There are some writers whose sentences sting like a steady stream of ice-cold water from the tap, and others whose prose feels pleasurably warm as they gradually increase the temperature. The Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen managed to do both. With the FSG publication of “The Copenhagen Trilogy” (translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman) English-speaking readers can now appreciate the work of a prolific author who published her first book of poems in her early twenties and wrote a slew of books in multiple genres before taking her own life in 1976. Ditlevsen now joins the ranks of a number of other women writers who have been rediscovered and introduced to new audiences, including Clarice Lispector and Lucia Berlin.
Her trilogy consists of three memoirs, available separately or as one collected volume: “Childhood,” “Youth,” and “Dependency.” In “Childhood,” Ditlevsen, who was born in 1917 but in the book claims to be one year younger, focuses on her complicated relationship with her mother and her desire to become a writer, informed by her experiences growing up in a working-class family. “Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten,” Ditlevsen says in a delightfully direct way. “It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.”
But did Ditlevsen ever rid herself of her upbringing? Quite the opposite. Instead, she let it inspire her. From an early age, she turned to poetry as a way to move through the world, imagining scenarios she hadn’t experienced yet. “I know that you sometimes have to lie in order to bring out the truth,” Ditlevsen confesses, but it’s her brutal honesty that brings the most clarity to the page. In one of the earliest scenes, when Ditlevsen was only 6 and about to be enrolled in school, her mother is chided by the principal for having a daughter who taught herself to write and read, since the school has their own way of doing things. It’s in that excruciating moment while Ditlevsen is embarrassed that she makes an acerbic observation about her mother’s hands. She’s overwhelmed by how they reek of dish soap, a reminder of the class she was born into. “I despise that smell, and as we leave the school again in utter silence, my heart fills with the chaos of anger, sorrow, and compassion that my mother will always awaken in me from that moment on, throughout my life.”
“Youth” follows Ditlevsen as she continues to write and lands her first publication: a poem about a stillborn child (despite the fact that she had never been pregnant) in “Wild Wheat,” a small journal. Again and again, the author shares that it’s the act of writing that fulfills her, and nothing stops her from that ambition: not her landlady who is a member of the Danish Nazi Party, not having to work to support herself, not her naivete or her upbringing. Her ambitions aren’t just career-oriented: she wants a family, too. “There’s something painful and fragile about being a young girl who makes her own living,” Ditlevsen admits in a shocking sentence that’s difficult to comprehend in 2021, but makes more sense after reading what follows. “You can’t see any light ahead on that road. And I want so badly to own my own time instead of always having to sell it.”
Loneliness is a major theme in these books, and while Ditlevsen’s prose is often straightforward and uncomplicated, the effect is a hypnotic longing, the pull between desiring the life of an artist and wanting some sense of normalcy.
The most visceral and haunting writing in the trilogy is in “Dependence.” The third book opens with Ditlevsen as a 20-year-old, now married to the editor of “Wild Wheat,” a man two years older than her mother. “Everything in the living room is green — the carpet, the walls, the curtains – and I am always inside it, like in a picture. " The young author is on display, and she finally has the time she so desperately wanted to work on her first novel, but she’s most comfortable engaging in it as a private act. “For me, writing is like it was in my childhood, something secret and prohibited, shameful, something one sneaks into a corner to do when no one else is watching.”
She covers a lot of territory in a short amount of time: her marriages, two abortions, and the quick descent into addiction, exacerbated by her third husband, a mentally ill doctor who kept her from seeing friends by offering shots of Demerol and methadone pills. After receiving treatment for her dependency on drugs, she realizes the temptation will always be there: “…the longing was inside me like rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own, even though you want nothing to do with it.” (356)
These books are especially moving because of how accurately Ditlevsen writes about societal pressures on women artists, as well as issues regarding class, motherhood, and agency.
“Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet,” her father told her when she was a child. Lucky for us, she didn’t listen to him.
Michele Filgate is the editor of “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About” and a contributing editor at Literary Hub.
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen (Translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages, $30