The Blank Page

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.


11 thoughts on “The Blank Page

  1. Like you, I’ve only seen the film Out of Africa, and not read any of Dinesan/Blixen’s books. I would also have expected giraffes, but this sounds like a wonderful story, even if giraffe-less.

    • I read this with a huge smile on my face. I had to read it for university and I kept thinking well the blank page is not the Virgin Mary nor representing her as would be first in line not last, so was the bride not a virgin? was she disobedient? either way, would a Prince want that information bandied about because that would represent him being duped or not in control, either way, he would be seen as weak given the time period this is meant to represent. I concluded most likely that the blank page represented all those stories that are yet to be told, all those stories that wait in silence but I still cannot work out the significance of what others standing in front of it means. So reading your comments – was an aha! moment. thank you!

  2. There are giraffes in Out of Africa, but her descriptions of the people of Africa are what hooked me. I must read The Blank Page next. Once again Litlove, you have taught me something about the way I/we read.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this review – so that I was actually inspired to go and read the story and it was well worth it. Several things stood out for me. The sense of menace and violence lurking behind the fairy-tale beauty of the story’s words. The old storyteller, who talks to us so forcefully about her craft at the start of the story, refers to the written word for authority, even though she takes pains to tell us she herself can’t read. And the ‘blank page’ of the unstained linen, the mystery of which sparks off so many untold stories for the women who contemplate it.

    I agree with your comment that “Good stories don’t tell us everything; instead they provide us with the clues to work it out for ourselves”. It’s an interesting contrast with so much about contemporary culture, in which ‘storytelling’ is about telling everything, about having the camera on all the time, so that there are no ‘strange places’ between the tale and the reader (or viewer – I was thinking in particular about the popularity of reality TV, but the overwhelming popularity of the ‘true life story’ and the ‘misery memoir’ too).

  4. I love Isak Dinesen! I’ve only read some short stories/essays and Out of Africa. If you like her, you would probably also love Doris Lessing.

    I love what you said about good stories not telling us everything. I rarely read a book whose ending doesn’t drive me nuts. Either they wrap everything up all tidy and beat us over the head with the obvious answers we could have figured out, or lately, it seems to be the fad to just randomly end novels (and movies!) without giving us ANY clues. Have you seen American Beauty? I know you said you don’t watch many films. But it has my idea of the perfect ending. There are all sorts of clues for SEVERAL ways for the story to end. You can think and think and think about the possibilities and choose your favorite, and you can discuss with other people who think it would have turned out differently.

  5. I haven’t read this but have added it to my “to be found” list. How interesting that you say that the words are used to frame the silences and that the silences hold the information. That evokes a very familiar feeling as it is the surrounds of an image which bring meaning to the image itself. It seems to give a context and creates a tension in which the viewer is drawn from the apparently superfluous border into the image. Yet without that context, to begin in the middle of the image itself, there is no tale being told.

    Thank you, you have crystallised something I have been unknowingly feeling towards with my photography.

  6. Dear Ian – oh thank you for that. I really MUST read Out of Africa now! Yaeli – I’m so glad you went and read the story – it’s worth the trouble. I am very impressed by what you have to say about the explanatory tendencies of modern art – you are spot on. It’s understood to be a condition of the postmodern that everything must be visible and explained, that there should be no more enigmas or uncertainties or ambiguities. All should be resolved on the surface. And yes, it makes for less artistry in art. But you know, that odd place between the reader/viewer and the art in question keeps reinserting itself, despite all attempts to eradicate it, and that’s interesting in itself. Thank you for having given me so much to think about! Dewey – You are spot on – I do like Doris Lessing (and keep meaning to read the volumes of autobiography she published not so long ago). I know just what you mean about endings, but no, I haven’t watched American Beauty. How very intriguing! I shall have to get it out on DVD, now that you have made me so curious! Archie – I do think you are onto something there. It’s the frame that marks the parameters of the photo, just as beginning and end are essential to the narrative. And I know I’m not alone in loving the photography you display on your site.

  7. I read Isak Dinesen’s stories before I read her slim little memoir, Out of Africa, so I had the opposite experience! I knew her fairy-tale-like writing (that most often was set in her homeland of Jutland, in Denmark, or at least in Europe), and then when I read her memoir, I was so surprised by its lovely portrait of a life lived in Africa. One warning for you, since you’ve seen the movie–Out of Africa doesn’t give a lot of detail about her life, at least, not like the movie does. The movie is based on Out of Africa and also on Judith Thurman’s exhaustive biography of Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen). But if Out of Africa whets your appetite for more, and you’re not up for the bio, you can also read West With The Night, Beryl Markham’s lovely memoir–she knew Karen Blixen and showed up as a character in the movie.

  8. I read Out of Africa about a year after the movie came out so that tells you how long ago that was! I loved the movie so much I had to read the book. It’s different, of course, but I really liked it. I think I have read one of her short stories but I can’t remember what it was, not The Blank Page, I know that for certain. Have you seen the movie Babette’s Feast? That’s based on on of Dinesen’s stories and is a beautiful movie. Lots of food, no giraffes though 🙂

  9. im in a highschool course studies in literature where we\re doing an isp on the blank page. its messed up i cant write with a pen anymore, feel like im busting a hymen, I never realized how many traps women face in literature the fact she wrote as isak dineson speaks alone.

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