WHEN RIPPLES TROUBLE the stillness of an evening pond, the motion of the water sometimes startlingly reveals the gloomy and voracious depths beneath. The stories of Danish Author Isak Dinesen, who died last summer, are like that too. At their darkest, they open unforgettably on a decadent inner world of princely passion and atavistic fear. At their lightest, they still display a fine, curlicued surface.
Ehrengard will disappoint only those Dinesen admirers who hoped it would be a long-awaited Italian novel which, the author once tantalizingly explained, she did not want to complete until just before her death "because people will say it is too fantastic."
Something between a slender novella and a fat short story, the book is set in the imaginary and chivalric German Grand Duchy of Babenhausen, more than a century ago. Told half in the recollections of a worldly old lady, half in the florid letters of an artist to a countess of the court, Isak Dinesen's baroque tale chronicles an attempted seduction-but not of the usual sort. The artist, Herr Cazotte, has laid siege to Ehrengard (literally "guard of honor"), an innocent blonde Walkyrie serving as maid of honor to a princess in an idyllic summer court. No fleshly triumph teases him. That would be too easy. What he is after instead is a blush. And a special kind of blush at that. No rosiness such as some blunt, simple-minded fellow might force to her cheeks. "No," writes Cazotte to his patroness, "her blood is to rise, in pride and amour-propre ... in full, triumphant consent to her own perdition." A creature of honor, she will be destroyed, though outwardly intact, by inner recognition that she has desired her own dishonor.
This is the sort of confection that only writing genius can keep from seeming half baked. Author Dinesen gets away with it, but only just. Here as always, her story creates its own magic in the telling, until she actually manages to convey a feeling that Cazotte, for all his verbal prancing, is a kind of spiritual incubus who poses a real threat to the girl. When, as often happens in Dinesen stories, raw innocence confounds soft corruption, the book induces, as if by some miracle contrary to all logic, an almost palpable sigh of relief.
This is not enough. But it will have to do at least until Isak Dinesen's heirs and publishers get around to that Italian novel.