Lilo’s in love with Karen Blixen. She told me so, last Saturday over wine and cheese at the Café Engel. All day she had Katie skipping across the gutters, from panel to panel, her quick fingers rifling cosmetic counters and racks of silken lingerie. Come evening, the work having gone so well, she was euphoric.
̶ Isak Dinesen’s right, Sprague. Playing with personas is more rewarding than pretending to be yourself.
She dabs some pear jam on her pecorino and bites into the rustic bread.
̶ It’s naïve, pretending to be yourself?
She sips her wine, a dark Valpolicella.
̶ Yes. It means you have no distance, you take yourself too seriously.
̶ And what were Blixen’s masks?
̶ Spiritual courtesan, Baroness, witch, siren, Isak Dinesen. That’s what kept her free, those aliases.
The wrap bodice and dolman sleeves, the low-cut crossover tucked into the deep waistband: She wears it well, Liselotte, the vintage top I bought her for her birthday.
̶ Don’t you think Karen’s example could serve you, Sprague?
She pops a hazelnut into her mouth and dabs onion jam on her burrata.
̶ What do you mean?
̶ Well, your letter to Marietta—she’ll never read it. Why don’t you just write more stories like Katie Quickfinger? Something less personal. Wear a mask, forget yourself.
Revelling in the burrata, she mops more up with a piece of bread and pops it into her mouth.
̶ Like Isak Dinesen?
I sip my Tocai Friulano, ordered in honour of Pasolini.
̶ I play the hand I’m dealt, Lilo. I play it the best I can. Time will tell whether I’ve wasted my time. Do you know the hand Karen Blixen was dealt?
̶ Yes. I’ve read Out of Africa.
̶ That’s another mask, that’s mythology. You can see Isak’s hand in it, but not Karen’s cards.
̶ And do you know the hand she was dealt?
̶ I do.
̶ Tell me.
And thus I came to speak of how syphilis forfeited Karen’s claims to a real human life. Of how, when she was ten, her father hanged himself in a boarding house because he couldn’t bear to live with the disease. And then, as if by some transgenerational curse, she herself, within a year of her marriage, contracted the disease from her husband. ‘Light comes from darkness’, she’d written, ‘daybreak from night’: Stoical, undaunted, she believed her storytelling talent blossomed precisely because she had decided to live with her syphilis. Her sexual life sacrificed, she fell back on her imagination. The scandal of the disease, the secret, the taboo, meant that she led a double life, shuttling between intimacy and alienation. And thus, isolated, self-absorbed, condemned to be her body while feeling herself other to it, she developed an ironic distance to herself that was both alienating and liberating—and made her the artist she became.
Liselotte sips the ruby-red darkness of her Valpolicella.
̶ So you see, Lilo, every artist has their own curse.
Over her grey eyes comes a blue cast; over her face, a shadow.