A Life In Three Acts: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy

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Thanks to Annabel’s #NordicFINDS month and its focus on Scandinavian literature, this wonderful memoir by the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen actually moved from my TBR to my “Completed in 2022” list.  Described by her fellow Dane Dorthe Nors as “the Billie Holiday of poetry, accessible, complex and simple all at the same time,” Ditlevsen was a skilled and incredibly poetic writer.  Her story of her tumultuous life made for a fascinating week of reading (the Nors quote is taken from the Paris Review’s Dec 9, 2020 article, “Re-Covered: A Danish Genius of Madness). 

Are you a reader (avid or otherwise) of memoirs and autobiographies?  I must admit that I seldom choose a book from this category, an omission that’s all the more puzzling because when I have done so it’s turned out to be something remarkable.  My lucky streak continues with Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy, a sometimes brutal, frequently poetic and always beautifully written account of her life from early childhood until roughly the age of thirty-five.  If you love great books (and I doubt you’d be interested in book blogging if you didn’t), then you owe it to yourself to put this one near the top of your TBR pile.

The anglophone world has had a rather troubled relationship with Ditlevsen’s work.  Childhood, Youth and Dependency, the three volumes that make up The Copenhagen Trilogy were initially published separately in Denmark; Childhood and Youth in 1967, followed four years later by Dependency (only a few years before Ditlevsen’s suicide in 1976).  All three, however, were generally unavailable to English readers for many years.  After Tiina Nunnally translated Childhood and Youth for a 1985 U.S. edition  (Seal Press) that subsequently went out of print, it was almost a half-century after its 1971 publication before Dependency was translated by Michael Favala Goldman in 2019.  In one of those “strokes of genius” that sometimes occur (Goldman’s words, not mine), Penguin for the first time published all three memoirs together in one volume as The Copenhagen Trilogy.

This rather convoluted publishing history may account for what I considered a fairly obvious difference in emotional tone between Nunnally’s translations (more poetic) and Goldman’s work (more terse and melodramatic).  This is hardly surprising, with two translators working separately and thirty years apart.  Then again, Nunnally’s work concerned Ditlevsen’s outwardly uneventful childhood and early life while Goldman’s Dependency was focused on her adult years.  These were melodramatic by anyone’s standards, including as they did her marriages (four; number three to a psychotic doctor); children (one the adopted daughter of a husband’s girlfriend & two biological); professional and commercial success (extensive); surreptitious abortions (two); and drug addiction (life-threatening and life-long).  The issue for a reader, of course, is whether this tonal difference between the translators detracts from the volume as a whole, especially when its components are read in quick succession.  For me the answer is “no.”  If any of you have a different impression, however, please do weigh in on this point.

Many of you no doubt know the basics of Ditlevsen’s background.  Born in 1917 to a family that we would now describe as the “working poor,” she spent her childhood and early youth in Vesterbro, a grim and semi-dangerous suburb of Copenhagen.  Ditlevsen’s parents were an ill-assorted pair whose differences made for a stormy domestic atmosphere throughout her childhood.  Her father Ditlev was a frequently unemployed laborer with strongly socialist views; her mother Alfrida, ten years his junior, was a self-absorbed, vain and sometimes cruel woman who was the center of her young daughter’s almost obsessive attention.  The parents’ attention, interest and love were vested in Ditlevsen’s older brother, whom they intended to become a skilled tradesman, the peak of accomplishment for a working-class boy in 1920s Denmark.  The parental goal for Ditlevsen herself was far less lofty:  she was to leave school at age 14, contribute most of her wages to the family’s support, not get pregnant and, oh joy, ultimately marry a stable, hardworking guy with a trade and without a drinking habit.

Although Ditlevsen is an elegantly terse writer, three volumes of memoirs inevitably encompass a lot of details.  In clicking around the internet for background on her life and career, I noticed that reviewers generally seem most drawn to Dependency, the volume in which Ditlevsen describes (among other things) her harrowing descent into opioid addiction (actively encouraged and abetted by her physician husband) and her subsequent stint in a drug rehabilitation center.  And there is no doubt at all that much of this volume makes for a gripping, if at times rather stomach churning, read.

Perhaps it’s a sign of perversity that, for all my love of drama, I preferred Childhood, a quieter, more poetic volume that portrays the beginnings of the traits that formed Ditlevsen’s character, i.e., her emotional aloofness and self-containment, her approach to relationships and her fierce determination to become a writer.  It was passages such as these that reminded me that Ditlevsen was first and foremost a poet (Farrar, Straus, Giroux edition, 1-6):

In the morning there was hope.  It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of the Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.  My father had left for work and my brother was in school.  So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.

* * *

Beautiful, untouchable, lonely, and full of secret thoughts I would never know.  Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window.  On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child.  Below the picture it said, ‘Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.’  Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad.  But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once.  My heart pounded with anguish and sorrow because the silence in the world was now broken, but I laughed with her because my mother expected me to, and because I was seized with the same cruel mirth as she was.

* * *

It was my own fault, though, because if I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me.  Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us.  And my heart could have still whispered ‘Mother’ for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it.  I would have left her alone for a long time so that without words she would have said my name and know we were connected with each other.  Then something like love would have filled the whole world . . ..

Ultimately Tuve uses words to escape her indifferent mother’s hold on her heart:

When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me.  My mother knew it, too, and her eyes would fill with cold hostility.  She never hit me when my soul was moved in this way, but she didn’t talk to me either.  From then on, until the following morning, it was only our bodies that were close to each other.

Childhood ends when fourteen-year-old Tuve finishes middle school (this is the end of Ditlevsen’s formal education) and begins working at a series of menial jobs, with the bulk of her wages going to her family.

Like many second volumes, Youth suffers a bit from being the bridge from the beginning of the story to its dramatic conclusion.  Nevertheless, it is still a gripping read as well as surprisingly funny in spots.  It begins as Ditlevsen describes her brief stints as a highly unskilled maid (she doesn’t know how to use a vacuum cleaner and ultimately sweeps its contents under the living room rug); a worker in a medical supply company (she mostly packs boxes and is fired when she impersonates the prime minister giving a pro union speech); and a bored office worker with nothing much to do except watch her colleagues flirt.  And, all the time, she’s writing, writing, writing and always looking for the opportunity to have her work read and noticed.  By the conclusion of Youth, Ditlevsen holds her first published book of poetry in her hands and is maneuvering to marry the much older editor who’s given the twenty-something poet her big break.  Ditlevsen’s professional trajectory occurs against the backdrop of the darkening political situation in Europe.  Nazi Germany is on the move, Hitler is invading Austria and Denmark’s invasion and occupation are on the horizon.  Ditlevsen’s reaction?  In an endearingly human touch (to me at least), she’s primarily concerned about whether the war will interfere with her book’s publication date and or interupt her maneuvers to ensnare the hapless editor.

In the hope of finishing this post within my lifetime, I’ll try to keep my overview of Dependency brief (remember, however, that in many ways its events are the most dramatic and well-known of Ditlevsen’s life).  It opens with Ditlevsen married to her editor (their union proves highly unsatisfactory) and well on her way to phenomenal literary success.  It ends with Ditlevsen, now on her fourth marriage, struggling to control her addiction after surviving the six-month hell of a drug rehabilitation program.  One of our current self-help gurus would end a comparable story with a charming picture of herself wrapped in serenity and meditating on her hard-won wisdom.  It’s a measure of Ditlevsen’s cool objectivity and self-knowledge that her words as she ends her account of her life are:

I started writing again, and whenever reality got under my skin, I bought a bottle of red wine and shared it with Victor [her fourth husband].  I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window.  It will never disappear completely for as long as I live.

As was evident from my opening words, I was incredibly impressed and emotionally moved by Ditlevsen’s account of her life.  The only thing more amazing than its impact is the fact that it took over a half century for a work of such power to reach an English-speaking audience.  But then, we bloggers know why we dedicate August to acknowledging and celebrating translated work authored by women, don’t we?

In closing, one question and a few odds and ends for the interested.  As with any memoir or autobiography, I think it’s necessary to question the extent to which its facts are “objectively” accurate.  Although I kept this question in mind when reading, my scanty knowledge of Ditlevsen’s life and work prevented me from addressing the issue in this review.  Please don’t be shy about adding anything on this point, or, indeed, any other aspect of my review.  Turning to the wealth of Ditlevsen material suddenly available online, I thought the Paris Review article I cited under my opening photo contained a very good discussion of Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy.  The New Yorker has a similarly interesting interview with David Favala Goldman, Dependency’s translator, as well as his translation of a Ditlevsen short story to be published in a collection coming out in March 2022.  (The New Yorker has tightened its pay wall in recent years, but I think a casual reader can still get a few free monthly clicks.)  If you have twenty-five minutes or so to spare and you’re into the visual aspects of things, you can click over to YouTube and view a “Walk Around Tove Ditlevsen’s Vesterbro,” which gives an overview of the author’s life against the physical surroundings of her childhood and youth.

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds reading month ; as the first stop on my 2022 European Reading Challenge and as a pre-1972 non-fiction work for the 2022 Back to the Classics Challenge (I plan to post my list for this challenge later this week).  In other words, it’s a trifecta!  Don’t you just love it when that happens?

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28 thoughts on “A Life In Three Acts: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy

  1. I liked the first volume best too. I’m a bit surprised at your saying the reviews generally prefer the last one, which interested me least of all, perhaps because it’s a very obvious drama while the others are much subtler. As for “objectively accurate”, it isn’t something that bothers me unless it involves actively bad-mouthing someone else.

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    1. Hi Gerts — glad you dropped by! Perhaps I should have toned down my statement about reviewers generally preferring the last volume, but it did seem to me that when I went looking for info, there was a plethora of quotes/discussion about the drug addiction (Ditlevsen’s description of her first demerol high seemed quite popular). Like you, I infinitely preferred the first volume, with its subtle but powerful depiction of the forces that shaped Ditlevsen’s life.
      Regarding the “objectively accurate” thing — well, I have mixed feelings about this aspect of memoir/autobiography (even auto fiction). I like to know where the deviations occur because I think they can be quite revealing, almost a subtext. If Ditlevsen altered a fact, why did she do so? I’m not particularly judgmental about it (except as you say, if the alteration is intended to harm) but I do think knowing when an alteration occurred can potentially give a lot of insight into the writer’s character, motivations or view of reality.

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  2. I shy away from Biographies and AutoBs as well. Again not sure why; because when I read a few, I am left in awe. I was not aware of the Poet or her autobiography ( I think I must be living in a cave!) But I loved the quotes you shared….such sensitive lyricism. I will add this to my TBR!

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    1. I think we share a similar reaction to autobiographies and bios; like you, I’m not exactly sure why I don’t read more, as when I do they’re usually fabulous (but then, I AM picky about the ones I go for!). In my case, I did read quite a few biographies when I was a history student, then — pouf! — I totally lost interest. Go figure.
      If you’re in a cave, Cirtnecce, then I’m in the one next to you! I had never heard of Ditlevsen and found her Trilogy purely by chance when browsing in a Barnes & Noble (a U.S. chain bookstore). I bought it because it seemed interesting and I was looking for translated literature. Little did I know I was on the crest of a wave, so to speak, as I immediately began noticing Ditlevsen’s name in various reviews and publications! Such luck will never happen again!

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  3. Memoir is my absolute favourite genre of books. So I thank you kindly for this tip-off and will now order the books to add to the enormous pile of books waiting to be read — a pile that never seems to go down, no matter how fast and avid I read…

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    1. Hi Michelle! So glad you dropped by. At the risk of adding to that TBR pile (and I know exactly what you mean when you say yours never gets smaller, as my own is threating to cover my house), if you like memoirs this is a “must.” But — warning here — Ditlevsen isn’t always likable and she did have a tumultuous personal life, especially after she met Carl, the psycho doctor with the unlimited prescription pad. This is a “warts and all” kind of account, which doesn’t stress, as many contemporary memoirs might, the “I triumphed over adversity” angle. And, those closing words are pretty bleak, especially when you realize that Ditlevsen died by suicide only a few years later. If you do go for the trilogy, I’d love to know your reaction as a memoir lover! (if you don’t review it, feel free to return or to email through my site)

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      1. Will do. It’s being delivered today, but will have to wait behind weighty tome on Spanish Civil War, of which I have obsession.

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  4. Annabel’s doing us a great service, isn’t she – thanks to this challenge I have heaved a huge volume of collected Icelandic sagas off my TBR shelf (heartily enjoying it) where it has been since 2014, and a trilogy of Icelandic novels (2015-16, yet to start but they’re physically there and staring at me). I read quite a lot of memoir but have had enough addiction to last a lifetime – I would definitely read vol 1 of this, though!

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    1. Hi Liz — I totally agree; Annabel deserves a public service medal! #NordicFINDS is a brilliant idea; it’s fun and it gets us all to go to the TBR shelf.
      I’m very impressed with your Icelandic sagas! They’re magnificant works but I’ve never been able to tackle them, even in modern retellings. What are the Icelandic novels whose stares are intimidating you? They sound appropriately fierce!
      I know what you mean about addiction writing. I think it’s interesting that Dependency was finally translated and found a publisher (in his interview, Goldman said that he translated it on spec), just as the opioid crises dominates the news. It’s a testament to Ditlevsen’s power as a writer that I found her account so griping. That being said, I preferred Childhood, which you can easily read as a stand-alone.

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    1. Hi Alison — isn’t it funny, how different things appeal to us? And wonderful! So boring if we all liked the same things.
      If I gave the impression that Ditlevsen’s memoirs are scandal lit, I’ve done her work a great disservice. I think I’d describe the memoirs as a beautifully written and very honest account of the life of a very flawed and very gifted human. Looking at my review, I think I should have emphasized Ditlevson’s achievements more than I did. It’s amazing to think of the quantity and quality of the work she produced while battling depression and addiction; the very fact she survived at all and continued to write was an incredible achievement. Even more so, when you consider the damage inflicted by a truly horrific childhood. Ditlevsen isn’t always likable but I did find her fascinating, with much to admire in her personality.
      If you’re a reader of memoirs (as I said, I generally am not) then you may want to keep the trilogy in the back of your mind, because it’s a wonderful example of its genre. Since Dependency was written after the other two volumes, you could easily skip it and focus on Ditlevsen’s wonderful account of her childhood and youth.

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      1. Alison — LOL! Yes! I did misread your abbreviation; my only excuse was I was going fast (cat was having a little kitty fit, as breakfast was running late!). That’s too, too funny! And I’m so relieved I didn’t misrepresent the trilogy.
        I’ve come pretty late to Scandi lit myself and must admit that I have a limited capacity for much of the crime noir stuff (I’m the only person on the planet who didn’t like the book Girl with the Dragon Tatoo). Since the whole area is new to me, I’m actually have a lot of fun finding new writers and such. I love novelty! (gives you a good idea of my personality!)

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  5. A fascinating write-up of an equally fascinating series of books. A little like you, I found the first volume the most interesting and immersive of the three, but the trilogy as a whole is remarkably good! What struck me most was the unadorned, matter-of-fact style in which Ditlevsen conveys her story. The simplicity of it makes her revelations feel all the more arresting, a little like Sophia’s narrative in Barbara Comyns’ novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths.

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    1. Hi Jacqui! Thanks for the kind words. The trilogy really is a fascinating work and so well done; even I, as a non-reader of memoirs (generally) thought it one of the best things I had read in some time. You’re absolutely right about Ditlevsen’s style lending power to her account; anything the less bit florid would have made many of the episodes she relates descend into bathos or sensationalism (“unadorned” is a great description). I found myself wondering how she managed to combine that terse simplicity with such lyricism. Could it be that she’s a great artist? (being a little ironic here)
      I really must get around to Barbara Comyns — I’ve never read any of her work.

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  6. De nada, dear Kaggsy! If you found my little nudge, helpful, I’m delighted, as I’ve received so very many wonderful recommendations/hints/nudges/shoves from your blog! Since you like memoirs, this really might be up your alley. I’ll be interested to see if you prefer one volume over another, or if you find a different between the two translators’ styles/tones.
    You might find Goldman’s interview in the New Yorker of interest. It’s amazing that he discovered Dependency almost by accident (he was browsing in an airport in Denmark); thought it a masterpiece, got a grant to do a sample translation and then completed the job as a labor of love, hoping to find a publisher. It really is amazing, what we owe to translators!

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  7. Thank you so much for joining in with my #NordicFINDS challenge. I had been toying whether to buy these – Penguin issued a new omnibus edition recently, having published them separately with lovely pink flapped covers in their premium modern classics series (which while lovely made them too expensive). I will definitely be acquiring a copy now. Interestingly, Nunnally translated Miss Smilla (using psuedonym F.David for UK editions), and I very much enjoyed her translation.

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  8. Hi Annabel — thank YOU for coming up with such a great idea! It was just the incentive I needed to tackle a memoir, which is ordinarily not at all my thing (although I obviously thought Ditlevsen’s was great). Very interesting about Nunnally; she’s obviously a very experienced translator and (as evidenced here) a very good one, to do such a great job with two very different works.
    I’ve very much enjoyed planning my little trip around Scandinavia; I’m off to Norway now (I’m reading something by Dag Solstad from the TBR; not sure if I’ll finish it this week). Thanks again for sponsoring such an interesting project!

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  9. I don’t often choose biographies either as I’m often not sure whether I can trust the writer. I find some modern writers have a tendency to speculate and I feel that one should have enough respect for a dead person that you shouldn’t speculate with their lives. It’s rather a sore spot for me and so, I’m sure I miss many truly excellent biographies.

    A trifecta! You are amazing! What talent! Or perhaps what luck?! I wish I could plan such a stupendous success with regard to hitting multiple challenges but it never seems to happen. Are you giving lessons, lol?

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    1. Hi Cleo! Hope all is well and that you’re having a marvelous time reading lots & lots of great new books. I did laugh about your reaction to my “trifecta” and will admit that it was sheer luck, surprising no one more than myself. I am totally hopeless at doubling selections for challenges and read-alongs and didn’t realize what I had here until near the end, when I checked the dates of the Classics Challenge and realized this would fit. I’m sure that we’ll have at least a thousand blue moons before I hit another trifecta!
      You raise an interesting point about biographies, which I think also applies to memoirs and autobiographies. How far can we trust the narrator? As you point out, this is particularly true these days, when there’s a tendency even in “objective” biography to insert speculation and even fictionalized conversations and so on. I try to read for the subtext, to see what’s left out, what’s inserted, how something is told as well as why, where the narrator is coming from etc but it’s all a bit exhausting and is in itself unreliable (after all, I, too, have my own biases! Shocking!) Reading another’s life is almost philosophical — what is the truth of it? (to paraphrase Pontius Pilate). How do we know it when we see it?
      I was an avid reader of biographes at one time; it went along naturally with studying history. I’m not totally sure why I stopped; as you say, there are so many good one around and I’m sure I’ve missed some great reading. I think I just preferred my fiction to be labeled as fiction!

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