Friday, July 25, 2008

The Deluge II

I love this story. Early on we meet Miss Malin, an aged spinster, who was never very pretty and had not a penny to her name as a young woman, and who had the guts to be extremely prudish to boot.  Jane Austen would have had nothing to do with this woman. Miss Malin would have been a throwaway line at best to her. But Isak Dinesen is made of sterner stuff. Her narrator compares Miss Malin to:  Sigrid the Haughty, the ancient Queen of Norway, who "summoned to her all her suitors amongst the minor kings of the country, and then put fire to the house and burned them all up, declaring that in this way she would teach the petty kings of Norway to come and woo her." 

And I dare say that would make an impression on any man who comes calling with a box of chocolates and a dirty mind. It's no shock to learn, then, that Miss Malin never married. (It is a shock to learn that Sigrid the Haughty did marry, after all that.)

Then we learn: 

"Yet Miss Malin had not escaped the common fate of human beings. She had her romance. When she was twenty-seven, already an old maid, she decided to marry after all. In this position she felt like a very tall bitch surrounded by small yapping lap dogs. She was still prepared to burn up the petty kings who might come to woo her, but she picked out her choice."

"Malin, for her part, picked out Prince Ernest Theodore of Anhalt." We learn then that he's fabulous in every way that a man can be fabulous in the early 19th century. He's a handsome, monied nobleman. A great soldier and a sensitive new age man, such as there was at the time, meaning when a woman died of grief over him, he probably composed a poem or two about it. 

So, how did this poor ugly spinster rate a guy like that? Read on. 

"This young man had obtained everything in life--and women in particular--too cheaply. Beauty, talents, charm, virtue had been his for the lifting of his little finger. About Miss Malin there was nothing striking but the price. That this thin, big-nosed, penniless girl, two years older than he, would demand not only his princely name and a full share in his brilliant future, but also his prostrate adoration, his life-long fidelity, and subjection in life and death and could be had for nothing less,--this impressed the young Prince."

So here we have the audacity of the character, and the audacity of the storyteller, in one stroke. And it's all explained away by the Prince's love of riddles. All his life he has loved riddles and puzzles, and this woman is both. "When, therefore, he found this hard nut to crack, the more easily solved beauties faded before his eyes." 

Never mind that men don't really act like this. It doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that Miss Malin isn't the subject of this story. She's one of several characters, each of whom has a compelling and startling story to reveal. This is just a couple of pages out of a 78 page story. The narrative is astonishing. It's worth reading twice.

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