Anecdotes of Destiny was a birthday present from my parents last August but I only recently got around to reading it, having set it aside for a rainy – pardon me, snowy – day. I was well rewarded for my wait: Anecdotes of Destiny is quite simply one of the best books I’ve ever read.
As the title suggests, this collection of six short stories reflects on the twists and turns of fate and on those moments in existence which change the course of personal destinies forever.
Drawing (among other things) on the myth of Icarus, “The Diver” takes us to Persia and tells the story of Saufe, a young and idealistic student of theology, who is convinced that, of all creatures, birds are the ones that resemble angels most, and that if he wishes to get closer to God, he must imitate them and learn to fly. The city elders, afraid of losing their positions of power should he succeed, decide to teach Saufe a lesson in humility and hire a beautiful dancer to play a cruel trick on him. Heartbroken, Saufe flees, never to return. Many years later, he recounts to a wandering poet how he finally learnt wisdom and happiness from… a fish.
In “Babette’s Feast”, a French refugee in a remote Norwegian fjord town causes dismay and alarm among the strict Lutheran townsfolk when she proposes to cook a real French dinner for them. The guests gather on the fateful night like victims preparing to be led to the sacrificial altar, convinced that unspeakable Papist horrors have been taking place in Babette’s kitchen. And something strange does indeed happen that night: for as the snow falls thickly outside, isolating them from their fellow men and everything they are used to, and as the unfamiliar dishes and expensive wines succeed each other at the table in an elegant ballet, long-suppressed memories and feelings return to haunt them. The elderly Martine finally acknowledges her life-long love for a man she would never have been permitted to marry, while her sister remembers that, once, she sang Mozart so beautifully that she could have had all Europe at her feet.
Also set in Norway, “Tempests” tells the story of Herr Soerensen, an aging actor and theatre director, and of Malli, his young protégée. When Herr Soerensen catches sight of Malli one day, he is struck by a wonderful idea: he will make her play Ariel to his Prospero in his forthcoming production of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Their performance will be the apotheosis of his career! Malli proves to be a willing and receptive student, and Herr Soerensen drills her hard, till Prospero’s magic isle feels more real to her than the world in which she lives. When, on the way to their debut performance, the troupe is almost ship-wrecked in a storm, reality and fantasy seem to come together to bring the play to life. For a while the fairy tale persists, even providing Malli with a handsome prince. But Malli discovers to her cost that there is a wide gulf between the happy illusions of the stage and cruel reality.
“The Immortal Story” transports us to Canton, where, like a nineteenth-century Scheherazade, a young clerk spends every night reading aloud to his irascible employer, rendered sleepless by gout. Once the ledgers and account books have been exhausted, the dry old merchant finds himself yearning for something more: a story. For want of anything better, he starts recounting a story he heard at sea, many years ago, and took to be true. When his clerk reveals that it is a fiction known and repeated by sailors across the world, he is outraged. He resolves then and there to make the story come true, and charges his clerk with all the preparations, including finding a young sailor and a beautiful lady to act out the tale for him. But can one – however wealthy and powerful – make a fairy tale come true?
“The Ring” closes the cycle. On a country estate in Denmark, a young bride follows her husband of one week about as he goes over his land and livestock. She is still more a child than a grown woman, and her attitude towards married life is full of childish laughter and play-acting. But later on, in a secluded forest glade, she stumbles upon a young sheep thief, who is on the run from her husband’s men and the brutal punishment in store for him. The brief encounter marks both the loss of her innocence and the death of her marriage.
I initially started Anecdotes of Destiny because I wanted to read “Babette’s Feast”, the story on which is based Gabriel Axel’s wonderful 1987 film. I had never read any Karen Blixen before and I confess I was a little apprehensive: so much is made of her extraordinary story-telling gifts in “Out of Africa” that I was afraid of being disappointed. My fears were speedily laid to rest, however: before I ever reached “Babette’s Feast”, I was utterly bewitched. Exploring such themes as youthful innocence and idealism, the regrets and dissatisfactions of old age, magic, and art, the stories in Anecdotes of Destiny are poignant, mysterious, poetic, and thought-provoking, lingering in the mind long after they are over. They are the most richly imaginative and deeply satisfying short stories I have ever read, and reveal Karen Blixen to be a master story-teller.
© Florence Berlioz 2012