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Prostitutes' paradoxes

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I don't know if Karen Blixen ever read Guy de Maupassant's story, "Boule de suif" - probably she did.  She'd lived in Paris as a student and spoke French.  Maupassant was (and still is) a writer who enjoyed wide popular acclaim; his work would likely have been unavoidable for young Blixen.

The question arose because my first thought on reading "Boule de suif" was its remarkable parallels with a (much later written) story by Karen Blixen, "The Heroine," which appeared in her second collection, Winter's Tales.

Both stories take place during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71.  In both stories, a band of French travelers are stopped by Germans.  A German officer in both stories demands sexual favors from one of the French women.  In both stories, the woman works in the sex trade.  And in both stories, the woman's companions - who, in both stories, include a pair of nuns - are instrumental in the outcome.  Yet the two stories are totally different.

In "Boule de suif," the woman, Elisabeth Rousett (known as "Boule de suif" or "suet dumpling") is a prostitute.  Her companions in her traveling coach initially snub her, but they welcome her into their society after she shares her food with them.  When the German officer arrests the progress of their party, however, Boule de suif's companions pressure her until she relents and complies with his demands.  The German officer allows their party to proceed, and the companions regress into their haughty exclusion of Boule de suif.  The story ends with everyone in the coach refusing to share their food with her, while she cries, and one of the men hums "The Marseillaise."

In "The Heroine," the woman, Heloise, appears to be a lady of some distinction.  She and her companions at an inn are trying to cross from Germany into Luxembourg.  A German officer tells Heloise that he will grant the laissez-passer if she comes to him naked.  She demands that the officer present the request to her companions.  Led by an elderly priest, who weakly waves his arms, they all give some sign of refusal, and the party is sent outside.  They fear they will be shot.  But a German officer comes with the laissez-passer and a bouquet of flowers, which he presents to Heloise, "to a heroine." 

After the war, one of the men who'd been with Heloise that night, a scholar named Frederick, goes to a nightclub in Paris where he sees Heloise - far from being a woman of distinction - performing naked in a titillating show called "Diana's revenge."  After the show, Heloise has a drink with him, during which she muses that, during their showdown with the German officer, their companions were running a worse risk than being shot.  Had they made her do what the German had demanded,

[t]hey would have repented it all their lives, and have held themselves to be great sinners. . . . for those people it would have been better to be shot than to live on with a bad conscience.
(p. 86).  When Frederick asks her why she is sure of this conclusion, she replied, "Oh, I know that kind of people well . . . . I was brought up amongst poor, honest people myself."  (Id.)   

This comparison between Maupassant's "Boule de suif" and Blixen's "The Heroine" brings Blixen's romanticism into sharp relief . . . and possibly some ridicule.  Romanticism in and of itself doesn't deprive a work of its plausibility - people behave romantically often enough - but as the side-by-side with "Boule de suif" clarifies, Blixen's romanticism was normative, not descriptive.  She wrote about how people should be, not about how they are.  And how Blixen thought people should be can seem a bit ridiculous today.

In Maupassant's hands, the social pressure exerted on Boule de suif to force her to comply with the German officer's request that she perform exactly what she would do for her job seems dehumanizing and cruel.  In Blixen's telling, Heloise's refusal to ensure the safe passage of herself and her companions by doing exactly what she does for her job seems foolishly proud; and Heloise's insistence that her companions would have been better off being shot, than having supported her in her honor, seems naive, if not offensive.

At the end of the stories, it is Maupassant, not Blixen, who has made me feel empathy for the prostitute, who has inspired me to insist on her dignity, on her human entitlement not to be sexually degraded, whatever she does to earn a living.  Who, then, is the romantic?  Maupassant, who lays the groundwork for realization of an ideal by showing us reality; or Blixen, who shows us a peculiar ideal, the realization of which seems not merely impossible, but ill-advised?

If Karen Blixen did read "Boule de suif" before writing "The Heroine," she didn't appear to take from it its most salient lessons.   

(Image of Guy de Maupassant from Narrative Magazine)
I take from literature what I need at a particular time in my life - a reread at a different moment reveals another necessary - so I was impressed by the resonance of Nick's final gift in Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.  Nick's openness to seeing beauty in the world at the instant of his most foul excommunication recalled the last lines of Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese":

. . . .
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
In his aesthetic sensitivity, an expression of Nick's ability to love the world with "shocking" unconditionality, Nick has found his place in the family of things - whatever the verdict of the families - the Guests, the Feddens, the Charleses, the Ouradis - he has tried to join previously.

Alan Hollinghurst and Mary Oliver are not the only authors who have comforted me thus recently.  Kathleen Jamie's joyous poem, "The way we live," makes the same point as she celebrates (among others):

. . . .
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government.  To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.
To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems
to be: let me bash out praises - pass the tambourine.
Indeed, the power imparted by an unconditional love of the world - with its embrace of mortality as much as vivacity, hardship as much as luxury - also captured Karen Blixen's attention.  In "The Dreaming Child," she describes the helplessness an adoptive mother feels when her dying adopted son displays this very trait:

All her life she had endeavoured to separate good from bad, right from wrong, happiness from unhappiness.  Here she was, she reflected with dismay, in the hands of a being, much smaller and weaker than herself, to whom these were all one, who welcomed light and darkness, pleasure and pain, in the same spirit of gallant, debonair approval and fellowship.  The fact, she told herself, did away with all need of her comfort and consolation here at her child's sick-bed; it often seemed to abolish her very existence.
"The Dreaming Child," Winter's Tales, p. 178.  

This lesson was one Karen Blixen appears to have grasped, not by innate inclination, but through repeated suffering at the hands of men - Bror, Denys - who didn't see debt, alcoholism, war, illness, loneliness, or her own misery as conditions to be avoided - who swallowed life knife-edge first and wondered why Karen seemed to cut her throat on it - whose phenomenal fortresses of apparent independence "did away with all need" of her and "seemed to abolish her very existence."  No wonder she looked on this unconditional love of the world with awe.  Bror and Denys may have found their places in the family of things, but Karen seems to have gone to her death still looking.

Perhaps what Karen Blixen needed was, not better men, but better literature.  The last poem Denys read to her, standing with one foot in his idling car, from a book of poems by Iris Tree that burned with his body in the plane crash at Voi, is also about geese:

I saw grey geese flying over the flatlands
Wild geese vibrant in the high air -
Unswerving from horizon to horizon
With their soul stiffened out in their throats-
And the grey whiteness of them ribboning the enormous skies
And the spokes of the sun over the crumples hills.
Compared with the use Mary Oliver makes of wild geese, Iris Tree's effort is crap.  Were it that Karen Blixen could have nonetheless taken the tambourine she so badly needed from it.

Fiction thwarts facts in Karen Blixen's tales

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When reading fiction, the temptation to finger some fact or occurrence as "the truth" is strong, and those writing about Karen Blixen are apt to capitulate to it.  Judith Thurman, Sara Wheeler and Errol Trzebinski all do it, citing some snippet of her fiction for a clue about how she might have thought or felt or responded to x or y situation.

Reading Winter's Tales, I myself felt the pull of such interpretive methods.  "The Pearls," for example, dares you to understand the story as an account of her marriage.  The groom, Alexander, in "The Pearls," has a twin sister; Karen Blixen's husband, Bror, had a twin brother.  The bride, Jensine, is happy to honeymoon with her husband in the wilderness; Karen and Bror no sooner married than they were living in Africa.  "The gossips of Copenhagen would have it that [Alexander] had married for money, and [Jensine] for a name" (p. 108); and, indeed, such gossip circulated about Karen and Bror - he, who was always in debt, and she, who was in love with being called "Baroness."

These correspondences lead the reader (or at least, this reader) to draw similar parallels about other nuggets in the story.  "[V]ery soon after he marriage, Jensine realized - as she had perhaps dimly known from their first meeting - that he was a human being entirely devoid, and incapable, of fear."  (p. 110.)  Ah-hah, I thought, upon reading this passage: so that's what Bror was like.

"[Jensine] recalled the fairy tale of the boy is sent out in the world to learn to be afraid, and it seemed to her that for her own sake and his, in self-defense as well as in order to protect and save him, she must teach her husband to fear."  (p. 111.)  An insight into Karen Blixen's attitude towards her husband, no?

By the end of the story, when "[t]o her own deep surprise . . . . Alexander . . . had become a very small figure in the background of life; what he did or thought mattered not in the least.  That she herself had been made a fool of did not matter" (p. 123), I was inclined to believe that I was reading Karen Blixen's personal opinion about having been married to an adulturer who'd humiliated her in front of Nairobi society.

Had I read "The Pearls" in isolation, perhaps my opinion of Karen Blixen's marriage would have settled into that comfortable category of "stuff I know without needing to retain citations" that resides in a hazy corner of my memory.  But I kept reading.  And, annoyingly, characterizations resurfaced, but now in less comfortably identifiable situations.

For example, in "Alkmene," the title character is a gorgeous girl adopted by a childless couple.  "The first thing [Gertrud, Alkmene's adopted mother] told me about [Alkmene] was that she seemed to be altogether without fear. . . . So [Gertrud] made it her first duty as a mother to teach her child, as in the fairy-tales, to know fear."  (p. 200.)  Uh-oh.  Is Alkmene also supposed to be Bror?  Because later on in the story, Alkmene dresses up in a regal silk gown and parades around the woods - and dressing up, as well as theatrical behavior, were characteristics of the young Karen Blixen.

This coincidence of fearlessness in a character reminded me that extracting facile assumptions about the author's life based on her fiction is crap-quality literary criticism, a lesson I should've known so intimately from my own writing that I'd be in no need of reminding.  From my own creative methods, I know that facts are an input to a process - the inner workings of which are veiled even to me - the outcome of which is (hopefully) entertaining, (hopefully) linguistically acute and (hopefully) insightful into the human condition, but never reliably accurate a reflection of my own biography.  I don't "hide" my truth in the novels I write, but instead transform the raw factual material of reality into stories.

If Karen Blixen did anything similar, then the only conclusion to draw from her fiction is doubt about the possibility of extrapolating backwards from her fancy to the facts that formed its basis.

What a piece of work is Karen Blixen

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Karen_Blixen.jpgI don't think I'm competent to judge whether Karen Blixen is any good as a writer.  I admire good plotting and page-turnability too highly.  I fall in love with authorial voices that don't take themselves too seriously, that mock themselves, that deliver the heavy news with the light tone.  I value substance over facade too much to venerate aristocracy. 

In short, Karen Blixen probably couldn't speak to me with her writing, even if she was any good, which I can't tell whether she is.  Certainly, she's maddening.  In "Sorrow-Acre," the second story in Winter's Tales, a five-page tangent about the 17 year-old bride of a 60-plus aristocrat - during which the young mistress yearns for someone who is never present and meditates on a flea's willingness (alone among creaturedom) to risk its life for her blood - leads nowhere.  In "The Pearls," another story from the same collection, Henrik Ibsen makes a baffling appearance, and a cobbler's revelation that he added a pearl to the protagonist's necklace ruins her marriage - why that might be is anyone's guess.  In "Alkmene," also from Winter's Tales, a mysterious foundling child insists on watching an execution after her adopted father dies - she hints that the purpose of observing the spectacle is to deter her from committing murder like the condemned man - and then, upon receiving a marriage proposal from the story's narrator, claims that she herself has died, whereupon she moves to the country with her adopted mother and runs a sheep farm. 

Reading Blixen's stories, I was reminded of Tim Parks' frustrated review of Anne Enright's The Gathering in The New York Review of Books.  Enright's extraordinary talent, as I see it, is her bizarre ability to evoke the experience - captivation, terror, revelation, relief - of dreaming (in fact, her work fades for me after I close the covers, just as dreams do upon waking).  But the ability of a dream to cast its spell on a non-dreamer is limited - indeed, to the outsider, a dream is often an easily-dismissed irrationality - and Enright, like all stylists, cannot be appreciated by a reader who doesn't get her style.  (Imagine your consternation - to pace Tim Parks' - if what appears to be someone else's dream-babble won the Booker.)

But Blixen herself may have cut closer to the truth in her final story in Winter's Tales, "A Consolatory Tale."  In it, a character explains,

What exactly [the imposter to the Prince] has told the people I cannot report, partly because his sayings seem to be deep and twofold, so that those who have heard them do not remember them, and partly because he really does not say much.  But the impression which he has made is sure to be very profound.

(p. 298.)  Later, the imposter utters the following enigma: "Life and Death are two locked caskets, each of which contains the key to the other."  (p. 303.)  In other words, this imposter bore a striking resemblance to Kahlil Gibran (or his modern day incarnate, Paulo Coelho).

Stylist or fraud, that's the question.

(Photo courtesy of Tate Britain.)
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince to Léon Werth, a Jewish, leftist, writer friend in hiding in France during WWII.  "I ask children who may read this book to forgive me for dedicating it to a grown-up," writes Saint-Exupéry.  "I have a[n] . . . excuse," he continues.  "This grown-up lives in France, where he is cold and hungry.  He needs a lot of consoling."

Why The Little Prince would console anyone is an interesting question.  It's a book about loneliness, exile and homelessness.  The book is filled with unanswerable questions: why did the Little Prince leave the flower and his home planet?  Why did the Little Prince ask for a drawing of a sheep, when what he needed was an actual sheep?  Why did he need -- want -- to die?  And, although on a strictly rational level, the story isn't fleshed out enough for full comprehension, on a visceral level the book's clarity is searing: the story pulsates with loneliness.

Reading The Little Prince -- for the first time, three days ago -- I ached.  I didn't feel lonely reading it, but rather I remembered my own lonely childhood.  My empathy for the Little Prince was the vehicle through which I could empathize with my own past self without shame, condemnation or the reflexive defensiveness that normally allows me to think of that time with a cold impassiveness.  I wondered why no one had given me the book to read when I'd been a child.

Why would I have wanted to have read it as a child?  Because it would've consoled me.  As counter-intuitive as it might seem, a book that pulsates loneliness is balm to the lonely.  You aren't alone, The Little Prince says to a child.  You aren't as lonely and helpless as you were when you were a child, The Little Prince says to the political subversive in hiding underground.

But the consolations of The Little Prince go deeper than its message.  The book itself is like a ritual of, if not resurrection of the dead, at least restoration of the missing.  Everyone involved in The Little Prince misses someone: the pilot misses the Little Prince, the Little Prince misses the flower, Saint-Exupéry in exile in America misses Werth in hiding in France. 

For Saint-Exupéry, the remedy for this pain of separation was writing.  He wrote to Werth -- not just The Little Prince, but also the elegiac Letter to a Hostage.  Saint-Exupéry's characters also write.  The pilot, of course, "writes" The Little Prince and urges child readers to write in turn.  The last line of the book is "write quickly and tell me that has returned . . ." 

Writing, for Saint-Exupéry, is not merely psychologically soothing, but a means of working a physical return of the lost -- that greatest consolation of all.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Fables category.

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