Translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunally (vols 1&2) and Michael Favala Goldman (vol 3)
Penguin Books recently published Tove Divletsen’s autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy as a beautiful three-volume set, entitled Childhood, Youth and Dependency (in Danish Barndom, Ungdom and Gift). They are gorgeous editions, and a pleasure to own, but it is a little contentious to have published the collected work as three individual books (each retailing for £9.99 at full price), as each edition is very slender, with the first, Childhood, coming in at just under 100 pages. Being a pedant, I also found it a little annoyingly non-uniform that the penguin logo on the spine is much smaller on the first volume than on the other two. But these memoirs are just wonderful!
I hadn’t previously heard of Tove Ditlevsen, although in Denmark she is apparently a household name, whose work is widely taught in schools. Ditlevsen was a poet and novelist, although much of her other work is sadly not yet available in translation. Indeed, this is the first time that the full set of her memoirs has been made available in English.
I expected that the writing would be a little bit old-fashioned, quaint and maybe hard work. However, the tone is approachable, and the writing felt so fresh that the books could have been written yesterday … apart from the fact that the Copenhagen depicted here is under Nazi occupation for a time.
Ditlvesen is a born writer:
“I’m odd because I read books … and because I don’t know how to play.”
And when Copenhagen is liberated from the Nazi occupation she notes:
“We dance, celebrate and enjoy ourselves, but this historic event doesn’t really penetrate my consciousness, because I always experience things after they’ve happened; I’m rarely in the present.”
As I progressed through the books I fell in love with the voice in these memoirs. I had read of Ditlevsen’s death from an overdose, and imagined depression would emanate from the pages – like the feeling you get from reading Sylvia Plath’s journals. But Ditlevsen is drily witty, and I found her writing so open and appealing that I felt she was someone I would have liked to have as a friend.
Nevertheless, the tone of the first book does sometimes veer towards pathos in its evocation of Ditlvesen’s seemingly endless childhood, growing up in poverty with a harsh mother, a golden older brother, and living in a family that dismisses as foolish her determination to be a writer:
“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.”
“Whenever I walked down the street or stood in shops, I always looked with a mixture of joy and envy at mothers who held their small children in their arms or caressed them. Maybe my mother had done that once, but I couldn’t remember it.”
However, the tone is much lighter in the second book and in earlier parts of the third volume, and Ditlevsen’s accounts of late adolescence and early adulthood are often great fun. There were several times when I laughed out loud at Ditlvesen’s clumsy and engaging navigation of adulthood, her efforts to hold down jobs and find a publisher for her poems, and her deadpan accounts of her often tumultuous relationships.
“The next morning Ebbe comes home in terrible shape. His jacket is buttoned crooked and his scarf is all the way up to his eyes, even though it’s spring and mild weather … He stands there swaying in the middle of the floor and does a few awkward steps of the ‘baboon dance’, a solo dance he always does at a certain point in his drunkenness, while everyone around him claps.”
Ebbe is Ditlvesen’s charming but feckless second husband, who she falls for after embarking on a short-lived marriage to undeniably useful, somewhat elderly, and vaguely creepy editor Viggo.
Dependency, the third volume of the Ditlevsen’s memoirs, and the one part never to have appeared in English before, is her master work, but you definitely benefit from having read the two earlier volumes. By the time you reach the third book, you have come to know Ditlevsen so intimately that the unswervingly described account of her marriage to the controlling and – quite literally – toxic doctor, Carl, packs an emotional punch.
In Danish, the title of the third book, Gift, translates as ‘marriage’, but also ‘poison’, and that double meaning is cleverly retained for the English translation, Dependency. I gasped aloud at some of Ditlevsen’s experiences during her transformation into an opioid addict. She vividly depicts the horror of life at the mercy of addiction, and the incessant difficulties that come hand in hand with recovery: Ditlvesen’s visceral account of her life as an addict is probably the most enlightening account of drug dependency that I have ever read.
But she never loses her wit, such as this darkly amusing account of a dinner with Evelyn Waugh:
“When I asked him what brought him to Denmark, he answered that he always took trips around the world when his children were home on vacation from boarding school, because he couldn’t stand them.”
I’d have loved to have known what became of Ditlevsen’s own children, but the one biography I tracked down is still only available in Danish. I really hope more work by and about Ditlevsen becomes available in English translation. Her writing is some of the best I’ve read this year – and I read a lot!