ISAK DINESEN’S IMMORTAL STORY
I Thought It Was About Me
Recounted by David Arthur Walters
In the year 2005 I encountered Isak Dinesen’s book of five fateful stories, Anecdotes of Destiny, in the 3-for-$2 cardboard boxes at Kafka’s Kafé on South Beach, a block away from my favorite hotel, Al Capone’s old hideout, the Clay Hotel. Selecting it from the haphazard collection in the cheap-books boxes was a gesture to the memory of my dear father. He loved her stories, highly recommending them to me in my youth.
After I read the ‘The Immortal Story’ in the small volume, I regretted choosing Dinesen’s book instead of the dog-eared biographical sketches of saints, or the collection of famous short stories including Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I recalled that I, like Kafka, could not stand life at my fated home. Unlike him, I ran away at an early age and never returned – even so, like snails, we take the carapace with us. I had read about Kafka’s absurd cockroach-like bug a dozen times, so I passed over Metamorphosis, even though the Absurd is relevant to my reverse metaphorical metamorphosis, from bookworm to man.
Not that I thought Dinesen’s immortal novella was poorly written – quite to the contrary. Yet her description of greedy Mr. Clay’s Jewish accountant, Elishama Levinsky, caused me to wince and reflect morbidly at length on my career as a bookkeeper and accountant, an occupation I took up when broke because Mary Anne in New Zealand said I would always have a job if I did so. To that extent I thought the author’s account was about me, wherefore I took keen interest in it. Heretofore I had thought of myself as an eccentric man, unique and undoubtedly original in many respects. Mind you that I am a frustrated book writer inasmuch as bookkeeping frustrates my utter transition from king’s scribe to scribbling on my own account.
Now a novella is usually a moral tale. ‘The Immortal Story’ certainly pricked my conscience, and I felt destined to discover why that was so. For the life of me, the moral of the story was a mystery to me upon first reading. If only I could solve it, I felt, my chances for good fortune might be considerably improved. At least I would know my destiny and my fate – may writing seal my fate.
Since Dinesen was preoccupied with myths and symbols, I wondered, first of all, what meaning the substance, clay, might have in this everlasting myth? Jesus applied clay to the eyes of a blind man and he was healed: “He put a paste in my eyes, I washed, and I can see.” Perhaps the Mr. Clay will provide us with some insight into the fundamental nature of human commerce. Man of course is made of clay. As Isaiah said to Yahweh, “For you hid your face from us, and gave us up to the power of our sins. And yet, Yahweh, you are our Father. we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” Pots that serve their potter contain his treasures, valuables precious and useful to him. Could Mr. Clay, the mean old miser, be hoarding riches for the Lord? Clay can be pliable or brittle. Jeremiah lets us know that the House of Israel can be knocked down and built up again by the potter if he is displeased with its shape. Are we merely the Lord’s toys? According to Job, such maxims and retorts are “proverbs of ash, your retorts, retorts of clay.” Furthermore, on the subjected of unfired clay, “What then of those who live in houses of clay. who are founded on dust? They are crushed as easily as a moth, one day is enough to grind these to powder.”
Dinesen gives us scant description of the rich nabob. Mr. Clay is apparently clay fire-hardened in the forge of commerce. He was the foremost nabob of Canton, quite naturally a mean man despite his prodigious means – in sum, one million guineas on hand. “A million pounds, that million pounds is me myself. It is my days and years, it is my brain and my heart, it is my life,” he once proclaimed. He was a miser, an iron-hard man when not a stony figure. He was single and he liked to be alone. He once said that being stranded on a desert island must be a good thing: “a highly pleasant thing, I should say, to be all by yourself on an island, where nobody can possibly intrude on you.” He had deliberately ruined his partner – a genteel Frenchman who had been weakened by “unlucky speculations” – leaving the partner on the streets to commit suicide. The partner’s family disappeared from sight – Mr. Clay took over their fine house. He was about seventy years of age and suffering from a painful condition when we pick up the story. The old stone-man’s successful career as a nabob made him feel omnipotent, to the extent of wanting – at the ripe old age of seventy and lacking an heir for his fortune – to make an old-sailor’s tale, the Immortal Story, come true. And he did just that, and the truth was the death of him, so that the story, which spelled out his fate, might be true for others.
Could Mr. Clay be, besides a clay pot, a philosopher’s stone or a touchstone? Might he be a stone that, when stricken by the magic wand, would flow forth fortune in golden terms?
“For I will pour out water on the thirsty soil, streams on the dry ground. I will pour my spirit on your descendants, my blessing on your children. They shall grow like grass where there is plenty of water, like poplars by running streams,” quoth Isaiah.
As for Elishama Levinsky, only El knows why Dinesen named him Elishama, meaning the voice crying out in the wilderness “whom El hears” (elishama). We find several Elishamas in scripture, but Elishama, scribe to King Jehoiakim, is the most likely source for the namesake given Mr. Clay’s bookkeeper.
In 1975, 250 clay seals were found about 44 miles southwest of Jerusalem. among them were the seals of four biblical figures. “Elishama, Servant of the king”, was formally inscribed on one clay seal. Jeremiah’s famous first scroll, listing all the evils Yahweh had in mind for wayward Jews if they did not repent forthwith, was deposited in Elishama’s office in the royal palace for safekeeping, after it had been read aloud to the people in the Temple. The king was duly informed. the scroll was retrieved from Elishama’s office and read to the king, who, in turn, burned each section of the scroll after it was read. Wherefore Yahweh caused Jeremiah to dictate a similar scroll to Baruch, adding to the original threats a statement that King David’s throne would be vacated, and King Jehoiakim’s corpse would be tossed out into the heat of the day and chill of the night, and all the disasters listed in the destroyed scroll would be brought down on the entire people of Judah. Fair enough.
Elishama Levinsky had washed up by chance in Canton, bleached out, without ambition nor desire nor fear for the loss of anything except security and solitude. Mr. Clay had employed him for seven years. Elishama was known by the other accountants in his office as Ellis Lewis, a name he had assumed not because he was on the run like other expatriates around Canton, but rather to cover up the crimes committed against him during his peregrinations as a proverbially persecuted Jew. He had fled Poland with other Jews after the 1848 Pogrom. He was, wrote Dinesen, “a lost and lonely child, wholly in the hands of chance, who had lived through sufferings in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London, and Lisbon.” An old man who had died during the flight from Poland had given young Elishama a piece of paper upon which had been written in Hebrew several prophecies of Isaiah. The child carried it in a red bag hanging from his neck for some years. By chance an Italian bookkeeper in London took Elishama in, taught him double-entry bookkeeping and how to read and write words.
The heroine of the story, Virginie, the daughter of the French partner whom Mr. Clay had ruined, referred to Elishama as “a small rat.” Quite naturally Elishama had his redeeming qualities, if we want to call them that. For instance, his early experience with horse-trading caused him to sympathize with women. he was the perfect person to negotiate the purchase of a woman in order to make the immortal story come true for Mr. Clay. As for other animals, he also liked birds because they reminded him of women. But the possession of goods was not Elishama’s reason for being. He derived a great deal of comfort from the contemplation of the concept of the numerical series, but he treasured more than anything his solitude.
“One passion he had, if passion it may be called – a fanatical craving for security and for being left alone. In its nature this feeling was akin to homesickness or to the instinct of the homing pigeon. His soul was concentrated upon this one request: that he might enter his closet and shut his door, with the certainty that here no one could possibly follow or disturb him.”
His dark room was modestly furnished, with a table, a chest, two chairs, and the sofa upon which he slept – only the sofa was his, such was his despite for possessions:
“Elishama, who despised the goods of this world, passed his time from morning tell night amongst greedy and covetous people, and had done so all his life. This to him was as it should be. He understood to a nicety the feelings of his surroundings, and he approved of them. For out of those feelings came, in the end, his closet with the door to it, If the world’s desperate struggle for gold and power were ever to cease, it was not certain that his room or this door would remain. So he used his talents to fan and stir up the fire of ambition and greed in people around him. He particularly fanned the fire of Mr. Clay’s ambition and greed, and watched it with an attentive eye.”
Mr. Clay liked to have Elishama read the trader’s old account books in the evenings before bedtime to distract him and help him fall asleep. One evening, Mr. Clay, bored with the historical transactions of his enterprise, asked his accountant if he had heard anything about the existence of another sort of account, an accounting besides financial accounting, accounts of human events and experiences. in a word, stories. Did Elishama know any stories? No, replied Elishama. But upon further consideration of his client’s needs, or rather his client’s greed and his need to fan it to retain his accounting position, he recited the prophetic verses of Isaiah that he had carried out of Poland in the red bag around his neck.
In sum, sufferings of one order or another are pleasantly relieved by the Lord in the end. “And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Mr. Clay was a realistic man. He did not like the prophecies because they appertained to something that did not exist. to wit, the future. At which point he proceeded to tell Elishama the one true story he did know, the immortal story, believed to originate somewhere very near the Cape of Storms and Good Hope. Elishama interrupted him, and proposed that he finish the story for Mr. Clay, for Elishama had also heard the tall tale, a tale told by every hopeful sailor in every port of call, a story that accounts for, in particular form, the universal wish for the relief of privation. In sum, a sailor is picked up by a childless rich man in a carriage and given a 5-guinea gold piece to come home with him, have dinner, and sleep with a beautiful woman in a luxuriously appointed bedroom. As a consequence of the mating, the rich man might have an heir to his fortune.
Of course the story is untrue, explained Elishama, much to his patron’s chagrin: It is a matter of wishful thinking. We have a tendency to vividly imagine the things we are deprived of and to concoct stories about the satisfactions expected. For instance, financial schemes take advantage of our cravings and invariably promise more than they actually pay.
Wishful thinking did not suit Mr. Clay’s disposition. after all, he was virtually King of Canton, an empire as far as he was concerned.
“The story shall become reality,” Mr. Clay proclaimed, and he persuaded Elishama to make it so. And to what end? “I have not troubled to look for a hand into which I might like to deliver my possessions,” said he, “for I know that no such hand exists in the world. But it has, in the end, occurred to me that it might give me pleasure to leave them in a hand which of I self cause caused to exist.”
His possessions, he thought, would be the only part of him surviving his demise. His accountant was to spare no expense in arranging for the affair’s accoutrements: the gold piece, the bedroom setting, and, among other things, the most expensive item of all, the fateful woman. She would be, by some twist of fate, the very daughter of the partner ruined by Mr. Clay. Of course he would play the part of the rich old man, venture out in the carriage and pick up a lucky sailor off the streets.
As far as Elishama was concerned, greed for the things of this world is madness. Mr. Clay “had always been mad,” in his opinion. Yes, Elishama believed that “the old man was undoubtedly mad” in his desire to make every sailor’s dream, of being paid in gold for a night with a beautiful woman, come true, not to mention the miser’s proverbial wish for an heir to preserve his fortune. However, wrote Dinesen, Elishama “was not sure whether, to a man with one foot in the grave, the pursuit of a story was not a sounder undertaking than the pursuit of profit. Elishama at any time would side with the individual against the world, since, however mad the individual might be, the world in general was sure to be still more hopelessly and wickedly idiotic.” Of course one must die when the story comes true, just as it would for Mr. Clay.
During the telling of this immortal tale, the superstitious reader, by virtue of déjà vu and universal vanity, gets the distinct impression that he is a participant in the perennial plot. Indeed, the ancient doctrine of eternal recurrence of all plots comes to mind. In this case, the keeper of many books might conclude that Mr. Clay, at the moment of truth (death) is at once born again to relive the story of his life again, and then again ad infinitum. Likewise for the rest of the stereotypical characters, whose different times of birth and death require an infinite number of parallel universes to coincide, that the immortal story may be told again and again to the end of all times. Finally, we realize that the immortal story, notwithstanding modern copyright laws, is repeated with impunity. in fact it must be repeated, for it is sort of a law unto itself.
You are so vain, I told myself, that you thought the story was about you, and in fact it was about me. I did not get the drift at first, but it eventually dawned on me that I am not the eccentric character I thought I was, for there are an infinite number of characters just like me. So many captains of ships bring sailors from deserted islands into virgin ports, each sailor bearing a big pink shell he picked up there, which he leaves with the bookkeeper of the rich man who dies when the immortal story comes true. When the accountant puts his ear to the pink shell, it jumbles the story into roaring surf, advising all who fight riptide and undertow in vain, “To thine own story be true.” Of course the rare accountant who loves to write must render a full account of it, and after the story is told, nary a sound shall remain for the conch to jumble. Only the Voice of the Silence remains for that particular cast of characters. and only by listening to that voice may they know themselves.
I recalled the pink conch offered to me in Negril, Jamaica, far from Dinesen’s Africa. My current isolation resembles a deserted island, and I have high hopes that the captain will sail into port any day now. I often visit a marina in my neighborhood and imagine myself in possession of a luxury yacht with a bosomy blonde as my first mate – a German maiden will do very well if a noble Frenchwoman cannot fit the bill of lading. When Dinesen’s sailor was stranded on a desert island, he dreamed of having the ark he would inevitably inherit. it was not a big ship, but rather a sloop, “not more than five lastages long.” Someday soon I may fulfill the Delphic injunction, and know myself.