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13 June 2012updated 21 Jul 2021 12:43pm

Tove Ditlevsen’s autobiographical trilogy shows the power of great literature

By John Self

Naming an autobiographical trilogy is a telling business. Tolstoy went straight down the line with Childhood; Boyhood; Youth. JM Coetzee started with Boyhood and Youth, but finished with Summertime, a pastoral title savagely ironic for its unflattering portrayal of the author’s late middle age. Tove Ditlevsen, one of Denmark’s most celebrated writers, was more subversive still. After Childhood and Youth, her final memoir was titled Gift, which in Danish means both married and poison. In English this has been rendered as Dependency; either way we have a title to make the reader wonder what lies beneath. The trilogy is now publish-ed in English in full for the first time, translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman.

To get it out of the way: they are the best books I have read this year. These very slim volumes slip in like a stiletto and do their work once inside. Each has its own distinct tone, which just about justifies Penguin’s money-chasing decision to issue the trilogy (around 350 pages in total) as three separate books.

Childhood has the simple declarative sentences of Natalia Ginzburg and the pervasive horror of a good fairy story. To Ditlevsen, childhood is a sentence to be endured, a skin to be shed. How could it be otherwise, when her world was upside-down from the beginning?

She was born in 1917 in Vesterbro, a working-class area of Copenhagen, where her family lived in the back building of an apartment block. “In the front building, from the windows of which you could look down on the street, lived the finer people. Though the apartments were exactly the same as ours, they paid two kroner more a month in rent.” The higher price was a measure not of what the apartment was, but what it allowed its residents to see, and the vision it permitted them to create of themselves. Ditlevsen’s family felt inferior, a perception exacerbated when she was seven and her father lost his job: “If you went on welfare, you lost your right to vote.”

It is Ditlevsen’s mother above all who grinds uncertainty into her, their “close, painful and shaky” relationship creating a lifelong “chaos of anger, sorrow and compassion”. But her mother too had an unstable childhood – man hands on misery to man – which sprung from her own father’s alcoholism. “When I say that I feel sorry for him, she yells, ‘Sorry! It was his own fault, the drunken pig! He drank a whole bottle of schnapps every day, and in spite of everything, things were a lot better for us when he finally pulled himself together and hanged himself.’” Truth lies at the level of the sentence, and the stings like this that punctuate the book show the texture of even the thinnest life.

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Aptly for someone who believes that “childhood is long and narrow like a coffin”, the tone of the second book, Youth, is brighter, even comic at times. It reports largely on Ditlevsen’s working life, beginning with her first job at 16, employed as a maid for a wealthy family in another part of Copenhagen. This job lasts one day after she is told to “brush all of the fur-niture with water” and includes the grand piano. She nonetheless becomes happier by having a life outside the home, no longer subject to her mother’s fear and fury, and develops friendships and the urge to become a writer.

She begins to write poems but hates to hear her parents talk about her poetry: it’s her private space, her escape from family life, her future. A writer’s necessary bond is with the reader. But to advance her art she needs editors and publishers, who are old men and either die too soon or have predictable demands. One claims influence in the arts but is more interested in talking about “the city’s young girls who spring up from the cobblestones like flowers. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘a refreshing sight.’” When she is sexually assaulted (“he does it rather like the way my mother touches meat at the butcher’s”) she internalises the responsibility: “[he] has shown interest in my body, and I’ve gotten it into my head that without that, I will never get ahead in the world.” She understands the arbitrariness of success when, as an actor, she becomes a sensation after her wig accidentally blows off, bringing the house down.

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Youth is playful, even when delivering great thumps of pain. The focus is close and wider events are mentioned in a way that acknowledges teenage solipsism. (“The next day I start my job at the Currency Exchange typing pool and Hitler invades Austria.”) Towards the end, hope leaps out as Ditlevsen finds an editor who will publish her poetry, and is so grateful to him that he, 30 years her senior, becomes the first of her four husbands.

But youth, we discover, was her truest time of life. The final book, Dependency, takes us through her literary success, but also a number of unhappy marriages and the addiction to painkilling drugs – pethidine and morphine – that would control the rest of Ditlevsen’s life. She marries a doctor, who can supply her with drugs on demand: “Then he went to bed with me, as he always did, when the effect was at its peak.” The only thing that can fend off her dependency is writing: when she is not writing, “I have a huge void inside me… It feels like everything is going into me but nothing is coming out again.”

In Dependency the writing becomes more urgent still, not just from its subject matter but through the richness of sustained set pieces, such as a gruelling pursuit to find a doctor to carry out an abortion for her. “I don’t regret what I did, but in the dark, tarnished corridors of my mind there is a faint impression, like a child’s footprints in damp sand.” When Dependency ends, she believes she has recovered. She died in 1976, five years after its publication, at the age of 58, by suicide.

Ditlevsen wrote a good deal of poetry and fiction, as well as these memoirs, which we should hope to see in English too. She tells us: “I’m moved by poetry and lyrical prose, as always – but the things that are described leave me completely cold.” There is a similar disconnect between the dark matter of these books and the thrilling impact on the reader. They act as a manifesto for art, showing that literature is not the base metal: it is the process of alchemy, and the gold that results. 

The Copenhagen Trilogy (Childhood, Youth, Dependency)
Tove Ditlevsen
Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99 each

This article appears in the 21 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con