Isak Dinesen, The Blank Page (1957)

Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity

What an intriguing tale The Blank Page is ! By writing standards, it would be judged very badly: there is no main character, no narrator, no unity of action, no clear plot. More importantly, the subject of the story itself escapes the reader at first sight. It denies itself. It is practically a joke. Maybe Isak Dinesen laughed and said: if I can’t print a blank page for this story, then I will write down the equivalent of it. It tells a lot, and yet, nothing at all.

The basic question would normally be: what does she want to say? Here it seems to me that the author didn’t want to answer this question in a definite way. When you take a new sheet of paper and start a story, you make a multitude of choices: you will tell this story and not that one. You choose this setting and not that one. You want this character to be your voice and your eyes, and you reject another one. There is a world of possibilities in the blank page, and you close the possibilities one by one by filling it up with words.

Here, Isak Dinesen shows the power of the blank page, something a reader doesn’t normally experience. She invites the reader to enter the creative process. She starts with an old woman, a wise, mysterious woman by an unknown city gate. I like to imagine that she is Karen Blixen. She tells a young lady her secret of telling stories: “Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak.” But now, forget the old woman and the young lady. Another story starts, like Russian dolls that contain smaller dolls inside. The new story is set “in the blue mountains of Portugal [in] an old convent for sisters of the Carmelite order”, who grow flax to make high quality linens. Then, suddenly, another twist and you learn the story of the flaxseed coming from Holy Land and the Bible itself.

As soon as a beautiful picture is drawn before your eyes by a few delicately-woven sentences, it disappears and is replaced by a new one. Actually each of them would make a nice short story in itself. But the point here is to bring you on a journey, to blindly follow the story, as the old woman recommends, like a train journey where you would hop in and out. You can just guess where it started (“the very first germ of a story will come from some mystical place outside the story itself.”) and wonder where it will end (in silence).

The “last” story is the line of framed linen sheets showing the virginity of royal brides, generation after generation. The reader is brought in front of the last linen sheets: “But on this one plate no name is inscribed, and the linen within the frame is snow-white from corner to comer, a blank page.” And this is where everyone “sinks into deepest thought”. What is this supposed to mean? This blank frame is a story in itself, it leads you to imagine a life’s story. Does this mean that the princess wasn’t a virgin or rather that she staid a virgin? What do the maids-of-honor and the nuns see in it? These are only a few of the questions that such a simple story can entail. This is actually a very good demonstration on how to stop a story without breaking the chain of thoughts and emotions of its readers. As if it was hanging in the air.

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2 thoughts on “Isak Dinesen, The Blank Page (1957)

  1. the last line of that… as if it was hanging in the air… author please comment back and tell me, where those words intentional? ive been thinking about who the narrator of the story would be and came across old greek myth of Ondine….. coincidence? i hope not

  2. so is the blank page element of a good story the fact that it pushes the reader to imagine possible aspects to the story that are intentionally left open or unclear?
    I’m also wondering how I would define loyalty to the story if I were the old woman who is telling the story?

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