1987 screen adaptation an Academy Award.
The world of literature holds many examples of important works that draw from the author’s own life experience, if not in its entirety then at least its most formative parts. Karen Blixen’s *Out of Africa* is such a book and one of the most illustrious autobiographies of the twentieth century, which only grew in popularity with the 1986 screen adaptation by Sidney Pollack in which Meryl Streep played the Danish baroness living on a coffee farm by the Ngong Hills in Kenya. When the movie premiered, Karen Blixen had already rested in her parkland grave by her childhood home in Denmark for 24 years.
The artist’s home
It is the proceeds from the movie adaptation of her life on the African coffee plantation that continue to finance the upkeep of her childhood home, Rungstedlund, which opened to the public in 1991 and which is also the seat of the Danish Academy that Karen Blixen co-founded in 1960. And when representatives of Danish art and culture meet here, grand dinners are prepared and served at the magnificently arranged dining room table. The 16.5 ha/ 40 acres Rungstedlund estate, including park and forest, is now a protected bird sanctuary. Each year, thousands of visitors come to visit this inspiring place. Karen Blixen raised the funds to protect the parkland birdlife in a highly unusual manner: She addressed the Danish public in a radio appeal asking everyone to donate just one Danish crown – neither more nor less.
Karen Blixen spent her autumn years in her childhood home following her return to Denmark in 1931 after spending 17 years as a coffee farmer in Kenya. She was not only financially bankrupt, she was also physically shattered. She nonetheless had the courage and strength of mind to embark on what was to become a legendary authorship.
Visitors to Rungstedlund will enjoy her brilliant artistic talent. Karen Blixen studied art in Copenhagen and Paris and her talent is apparent in her portraits of native Africans on the farm by the Ngong Hills. Another great Danish artist, the silent movie actress Asta Nielsen, once said, ”In the genius, all talents are united.” She probably didn’t have Karen Blixen in mind since the two were unlikely to ever have met. However, this notion expresses a truism that also reflects on Karen Blixen. The baroness also displayed an original talent for flower arrangements. Her good friend, professor of architecture Steen Eiler Rasmussen, photographed many of her bouquets, which today allows the museum to recreate her floral displays in both spirit and style, drawing inspiration from her painterly sense of colour and composition.
Karen Blixen started writing *Seven Gothic Tales* in Africa. She finished the last of the tales on her return to Denmark. Her collection was penned in English and first published in the USA in 1934 under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. *Seven Gothic Tales* became ‘Book of the Month’ in the USA and was met with great enthusiasm. It was subsequently published in Denmark the year after, where the reviews were nonetheless mixed, calling it either ‘ingenious’ or ‘perverse’. She was and remains – both as a person and as an author – a controversial figure in Danish intellectual life, yet her authorship and legend remain as compelling today as ever before and the life she turned to myth has manifestly resisted all later attempts of iconoclasm and her books are still read with unyielding admiration.
Karen Blixen was at the same time very scripted. She was somewhat of an enigma. She claimed to be fun-loving but few fully understood that what amused her was to toy with people the way Puck plays with the characters in Shakespeare’s *A Midsummer Night’s Dream*. In her book *Shadows on the Grass* the baroness goes so far as to say that “to lie dead under the open sky and be eaten by vultures and jackals must be fun …”
Karen Blixen saw herself as a storyteller. Rather than feed on contemporary life she sought her literary subjects in a mythical age when storytellers would spellbind their audiences. In Karen Blixen’s case this is done with exceptional refinement since she always sought to establish a civilized platform casting light on complex and uneasy contemporary times by applying her immense knowledge and the sheer magic of her talent. Behind the mask and disguise of her tales there is a profound understanding of life in all its richness, an insight she had come to gain through the pain and fortune of her own life.
Love of her life
Although the years in Africa were her happiest, Karen Blixen constantly struggled with financial miseries and bad health caused by syphilis, which she contracted from her husband, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke. Once he had left her and the farm, Karen Blixen was to experience the love of her life with British big game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton whom she tragically lost when his plane crashed. Thus Karen Blixen faced the most trying time of her life, but she fulfilled her destiny in the very way she portrayed in her tale *Sorrow Acre*:
“Just as the melody is one with the voice that performs it, as the road is one with the goal, as two lovers become one in their embrace, so is man also one with his destiny, and must love it, as he loves himself.”