Last Tales was published on November 4 1957. It was not, as the title indicates, Karen Blixen’s last collection, but her penultimate set of tales. Her health declined during the 1950s and in 1955, aged 70, she underwent a number of operations. Nonetheless, she was working on three major books: a collection of new Gothic stories and winter tales; a collection Anecdotes of Destiny, which was published in 1958; a novel, Albondocani. The latter was planned as a series of independent stories linked by a common main character, Albondocani. Albondocani was one of the names used by Caliph Haroun al Raschid in Thousand and One Nights.
Karen Blixen selected some of the stories written for these projects and Last Tales therefore came to comprise three parts: chapters from the planned novel Albondocani, New Gothic Tales and New Winter’s Tales. A number of the tales had been published separately during the 1950s, some in the American Ladies’ Home Journal in 1955. “The Caryatids”, originally planned as a tale for her debut collection, had been published as early as 1938 in the Swedish literary journal Bonniers litterära Magasin, and “Converse at Night in Copenhagen” was printed in the Danish journal Heretica in 1953.
Last Tales is thus not so homogeneous as the two previous collections. In terms of theme, some of the New Gothic Tales and New Winter’s Tales are an extension of the two original collections; for example, “The Caryatids”, “Copenhagen Season” and “A Country Tale” all deal with treading and straying from the path of love.
THE ARTIST AND THE ROLE OF ART
“Converse at Night in Copenhagen” and “The Cardinal’s First Tale” voice a new theme in Karen Blixen’s works, one which is followed up in several of the Anecdotes of Destiny – the role of the artist and of art in relation to other ways of deciphering life, religious as well as philosophical. Dialogue between two characters is central to both tales, and was probably the result of the many conversations Karen Blixen had during the 1950s with her contemporary artists and men and women of letters regarding the nature and potential of art.
The discussion in “The Cardinal’s First Tale” springs from the Cardinal’s assertion that a person is saved when he or she is able to answer the question “Who am I?” The question can, however, only be answered by telling a story. As a story is always ambiguous, one should not hope to find a definitive answer to the question. In “Converse at Night in Copenhagen” the poet Ewald meets the mad young King Christian VII and a lady of the night, Lise. For a brief moment, elevated above the rabble of the street, they are able to make time stand still and discuss the disparity between the meaningful universe which the artist can create for his characters, and the opaque and unpredictable existence which people have to lead in the real world.
TITLES OF THE LAST TALES:
Chapters from the novel Albondocani:
- The Cardinal’s First Tale
- The Cloak
- Night Walk
- Of Hidden Thoughts and of Heaven
- Tales of Two Old Gentlemen
- The Cardinal’s Third Tale
- The Blank Page
New Gothic Tales:
- The Caryatids, an unfinished tale
New Winter’s Tales:
- A Country Tale
- Copenhagen Season
- Converse at Night in Copenhagen