Update on ‘Babette’s Feast’: A Parable of French Politics and Cookery from the Age of Revolutions

Babette's FeastBabette book cover DanishAs an epicurian (married to a chef-de-cuisine, how could I not be in love with food?) “Babette’s Feast” continues to haunt my thoughts. And now, with some recent discoveries, I am more convinced than ever of its debt to revolution. And the need for a remake!
A few thoughts on my discoveries, to intrigue you:

– On the feisty spirit that emerges in Danish!
Thanks to the great book by Frantz Leander Hansen, The Aristocratic Universe of Karen Blixen (2003), nowadays a more bracing and sober accounting is available to English-language readers. Hansen proves that Dinesen, in rewriting the tale for Danish audiences, reinforced the revolutionary tone and threatening aspect of her heroine. Fantastic linguistic analysis! Thanks FLH!*

– On “Babette’s” Sympathy to La Commune and its Ideals
The 2003 translation of the 1891 history of La Commune by Isak Dinesen’s father, Wilhelm Dinesen Paris sous la Commune, Translated from the Danish by Denise Bernard-Folliot, provides the historical subtext that was hugely important to Dinesen: a fact that has been ignored by most readers. WD was very sympathetic to the ideals of La Commune, and this book should be a “must” for anyone seeking a thoughtful eye-witness account of the terrible events. Thanks DBF!

– Third, tucked in the stacks of Hesburgh Library at ND, I found a copy of the 1952 Danish translation by Jørgen Claudi with the fabulous cover illustration featured here. This rendition makes a startling contrast with the tasteful and cleaned-up rendition presented by Gabriel Axel, no?

In my work-in-progress, these elements are juxtaposed to the film and show how much stronger and more menacing the heroine is in the original text (especially in Dinesen’s Danish version). Dinesen’s character does not forget the past or the utopian hopes she once harbored for La Commune. Rather she transforms them into the ultimate beau geste of a consummate artist and an unrepentant radical. For the last supper of Babette’s Feast is not a liturgical rewriting of silent sacrifice but rather a sadly misunderstood celebration of a lost era. However no one realizes it except Babette. (And her new readers today!)

Hope you enjoyed this little taste of work-in-progress. More to come… jd
(updated 3/15/13)

* Thanks are also due to Lise Kure-Jensen who notes that one of the interesting challenges of studying the work of Isak Dinesen is that, after writing her stories in English, she translated many of them back into Danish (her native tongue) and made significant changes along the way. Most notably, she made the Danish translation of “Babette” WILDER! See LKJ, “Isak Dinesen in English, Danish, and Translation: Are We Reading the Same Text?” in Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, ed. Olga Anastasia Pelensky (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993), pp. 314-321.

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