Title: Seven Gothic Tales
Author: Isak Dinesen aka Karen Blixen
Publisher: Folio Society has produced yet another beautiful book illustrated by the extremely talented Kate Baylay
Publication Date: 2013
Hardback: 392 pages
Refreshments: I didn’t really want to eat or drink near the book as it’s so pretty and I have a penchant for spilling. However, as a reading aperitif – and this is only because reading these stories brought to mind old libraries in stately homes – I quaffed a glass of Port (this one is exceptional and ate some cheese on toast
Seven Gothic Tales was first written by Karen Blixen and published in 1934 under one of her many pen-names, Isak Dinesen. Written, in English rather than her native Danish, after her return from living in Kenya and the First World War, these seven tales represent Blixen’s nostalgia for a time of innocence, while embracing the dark realities of life.
As the name says the book consists of seven stories. All are set in 19th-century continental Europe most notably: Denmark, Germany and Italy. The tales span all themes and society including: noblemen and spinsters, lovers separated and lovers brought back together, pirates, bishops and whores, a prioress of a convent that actually is not a convent, a monkey and of course a ghost.
This edition is published by the Folio Society and is bound in midnight-blue and beautifully illustrated throughout, by Kate Baylay, in a hybrid style combining mystical fantasy and Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’. The introduction, by Folio favourite, Margaret Atwood is frankly admiring of Blixen’s creation, declaring that ‘each combines shrewd psychological insights with the elegant prose and supernatural themes of the 19th-century gothic tale.’ With this in mind it was ready to crack on.
The tale I picked to review for this Halloween was, ‘The Dreamers’. In this tale Isak or Karen (??) introduces us to the famous opera singer, Pellegrina Leoni, who unfortunately loses her voice as a result of getting caught in a horrific fire. As a consequence of this tragedy Pellegrina has to seek out new life dreams and aspirations on her own.
This tale deals extremely astutely with misfortune as Pellegrina experiences personal utopia as a singer to then be forced to adapt and assume a series of different guises. Unfortunately, (as this is a gothic tale) Pellegrina finds herself living in her imagination where she escapes responsibility for life’s worries which consequently leads to her demise.
Another character in Pellegrina’s story is that of Marcus Cocoza, a wealthy Jewish manan who some have interpreted as the characters of both Satan and the Archangel. Cocoza is her unannounced companion who tracks her through each of her reincarnations.
These themes of identity and escapism act as an education to us all too both overcome adversity but also to never pretend to be someone you’re not, the results are never happy. Blixen thanks to all her life experiences has proved herself to me to be a very wise woman!
Another thing I love about these types of books and by that I mean short stories and tales (I recently dipped in and out of Roald Dahl’s collection of short stories) is that you as a reader have a choice about where you want to begin and how much you want to read at a time. Seven Gothic Tales is a hefty tome but it is also one you’ll pick up again and again, and although it’s too big for the handbag (or TFL) it’s certainly a welcome companion when you’re sat in your armchair.
So with that tantalising titbit concerning ‘The Dreamers’ , I’ll leave the other six for you to make your own mind up: The deluge at Norderney, The Roads Round Pisa, The Supper at Elsinore, The Poet, The Monkey and The Old Chevalier. Enjoy.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 – the illustrations aside this really is a magical set of short stories!
NB: The Folio Society edition of Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, introduced by Margaret Atwood and illustrated by Kate Baylay, £34.95 available from http://www.foliosociety.com Tel: 020 7400 4200, or from The Folio Society, 44 Eagle Street, London, WC1R 4FS