The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 14: KAREN BLIXEN

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The Independent Culture
It's a droll paradox of political correctness that, even in a column of this kind, which ventures to speculate on the gradual disappearance from our culture of artists once considered significant, one instinctively feels the need to balance the mix by including as many women as possible. Interestingly, it's not all that easy to find them. It may be that, because women striving to attain the loftiest levels of artistic achievement continue to meet with resistance in what's still a mostly male preserve, the process of natural selection occurs as much during as after their lifetimes, with the result that those who do succeed in mapping out a space for themselves can already be said to have passed the ultimate test of survival.

Consider the case of Karen Blixen (or Isak Dinesen, the masculine nom de plume under which she wrote her early books). Blixen, no question about it, was a marvellous writer, the kind one devours in one's youth when one is, as it were, positively randy for literature. It helped, too, that she possessed an extraordinary physical presence - a few famous photographs have captured her as a death's head in a cloche hat. At a first (and even second) consideration, it may strike the reader as outrageous that someone so flagrantly gifted, a classic if ever there was, should be a candidate for the Guillotine.

And yet ... Little niggling doubts first set in when one tries to remember the titles of her novellas. The titles of the collections, yes - Seven Gothic Tales was the most celebrated - but the title of any one story? "Babette's Feast", to be sure, but that's probably now better-known for the admired cinematic adaptation. And Out of Africa, another easily recalled title, was also filmed (though the less said about that mawkish travesty the better). More serious, however, is the fact that Blixen, influenced by the great masters of the 19th-century conte cruel - E T A Hoffmann, Guy de Maupassant, Barbey d'Aureyvilly - fashioned for her romances a deliberately passeist prose style that certainly constituted a form of distinction and originality in the eclectic context of 20th-century modernism but may, in a hundred years, have the bizarre effect of doubly dating her work.

I sincerely hope I'm mistaken. For, if Karen Blixen is deprived of posterity, it means that posterity will equally be deprived of Karen Blixen. Which would be very much posterity's loss.

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