When I saw that the next story up at A Curious Singularity was by Isak Dinesan, otherwise known as Karen Blixen, I was very intrigued to read it. I’d heard people enthuse about Dinesan’s writing, and much as I’m not a great film watcher, even I have seen Out of Africa with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, whose extraordinary Danish accent and gorgeous safari skirts made a big impression on me. The film tells the famous part of the author’s life story; her marriage in 1914 to a fellow Danish nobleman and their emigration to Kenya to start a coffee plantation, his infidelities, followed by her great love affair with English big game hunter, Denys Finch-Hatton. Karen Blixen eventually divorced her husband, although not without contracting syphilis from him that compromised her health until her early death. Finch-Hatton died when his light airplane crashed in 1931, and the coffee plantation failed due mostly to the Depression in America. Blixen was obliged to return home to Denmark, and once there she began writing in earnest.
I haven’t read Out of Africa, and so I have no way of knowing whether it is of a piece with her other writings, but the story that’s up for discussion, ‘The Blank Page‘, came as a bit of a surprise. I was expecting finely-wrought traveller’s tales, a slice of sensually evoked transcontinental realism, and yes, maybe a giraffe or two. I really wasn’t anticipating a fairy tale that dragged its own meta-narrative along with it. It’s a strange story, split into two parts, the first introducing the legendary old crone who will be our narrator, and who will be giving us an enticing taster of the art of story-telling. ‘I am most highly honoured because I have told stories for two hundred years,’ she declares to us in the opening paragraphs, thus killing off any last traces of suspicion that this might be a tale that relates to a ‘real’ world we know, and suggesting instead that if this story has animals, they are more likely to be unicorns than rhinoceroses. Instead the world that the narrator wants to introduce us to is the world of the story itself. Setting the reader up for what is about to come next, the old woman brings us into the intimate heart of storytelling, the golden rule for all would-be raconteurs. What is the point of this ancient art? ‘Where the story teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak.’ Ah, and there is the perfect hook, for we, the loyal readers, earnestly believing we are about to be told something we can make use of, have been offered instead a fine enigma to carry with us as we head off into the next part of the story. It’s a beautiful moment because the last thing we are generally thinking of when we read is silence, and this statement, presented as a great secret, a fundamental truth, is startingly counterintuitive. We might refer to this technically as the ‘You what?’ moment, that obliges us to keep reading in search of further explanation.
So, the story we are finally told is picture book perfect. From seeds gathered by a courageous Crusader grow the most glorious flax plants that are transformed by talented nuns into sheets of such perfection and purity that they grace only the finest, royal beds. Those sheets then serve a special purpose. When a Princess marries, they are hung out of the windows of the palace the morning after the wedding night to reassure the populace that she was indeed a virgin. And then the sheets return to the nunnery whence they came and a square from each is framed and hung in a particular gallery. These unusual pictures offer suggestive symbols to those who come and visit: ‘Within the faded marking of the canvases people of some imagination and sensibility may read all the signs of the zodiac: the Scales, the Scorpion, the Lion, the Twins. Or they may there find pictures from their own world of ideas: a rose, a sword… or even a heart pierced through with a sword.’ And, most notable of all, the picture in front of which people pause for the longest time, is the one in which the sheet is resolutely and unmistakably blank.
All the rich and vibrant detail we are given of the growing and weaving of the flax, all the evocative images we are offered of visitors making their pilgrimage to the nunnery, and all of this is a smokescreen for the hidden, secret, silent part of the story. Hiding behind the lovely words of the story we have, on the one hand, the innate violence and humiliation (that is neither beautiful nor noble) of those bloodstained sheets being hung out of the window. It’s notable that the story never once uses the word ‘blood’, never refers to anything distasteful at all, although the ‘framed canvases’ the spectators gaze upon must be nothing more than these old and faded stains, and the roses and swords they evoke are symbolic euphemisms for sexual possession. And then we have the one sheet that is blank and unsoiled. What could possibly have happened here? Did the Princess refuse to give herself to her husband, or was she not a virgin? Is there some other tale we have not yet guessed at that could account for this empty sheet? In this way the cunning old crone guides the reader towards the recognition that all stories arise out of surprisingly pregnant silences, from blank pages that beg for explanation and fire the imagination to provide it. What we cannot understand, we feel compelled to talk about until we find some story that will fill the emptiness. But just as this story does, so they all end with speaking silences too. At some conclusive point, so all the words of the story gesture beyond the events and the people they describe to that strange place somewhere between the tale and its readers where meaning is created. Good stories don’t tell us everything; instead they provide us with the clues to work it out for ourselves, to guide us towards the limit of what words can do and to point us in the direction of the mysteries of life and narrative, neither of which can ever be fully expressed. And thus, as the old crone promises us in this parable of the mechanics of narrative, loyalty to the story means we are rewarded with the ‘Ah ha!’ moment, where it’s difficult to say what we know, but the story has shown us that somewhere deep inside, we know it.