Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Self-Invention in Isak Dinesen's "The Deluge at Norderney"

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Self-Invention in Isak Dinesen's "The Deluge at Norderney"

Article excerpt

ISAK DINESEN'S "The Deluge at Norderney" (1934) is a tale about self-invention and its role in resisting the impositions of others. (1) Characters who invent themselves based upon artistic models find that the results of their inventions can far exceed their models; in a startling move away from the usual sequence of events, the most successful characters become idealized versions of their flawed originals. The similar activity of rewriting the past has a still more dramatically redemptive result: it allows Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag to go to her grave a free and happy woman. In the moment of death, memory and fantasy are indistinguishable, and the characters' masquerades become true.

It is nearly impossible to summarize the plot of "The Deluge at Norderney" in a satisfactory manner. The frame narrative, if stripped of its descriptions and explanation, is too simple even to be a story: A young man, a young woman, an aristocratic old maid, and an old Cardinal are all stranded in a barn in the flooded German countryside. If the barn does not collapse by dawn, they will be rescued. They pass the night by telling stories. Early in the night, the young woman and the young man are married to each other by the Cardinal. Just before morning, the Cardinal reveals that he is not a Cardinal at all, but the Cardinal's valet; he killed his master when the flood began and has taken his place during the day's rescue work. The story ends at dawn, the barn's collapse imminent.

The magic and delight of "The Deluge at Norderney" is in the interaction of the stories-within-stories. There are two kinds of these embedded tales: the omniscient narrator's asides, in which we learn the history of Cardinal Hamilcar von Sehstedt's life and his actions (or rather, the impostor, Kasparson's, actions) on the day of the flood, and the story of the old lady, Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag; and the tales told by the refugees in the barn. There are three of these: an autobiography, told by the young man Jonathan Maersk; a biography, told by Miss Malin about her young friend and fellow-castaway Calypso; and a fantasy, told by the Cardinal about St. Peter and Barabbas. (2) Calypso tells no story; Miss Malin, whose story we already know from the narrator, almost re-tells it herself, but interrupts herself at dawn.

This progression--biography told by the omniscient narrator; autobiography; biography told by a character; fantasy; interrupted autobiography--is essential to the development of "The Deluge at Norderney." The tale passes through five degrees of invention, in which the truths and central obsessions of the narrators' and/or main characters' lives are presented with varying layers of sympathy and differing attempts at concealment. I will argue that each embedded tale is a story not only of self-invention (which should be more or less clear from the tales themselves), but also of re-creation. The characters are telling stories which, in retrospect, become the truth. For Robert Langbaum, the purpose of the time in the barn is to give the characters the chance "to make death their ultimate triumph over conditions" (71). But in order for the characters to achieve this triumph, they must first overcome past impositions and learn to invent their own life stories, thus reclaiming and shaping their identities. Marcia Landy writes that "only through the mirroring of self through others, through art, and through language is it possible to restore the integrity of the self" (401), but it seems that in "The Deluge at Norderney," the self can only escape from the misreadings and projections of others when it is telling its own story. When the characters in the barn tell their stories, they make their lives complete and worthwhile. (3) Any lies they tell are in the search for a fundamental truth.

The tale begins with an example of misguided reinvention, the sort of thing the characters must struggle to escape. Norderney is not an obvious place for a seaside resort; it is, in fact, only made one by the romantic imagination, which "delighted in ruins, ghosts, and lunatics" (Dinesen 1). …

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