I finally got around to reading Isak Dinesen’s short story, Babette’s Feast, the filmed adaptation of which I wrote about on this blog a couple of months ago.

It is one of those adaptations that saves you the trouble of imagining the story, rather than being one that brings a new agenda to it. There are changes. The short story is set in a Norwegian fjord, which evokes an enclosed place for me, whereas the film is set in Jutland, where the village houses are plonked down on a flat coastal plain like children’s toy houses on a grey-green cloth. Curiously this echoes Dinesen’s words: ‘the small town of Berlevaag looks like a child’s toy town of little wooden pieces’.

Dinesen’s toys are ‘painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colours’, but the film, it seemed to me, veered away from such brightness, sticking to its greys and dull greens and heavy browns, with the houses a dirty, light absorbing, rather than light reflecting, white. The film is heavy with shadow too, from which the sparkling highlights of candle flame on cutlery and reflections in cut glass shine brightly.

The echoes of the film’s dialogue were strong, making me wonder just how precisely the actual direct speech of the story had been lifted, and seamlessly added to! What struck me most forcibly though, was the distance of the narrative voice, seemingly greater than that of the camera lens in this instance.

Rather than eavesdropping and witnessing a series of events, as to a large extent we must do with a ‘shown’ film, Dinesen’s narrator simply tells us a story, and even when its characters speak out loud, we are unlikely to forget that it is the narrator who is passing those words on.

An exercise I’ve done with a Hemingway story sprang to mind – where I separated out the direct speech from the rest, producing two not quite parallel stories, each of which told not quite the whole story! In that story the word count of direct speech was about a third of the whole. Here, in Babette’s Feast, I would guess it at significantly less than a tenth. What direct speech there is falls isolated among the narrative, often qualified, before or after, by the narrator’s commentary upon it. Full dialogue, where characters speak to each other – rather than having individual statements from them relayed to us – are few and rarely protracted. Two or three exchanges, between two or three characters is the most we might expect.

Yet at the end of the story, which is split into 12 ‘chapter headed’ sections, the pattern is broken.

Babette’s Feast is a rich tale, of time, and reflection, regret, and transcendence, in which three main characters, the two maiden sisters, Martine and Phillipa, and General Loewenhielm see, reassess, and see beyond the failures and disappointments in their lives.

A fourth character, appearing for one of those sections, and later writing a letter that triggers the arrival of the eponymous heroine, is really no more than an elaborate plot device, and Babette herself is not so much a character study in her own right, as a catalyst for our understanding of the significance of what has happened to those other characters.

It’s an age thing I think, to some extent, but the film brought forth tears, and the book brought forth more of them! In both cases, it was the words spoken by the characters, rather than the authorial nudges, that caused the reactions.

In that final section Babette and the two sisters have the longest exchange of spoken words in the whole story, a dialogue that spreads over nearly five pages of a forty plus page story in my paperback edition. Here the proportions of speech to narrative are virtually reversed, and it is what these three characters say, finally, and to each other, that carries the burden of what Isak Dinesen is saying to us.