Margaret Atwood on the show-stopping Isak Dinesen

On the Danish 50-kroner banknote there's a portrait of Isak Dinesen. It's signed Karen Blixen, which is how she is known in Denmark. She's shown at the age of 60 or so, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a fur collar, and looking very glamorous indeed.

I first saw Dinesen when I was 10, in a photo shoot in Life magazine. My experience then was similar to that of Sara Stambaugh, one of her bio-critics: "I well remember my own excitement around 1950, when, leafing through a used copy of Life magazine, I stumbled across an article on the Danish Baroness Karen Blixen, her identity not simply revealed but celebrated in big, glossy black-and-white photographs. I still remember one in particular, showing her leaning dramatically from a window, striking, turbaned, and emaciated."

To my young eyes, this person in the pictures was like a magical creature from a fairytale: an impossibly aged woman, a thousand years old at least. Her outfits were striking and the makeup of the era had been carefully applied, but the effect was carnivalesque – like a dressed-up Mexican skeleton. Her expression, however, was bright-eyed and ironic: she seemed to be enjoying the show-stopping, if not grotesque, impression she was making.

Could Dinesen have been contemplating such a moment in Seven Gothic Tales, 25 years earlier? In the story "The Supper at Elsinore", the De Coninck siblings are described as living memento mori: " … as you got, from the face of the brother, the key of understanding to this particular type of family beauty, you would recognise it at once in the appearance of the sisters, even in the two youthful portraits on the wall. The most striking characteristic in the three heads was the generic resemblance to the skull."

Dinesen was already ill at the time of the 1950 pictures. Nine years later she made a final triumphant visit to New York. She was lionised; famous writers paid homage to her, including EE Cummings and Arthur Miller; her public appearances were packed; and there were more photos. Less than three years later she was dead, as she must have known she would be. Her flamboyant self-presentation takes on, in retrospect, a new meaning: in her place, other doomed sufferers might have stayed in seclusion, concealing from the camera the wreckage of a once striking beauty, but instead Dinesen chose the full public spotlight. Was she incarnating one of her own dominant literary motifs – the brave but futile gesture in the face of almost certain death? It's tempting to think so.

New York was a fitting choice for her swan song, since it was New York that had made her famous back in 1934 when Seven Gothic Tales took America by storm. Rejected by several publishers for the usual reasons – short stories didn't sell, the author was unknown, the stories themselves were odd and not attuned to the zeitgeist – the book was finally picked up by a smaller American publisher, Harrison Smith & Robert Haas. There were conditions: the well-known novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher must write an introduction, and the author was to receive no advance. Blixen gambled and took the offer. Then she won – for, much to the surprise of all, Seven Gothic Tales was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was a guarantee of wide publicity and large sales.

Now it was time for Blixen to make her own condition: she would publish under a nom de plume, Isak Dinesen. "Dinesen" was her maiden name, "Isak" was the Danish version of Isaac (which means "laughter"), the name picked by the elderly Sarah in the Book of Genesis for her late and unexpected child. Blixen's American publisher tried to talk her out of using a pseudonym, but to no avail: she was determined to be multiple. (And, by the way, male, or at least genderless. Perhaps she did not wish to be thrust into the Lady Scribbler cage, suggestive of lesser merit.)

"Isak" was appropriate: Blixen's emergence as a writer was indeed late and unexpected. She had returned to Denmark in 1931, stony broke – her marriage was finished; her African coffee farm had failed; her romantic lover, big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, had died in a plane crash. Although she had written much earlier – her first stories were published when she was barely 20 – she'd chosen marriage and Africa over writing; but that life was now finished. At 46, she must have been feeling both desolate and desperate; but also, evidently, boiling with creative energy.

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