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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

What's right and wrong about Dinesen's Sorrow-Acres

Isak Dinesen - whom everybody knows at least from the Out of Africa movie, but who's actually read her fiction? - has a story Sorrow-Acres in the anthology of European fiction I've been sampling lately, from her collection Winter's Tales; in some ways it's a great story and in other ways a pretty awful one. She has a very long prelude, describing the feudal landscape of 19th (even early 20th?)-century Denmark (her native land), and describes a lost son returning to his native soil, urged on by his ambitious mother, with the intent of thwarting the plan of his uncle to take possession of the baronial estate: the elderly uncle had one son, he'd arranged a marriage, but the sickly son died, and the uncle then wed the intended bride and still hopes to "sire" a son who will inherit the estate. We think we know where this will lead us - the returning nephew will somehow oust the elderly uncle and win the heart of his young bride and the lineage will continue, in other words, Hamlet becomes a comedy of manners - but Dinesen, an extremely unusual writer, surprises us: In fact, the whole lineage issue is dropped, as the story takes a turn: the elderly uncle is set to severely punish a young peasant living on his estate for some sort of trespassing; the peasant's mother pleads for clemency (it's pretty clear the kid's not guilty of anything anyway), and the uncle says that if she can harvest an entire field of corn in one day by sunset he will free her son. Spoiler, if you haven't read it or figured this out yet: the mother shows superheroic effort, finishes the work, and dies in her son's arms. Essentially, that's the end of the story - it seems that the young man returns to England or wherever he'd come in from, leaving this bizarre punishment and this maniacal tyrant in charge, in other words, leaving the cruelty of feudalism intact. And where is Dinesen in all of this? She obviously recognizes the horror of this form of justice, if that word even applies, but the story is swathed in noble sentiments (are they ironic supposedly?) about the continuity of society and high-minded preaching by the old uncle about how gods - and the nobility - are immune to tragedy because they are omnipotent and that what looks like tragedy to others is for them a form of comedy. Is he insane, or is he Dinesen's mouthpiece here? I don't know enough about her work or life to understand where she stands on these issues, but she seems incredibly blase and indifferent to the fate of the characters she has created: as if she, too, is one of the gods, looking down from above, amused by the behavior of mere mortals. The peasants don't set it that way, however, nor should we.

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