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Thursday, May 19, 2022

artistic sophistication

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She was a woman of many identities and pseudonyms. She is known and read as Isak Dinesen in the English-speaking world, in her Danish homeland she is called Karen, in the German book market Tania Blixen.

His most famous work, Out of Africa, published in 1937, describes life on a coffee farm in Kenya from his own experience. A much-admired book that has become increasingly controversial in recent years.

The accusations are the usual ones: a supposedly insufficiently guilty attitude towards colonialism, racism not reflected in the depiction of black servants and farm workers.

One almost breathes a sigh of relief because Tania Blixen’s latest novel “Babettes Fest”, now published entirely in German for the first time (From the Danish by Ulrich Sonnenberg. Afterword by Erik Fosnes Hansen. Manesse Verlag, Zürich 2022, 120 pages, €20.) set almost unsuspectingly in the far north, in a cold, treeless fjord called Berlevaag, east of the North Cape.

Babette unites two souls in her chest

Here, on the edge of the inhabited world, in this region that has not yet been abandoned by God, a small Pietist community gathered around its preacher and provost in the 19th century. He has two beautiful daughters, Martine and Philippa, who emulate him in piety.

Every once in a while, a male candidate ends up in the wasteland. An opera singer in Paris tries to convince Philippa. He gives her, who has a divine voice, singing lessons, which she interrupts once and for all when she tries to kiss him for the first time.

Disappointed for life, the singer returns to Paris, but sixteen years later she sends a friend to the sisters in exile to save them: none other than Babette, who unites two souls in her womb.

She served the pampered Parisian nobility as a mistress of cuisine until, as a member of the community, she rebelled against the luxury class; she even she can be a “petroleuse”, a revolutionary arsonist.

Babette’s family died in the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. She manages to escape to Berlevaag. From then on, the task there was to prepare cod and bread soup as a domestic help for the Sisters of Virtue.

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However, Babette still has an old lottery ticket that brought her a fortune of 10,000 francs in 1885, which today is around 50,000 euros. Now she could return. Instead, Babette decides to prepare a lavish meal for her two benefactors of hers and the small community.

She spends all the money bringing the best ingredients from Paris to the frugal North Cape after weeks of preparation; she here she sees herself as an artist who doesn’t shy away from waste for her latest performance. Although her works only have a brief existence of rapid cooling between the pot and the palate.

It is true that the sociable round during the festival is in an unearthly good mood. In a way, though, fine dining is a bad investment.

Because the pious guests are wary of unusual delicacies like “Cailles en sarcophage”, that is, quail in puff pastry, and have agreed to swallow everything that comes out of Babette’s witch’s kitchen without flinching and without comment.

It deals with problems of class, escape and exile.

Only one person, the old general Löwenhielm, who once courted Martine in vain, cannot believe it. The cosmopolitan man has only enjoyed these wines and delicacies once long ago, in the best restaurant in Paris. He suspects something.

Tania Blixen tells the curious story of a last supper, similar to a fairy tale, with simple words. And yet, it is not a simple meal, but a sophisticated buffet of meanings: spirituality and sensuality, religion and enjoyment of the world, asceticism and luxury.

These are questions of class, of flight and exile, of political horror and apolitical largesse. Last but not least, the story is a parable about the relationship between art and the public. Does the public have a sense of the artistic sophistication with which they are being delighted? Or do you swallow it all without understanding? What is the connection between the understanding of art and social privilege?

Blixen made many changes to his original version.

Big questions that can hardly be unraveled or even answered, and that history encourages people to think about. It is now called “Babette’s Banquet”. That sounds a bit more settled or philosophical than the previous title “Babettes Fest”. One thinks more of Plato than of the party. The allegorical and profound character is emphasized.

Although the novel achieved worldwide fame through an award-winning film adaptation in 1987, it has never been fully translated into German. The old broadcast of WE Süskind was based on an advance publication in English in the American magazine “Ladies’ Home Journal” in 1950.

For the Danish version of the book, which appeared eight years later, Blixen made many changes and additions. She is also more sophisticated in character drawing. But this new edition has even more to offer than Ulrich Sonnenberg’s new translation. Norwegian writer Erik Fosnes Hansen’s detailed afterword, who is as clever as he is mischievous, doubles the reading appeal.


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