Thursday, July 26, 2012

Good Short Fiction: The Immortal Story by Isak Dinesen

Title: The Immortal Story
Author: Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
Where I read it: Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard

Reading this story was like lying in the surf having waves pour over me; I knew I should get up and breathe from time to time, but I wanted to stay where I was until the tide receded.

Who are the characters set in motion in The Immortal Story?

There's Mr. Clay, a miserly English nabob in Canton, who lives in a house full of mirrors that once belonged to his business partner whom he bankrupted (and who then committed suicide). He knows only figures, facts and transactional relationships; money is the defining element and purpose of his existence. After he falls sick, he has a clerk, Elishama, stay up all night reading old account books to him. But one day when they run out of accounts to read, he asks on impulse for a different kind of story.

Elishama is also a man cut off from human relationships, though unlike Mr. Clay he doesn't covet wealth. When Elishama was a young boy his family was murdered in the 1848 pogroms in Poland, and he was passed around from one place to another, taught book-keeping, and finally sent east until he wound up in China. What he wants more than anything else is solitary peace:
One passion he had, if passion it may be called - a fanatical craving for security and for being left alone... His soul was concentrated upon this one request: that he might enter his closet and shut his door, with the certainty that here no one could possibly follow or disturb him.
Elishama has sympathy for women, and for birds, but he doesn't get emotionally involved with anyone; he sees things keenly, but in the spirit of an outsider and not a true participant in life.

In response to his employer's request for another kind of story, Elishama reads aloud from a page once given to him by an old man who left Poland with him when he was six. It's an excerpt from the Book of Isaiah. Listening to it, Mr. Clay asks if any of these prophecies were ever fulfilled, and then wonders why people tell stories about things that never came about. He's determined then to will a story into existence. He decides on one of the few he's ever heard - a sailors' tale - and orders Elishama to help him set it in motion, not as a play but as a real life event.

Who will they enlist as the participants? There's Virginie, a mistress of one of Mr. Clay's employees, who turns out to be a surprising, complex figure. And then there's the sailor they pluck from the harbor, the one willing to trust Mr. Clay and his promises.

Even as Dinesen lays her characters bare, she handles them with gentleness, a kind of sympathy for their shortcomings and pain. I like how each character is jaded and old in some ways, and young and fragile in others. Mr. Clay, for all that he owns the district and feels that everyone is a toy in his hands, is with those same feelings rendered an overreaching child. Elishama seems to understand the price of everything (even if he doesn't always agree with it) and makes some wise observations about what he's seen of life, but he's forever a traumatized child who doesn't want to be hurt again. Virginie still has one foot in her childhood, the happiest time of her life with an affectionate father who used to tell her grand stories; now her view of the world is as a place to get by, to try and feel good and make others feel good. Lastly the sailor mixes boyishness with hard experience.

What happens when Mr. Clay attempts to enact a fictitious tale? Does he have the power to truly bring anything to life? He measures his success by bare dry facts and doesn't seem to realize that while people and relationships can be reduced to transactions they also rise above them. Virginie and the sailor have their own stories to tell behind closed doors, to deepen their encounter, and Mr. Clay knows nothing of it. He might like to think of people as puppets that he twitches along fixed paths, but there's much that goes on beneath the surface - worlds of beauty and sympathy that he can't perceive. Stories take on a life of their own, and miracles can manifest in small ways.


This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesdays at Simple Clockwork.