Karen Blixen started her writing career in earnest as a man. Not like some Orlando, who experienced an acute sex change overnight, but because she understood that in the 1930s her writing might have more weight if everyone thought she was a man. Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen was published in Denmark and Great Britain in 1934 and won her some acclaim. When she wrote Min Afrikanske Farm or Out of Africa about her 18 years in Kenya, she wrote and published as herself in 1937. And the rest is history, including film history.
Karen Blixen’s Den Afrikanske Farm (Out of Africa, 1937) is probably the most famous, internationally acclaimed Danish novel. Though I do not kid myself to have the great skill of Blixen, I like the parallel of her story with mine: A Danish woman immigrating to a foreign country to set up her livelihood and who starts to write late in life. I hope of course that similarities end there – I do not have a philandering husband, there is no Denys Finch-Hatton and though we may have had thoughts of living sustainably off the land at one point, we have abandoned this project and I have stuck to my secure employment.
It was with some amusement that I first heard of Erling Jepsen’s Den Sønderjyske Farm (The South-Jutland Farm). Inspired by Blixen’s masterpiece, Jepsen wrote his third novel about Allan and his childhood community in Gram. Nearly appropriating Blixen’s work, this novel starts by describing the landscape of Gram and how the main character, Allan, had a rabbit farm at the foothills of Gram Bakke.
Unlike Africa, Denmark is a terribly flat place. The highest places reach only some 170m into the sky. Gram Bakke is no Ngong mountain and the cultural difference between the west-southern Jutes and the east-southern Jutes is not really the same as the cultural differences Blixen encountered in Kenya between colonisers and the colonised. A black woman, Mkali, does feature in the novel, but she is the daughter of an African-American soldier and a German woman. Perhaps her untimely end in an unsympathetic community draws references to the impact of the colonisers in Kenya on the first nations people in Blixen’s novel.
The humour of this author is warm, understated and sharp, as we learn about Allan’s attempts to impress and be acknowledged by his father, the failed milkman who got a bit too close to his daughter. The son suffers terribly for the father’s sins and childhood in Gram is a gruesome affair. In spite of the odds against him, Allan appears to grow up to live in Copenhagen and become a succesful writer who could not imagine writing without Coffee Punch – a drink from his homelands, made by pouring enough strong coffee into a cup that you can no longer see the bottom and then adding akvavit or ‘snaps’ until you can see the bottom again. Stir in sugar to taste, and the coffee will ensure you stay alert, while the snaps will release your creative juices.
I am not sure it is advice I will take in my pursuit of writing, though when I sit empty before the computer, I could do with a bit of creative release.
Jepsen’s first novel, Ingen Grund til Overdramatisering (No reason for too much drama, 1999), is similarly about a budding writer, whose main concern seems to be how to find a way to live off the public purse while figuring out his writing practice and life in general. This also seems like poor advice to the budding writer and probably explains a thing or two about what has gone wrong with the Danish welfare model.
I have wondered before how penniless Hemingway and the rest of the artist community in Paris in the 1920s could afford living how they did in Paris. My husband points out that in the past most artists and writers have either been from well-to-do families – such as Karen Blixen – or if from an impoverished background had a patron or two to support them – such as Hans Christian Andersen.
In Denmark, Julius Bomholt’s introduction of arms-length art support in 1964 legitimised the State’s support of arts and culture and a desire to support merit rather than wealth (in Australia Whitlam achieved the same in 1974). The pursuit of artistic expression became the province of all talented people. But of course you usually have to show merit first to be supported. Jepsen’s budding writer had shown none of that, other than being mistaken for a more or less successful screen writer.
How does one support oneself to get the time and the space to write? Should society support people who decide to abandon their education or paying job to follow their dreams to create? If so, who should decide which people are deserving of the support and how?