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Izak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen) launched the major phase of her literary career with this stellar collection of rich, archaic tales, back in 1934. It was an instant success, chosen by the prestigious Book of the Month Club in America. In form and atmosphere, the tales have strong echoes of 'The Decameron', 'The Arabian Nights', the stories of Shakespeare, Perrault, Stevenson. Modern writers who come nearest to it would include Angela Carter ('The Bloody Chamber') and A S Byatt (her wonderful fairy tales); but such collections lack the historical scope of Dinesen's stories, which are not confined within the fairy tale genre. 'Gothic' is perhaps misleading here, if by that term we think of novels by Horace Walpole ('The Castle of Otranto'), Anne Radcliffe, and Lewis ('The Monk)', though they inhabit the same landscapes: they do not set out to raise the hair on one's head or a send chills down one's spine; rather, they hark back to antique lands where love and death are fated to be acted out - often in aristocratic circles - in an atmosphere of poetry, dreams, and pastoral idylls, the effect being noble, tragic, nostalgic, beautiful and dark. But lest it become overpowering, a distancing occurs through the nature of the storytelling: action is honed into recollection; tales unfold one from another and meander, so that often the reader is in danger of losing hold of the narrative line; characters are left behind before they bite too deeply into the imagination, though we might return to them later; conversations are not of the immediate kind but are full of reflection, poetry and philosophy. The prose is as rich and as richly peopled as a medieval wall tapestry; it demands close attention. Each tale should be read ideally at one sitting; to put it down part way through is to break the fine skeins of imagination Dinesen weaves through each; it's hard to pick them up again. They are not fairy tales, not ones that can be rendered in any way for children; nor are they morality tales or tales of sensation, while echoing all of these form. But they are miraculous - how a writer can sit down and let such amazing prose flow onto the page is beyond my grasp. It's no wonder that 80 years after the tales' publication this book remains in print, with new editions coming out all the time (the latest being, as I write, a lovely illustrated one from the Folio Society). If you like to read traditional tales in their most adult and sophisticated form, if you like complex, mandarin, star-studded sentences, you can't do better than this collection.
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on 29 October 2007
Isak Dinesen's debut book is one of those rare speciments in literature which one can read and re-read with increasing enjoyment. This is a wonderful collection of stories. Highly recomendable.
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on 23 February 2015
It may be that a recent heavy reading schedule has left me somewhat jaded and ill-disposed to indulge the unfamiliar and challenging. Or maybe these stories are, as I suspect, genuinely cumbersome, confusing and often rather dull.

First off, I didn't expect a collection of 'gothic' stories to pose such longueurs, repeated mis-directed digressions, blind alleys and false starts. I was expecting something more focused and compelling. Dinesen's writing is certainly lucid and meticulous (if not very exciting), but hampered by this chronic urge to seek out an ad hoc story in every passing character or landmark, however untimely or irrelevant. Or languish in convoluted meditations on the meaning of 'Woman'/'Women' or Christianity and God. In stories such as 'The Deluge At Norderney' and 'The Supper At Elsinore' I believe you can comfortably skip three or four pages at a time without losing the thread of the plot whatsoever. Dinesen revels in her nineteenth century milieu and perhaps would have produced a more successful historical text than a literary one.

A notable foible/stylistic flourish littered throughout is Dinesen's reliance on literary quotations: French, Italian, Latin etc. Unfortunately, neither she nor the Penguin editorial team have deigned to offer English translations of these nuggets - a rather elitist omission, in my opinion. Conjuring a rarefied, mysterious, enchanted world of privilege and romance? Or just plain confusing, like the abrupt curious endings of 'The Monkey' and 'The Supper At Elsinore' which I concluded not with a beguiled 'wow!', as might have been intended, but with a mildly perplexed 'eh?'
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on 11 May 2015
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on 18 October 2006
The Seven Gothic Tales are an essay in suspense/revulsion. These, one suspects, were written in an attempt to fall into the then young film horror genre.They were not taken up for that: werewolves and Transylvania passed into the Western group psyche instead. The tales are over-elaborately written and at times hard to follow.Woman as the cause of overdone revulsion, a recurrent theme, is maybe unpromising in itself. But these are the apprenticeship for Karen Blixen and, viewed in that light, show the writer's development and increasing maturity of style. Not a bad read for a winter's night and quite a varied choice for a book club.
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on 28 August 2009
hard to get into, certainly not a book to take on a long journey. After reading 'Out of Africa' I thought this would be as good, but was sadly dissappointed. Makes a good coaster for the mug of tea though.
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