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I cannot in good conscience suggest to people that they ought to like Isak Dinesen, especially this book: her concept of women as people doesn't seem to exist a lot of the time, and the issues of class are troubling, and what isn't involved with all that is theology, and let us not even talk about the portrayal of Gypsies, and half of the stories in this volume aren't finished.

It is just that I love her beyond thought and beyond all reason.

She is the writer I love that I understand the least, in terms of how she does what she does. I strip-mine my influences, I wear them on my sleeve. I can go through my fiction and tell you what tricks I've taken and from where, and through my nonfiction and tell you that I made my essay-voice out of myself and Le Guin and Angela Carter's journalism and a large dose of Virginia Woolf. Some part of my brain is always trying to figure out how writers do what they do and how what they do works on me, how it might work on other readers, what I can do to make it work as widely as I can. Isak Dinesen. I have no idea. At her best, she shrugs my critical brain aside, because I cannot think of anything other than that, for me personally, she is writing in fire. I can't suggest that that is communicable, that anyone else might get anything out of it, because I do not know what she is doing.

Much of Last Tales is not among her best; there is a sketch here for an unfinished novel, which you can almost see hovering beyond the pieces here, but not quite. There is a story that simply does break off in the middle. The men of her Italian Renaissance are so involved in their futile troubles that it makes you want to laugh at them-- as if anyone else hadn't suffered in the world! Fortunately the author is usually laughing at them also. But still. Infidelity and self-brought tragedy and people fooling themselves for justice and I cannot find it boring but other people have also done this.

But this has 'The Blank Page', which is a meditation on story and lack of story wrought around a precarious and delicate maelstrom of sex and religion, ending with the sound of the author laughing at you, because the better half of the story is the one it is impossible to tell, which is the point. And it has 'Converse at Night in Copenhagen', which is the one where a bad king and a man who is not yet a great poet have a conversation in which they stand for all kings and all poets, and do not acquit themselves badly.

I need to stop trying to write about Dinesen. I go into superlatives and my figurative language becomes overly pretentious and polysyllabic, the kind of writing that happens when I am trying to write about something I love, which I cannot explain, and which has flaws that are gaping and obvious. I cannot at this point do any better. Maybe in another few years.

This is from 'The Blank Page':

'Be loyal to the story', the old hag would say to me. 'Be eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story.' 'Why must I be that, Grandmother?' I asked her. 'Am I to furnish you with reasons, baggage?' she cried. 'And you mean to be a story-teller! Why, you are to become a story-teller, and I shall give you my reasons! Hear then: Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence. Whether a small snotty lass understands it or not.'

'Who then?' she continues, 'tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page. When a royal and gallant pen, in the moment of its highest inspiration, has written down its tale with the rarest ink of all-- where, then, may one read a still deeper, sweeter, merrier and more cruel tale than that? Upon the blank page.'


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March 2017

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