In the Company of My Demons
When one talks of Danish literature, one of the first names that come to mind is Hans Christian Andersen. A part of Denmark’s Golden Age of Literature, he earned global recognition for his fairy tales such as The Ugly Duckling, The Little Match Girl, and the timeless The Little Mermaid. The latter has even become one of Denmark’s most enduring symbols. Denmark also boasts of three winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Karl Gjellerup and Henrik Pontoppidan, 1917 co-winners; and Johannes V. Jensen, 1944 winner. Indeed, Danish literature is a lush part of the world of literature. However, one thing stands out. Except for a few, Danish literature is more known around the world for the works of male writers. Over the course of history, there were several women who made a name for themselves as writers but only a few were recognized globally.
Tove Ditlevsen is one of the female Danish writers who has been gaining global recognition recently. She has gained recognition in her homeland as a poet. With a career that began in her early twenties, she has published a total of eleven poetry collections in her career spanning 1937 to 1976. Apart from her prose, she is also highly regarded as a novelist and a memoirist. The renewed interest in her work can be credited to the publication of three of her memoirs: Barndom (Childhood, 1967), Ungdom (Youth, 1967), and Gift (which can mean either poison or married, 1971). The first two books were translated to English in 1985 by Tiina Nunnally. Completing the trilogy was Michael Favala Goldman’s 2019 translation of Gift as Dependency. In the same year, the three books were collectively published as The Copenhagen Trilogy.
“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 Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.”
Thus opened the first book of the trilogy, Childhood. Tove Irma Margit Ditlevsen was born on December 14, 1971, into a humble household. She was raised in a little two-room apartment in the working-class neighborhood of Vesterbro. Her father was a casual worker whose tenure was never assured. On the other hand, her mother was a housewife who looked after Ditlevsen and her older brother, Edvin. In the young Ditlevsen, we see a girl who was slowly getting frustrated with the cards dealt by fate to her: the poverty that surrounded her and a set of parents who have grown sad and apathetic. “My father was melancholy, serious, and unusually moralistic, while my mother, at least as a young girl, was lively and silly, irresponsible and vain.” Her mother would eventually lose that liveliness and silliness that characterized her youth.
“My little lost friend with the sharp tongue and the loving heart. Our friendship is over just as my childhood is. Now the last remnants fall away from me like flakes of sun-scorched skin, and beneath looms an awkward, an impossible adult. I read in my poetry album while the night wanders past the window – and, unawares, my childhood falls silently to the bottom of my memory, that library of the soul from which I will draw knowledge and experience for the rest of my life.”~ Tove Ditlevsen, The Copenhagen Trilogy
While Ditlevsen’s childhood was not ideal, it was nevertheless a crucial period for the development of her ideas. Her interest in literature was cultivated by her father. Despite his intermittent depression brought about by their circumstances, Ditlevsen’s father ensured that she is exposed to literature, even gifting her Grimm’s Fairy Tales on her fifth birthday. She was exposed to all forms of literature, including Ditte menneskebarn (Ditte, Daughter of Man), a social novel written by Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexø. At a young age, she was already indoctrinated with the works of Russian writer Maxim Gorky. “Gorky was a great poet,” her father exclaimed. By the age of ten, Ditlevsen had written her first poem.
Childhood is a great time to dream big but it also can be a heartbreaking period as one learns of the realities that surround us. The young Tove’s enthusiastic remark of wanting to be a poet like Gorky was met by pessimism from the very same person who cultivated her interests: “Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet.” The glaring disparity between males and females was a bitter reality that she learned at a young age. Boys grow up to be princes while girls just get married and eventually have children. A product of her time, Ditlevsen’s mother was a staunch advocate of the traditional roles for women. Childhood was a horror wheelhouse that Ditlevsen wanted to escape from: “Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten.” While she was eager to forget about her childhood, she used all the drawbacks to fuel her dreams.
Her childhood officially ended when she turned fourteen. Like girls her age, she left school after graduating from the eighth grade and started juggling jobs. She worked as a maid but was fired after she scrubbed down a grand piano with water and a brush. She worked as a tutor to a boy who kept on pointing imaginary guns at her. She also worked as a clerk at a nursing supply store where she was fired after encouraging her fellow workers to join a union. She wrote letters for the office manager of the State Grain Office. For a typical teenager, these years are supposed to be formative years. Ditlevsen was no typical teenager as she spent it earning money. In retrospect, these years were extensions of her childhood. This chapter of her life was vividly captured in the second book of the trilogy, Youth.
In between her occupations, she found reprieve in secretly writing poems in her journal. It was her form of mental escape from the ugly realities that hounded her. She found an unexpected ally in her brother who, despite being her first critic, was also the first one to encourage her to keep on writing. For Ditlevsen, writing provided more than just a form of escape. She kept writing hoping that her works will eventually earn her money, thus providing an escape from the quagmires of poverty. However, the vestiges of the lessons inculcated to her by her mother at a young age, compounded by the observation of girls in her neighborhood getting married, made Ditlevsen realize that one of the surest ways to gain financial stability is through finding a suitable partner.
“In the meantime, there exist certain facts. They are stiff and immovable, like lampposts in the street, but at least they change in the evening when the lamplighter has touched them with his magic wand. Then they light up like bgi soft sunflowers in the narrow borderland between night and day, when all the people move so quietly and slowly, as if they were walking on the bottom of the green ocean.”~ Tove Ditlevsen, The Copenhagen Trilogy
Ditlevsen eventually trudged the same path forged by her mother. Her first opportunity came in the form of the editor of the literary magazine that accepted her first poems for publication. At the age of eighteen, she married the aging editor who was six years older than her mother. It was going to be the first of four marriages and four divorces. However, it wasn’t the union she was expecting; their marriage was dull and sexless. On the sly, she took on a lover but she never married him. We follow her turbulent marriage life, contrasted by her newfound success as a writer, in Dependency, the last book. Its Danish title Gift aptly describes this part of her life. Gift has two meanings in Danish: marriage and poison. Dependency is also the longest of the three books. Long before she made her long-awaited literary breakthrough in her early twenties, Ditlevsen has already experienced what many experienced in a lifetime. All of these experiences made her mature at a young age.
Her second husband was Ebbe. Their union was stable until they had their first child. Ebbe never wanted to have a child, hence, he turned on to alcohol. Meanwhile, Ditlevsen’s literary career began taking off. Her dream of earning from her works is finally coming true. The financial stability she has been dreaming of has been realized. She has become a celebrated artist. Circumstances led her to Carl, a slightly deranged doctor, who would eventually become her third husband. But her third marriage had far more implications and the terms dependency and poison started taking firmer shape. The need for an abortion led Ditlevsen to Carl. During the process, she asked him for an anesthetic. He injected her with opiate Demerol (meperidine): “A bliss I have never before felt spreads through my entire body.”
There is a certain level of candidness in the way Ditlevsen related her story. Rather, there was raw honesty that flowed through the lyrical language of her storytelling. She was unsparing in vividly describing seminal phases of her life. Without irony, she shared about her ordeals and personal victories. The unfiltered honesty can make the ordinary reader flinch. We read about her love affairs. We also read about her backstreet abortions. We were regaled with the details of her chronic addiction. There was never an ounce of irony in her desire for physical touch. However, she still kept to herself the consequences of her personal choices.
Despite the honesty, there still seem to be events that Ditlevsen chose to keep to herself. Rather than a tell-all, she provided intimate peeks on certain events in her life. It was a credit to her end that she never buckled on the most challenging chapters of her life while still holding back on others. Still, the restraint worked. Ditlevsen provided enough details of these events to allow the readers to connect them as a cohesive whole. Through these seminal events, she provided enough detail to build her profile. We read about a talented writer who persevered despite the odds stacked against her. On the other side, we see the portrait of a vulnerable woman who has her needs. She can also be opportunistic. Ditlevsen is certainly no angel. But it is also her flaws that make her relatable.
“I know every person has their own truth just as every child has their own childhood. My mother’s truth is completely different from my father’s truth, but it’s just as obvious as the fact that he has brown eyes while hers are blue. Fortunately, things are set up so that you can keep quiet about the truths in your heart; but the cruel, gray facts are written in the school records and in thehistory of the world and in the law and in the church books.”~ Tove Ditlevsen, The Copenhagen Trilogy
Over the course of her adult life, Ditlevsen struggled with drug addiction and Carl was more than compliant to address her growing need. The drugs kept Ditlevsen at bay. For five years, the drug shackled her to the ground. The opiate Demerol, and sometimes methadone, provided her an escape and a level of bliss that her writing previously provided her. Her growing dependency also affected several aspects of her life. She no longer attended social events. Her children became foreign to her, and she to them. Her children were practically raised by their nanny. She lost weight and became bedridden. It would take five years for her to come clean and eventually divorce Carl. However, the damage has been done. And just like how her mother left parts of herself in her daughter, Carl left residues of his presence in her life.
Her long struggle with addiction culminated five years after the publication of Gift. Ditlevsen took her own life by overdosing on sleeping pills. But she left behind a legacy. She is one of the most celebrated Danish writers of the 20th century. The renewed interest in her works, albeit posthumously, is still a nod to the greatness and the power of her writing. In 2014, further underlining the interest in her canon, her works were included as part of the Danish primary school curriculum.
The Copenhagen Trilogy dazzles in its portrayal of various facets of Ditlevsen’s life. Sure, it forms a small part of Ditlevsen’s oeuvre but it was scintillating in its painting of the portrait of a young woman who dared to dream and make her dreams come true. It was a raw and honest account of her life, trials, and tribulations. For Ditlevsen, achieving one’s dream was no easy feat in a time when the functionality of women was limited to marriage and childbearing. Still, she persevered and fought against the odds, using every stepping stone to realize her dreams. But the road to success is never an easy one, as Ditlevsen’s story has shown. We see her constant battles with her own demons. She ultimately lost but she also won because her legacy still lives on.
It was towards the end of 2021 that I have first heard of Tove Ditlevsen. I kept encountering her book, The Copenhagen Trilogy and after several encounters, I finally relented. Besides, the book reminded me of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy (which I have not read yet). Of course, The Copenhagen Trilogy is different from the two books. It is a memoir. I also have to admit that my knowledge of Danish literature is limited to Hans Christian Andersen, hence, the encounter with Ditlevsen was timely. Before reading the memoir, I was saddened to learn of the unfortunate circumstances of her death. It further piqued my interest in her memoir. And I must say, I was astounded. The prose was on point. The writing was lyrical. The story was heartbreaking but Ditlevsen’s honesty, bereft of irony or sarcasm, was scintillating. I hope to read more of Ditlevsen’s works, particularly her seven novels.
Author: Tove Ditlevsen
Translators (from Danish): Tiina Nunnally (Childhood and Youth, 1985) and Michael Favala Goldman (Dependency, 2019)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 370
Following one woman’s journey from a troubled girlhood in working-class Copenhagen through her struggle to live on her own terms, Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy is a searingly honest, utterly immersive portrayal of love, friendship, art, ambition, and the terrible lure of addiction, from one of Denmark’s most celebrated twentieth-century writers.
About the Author
Tove Irma Margit Ditlevsen was born on December 14, 1917, in Copenhagen, Denmark. She grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Vesterbro. After graduating from the eighth grade, she left school and started working while pursuing her dream of becoming a poet. Her interest in poetry was cultivated at a young age, primarily driven by her father’s interest in poetry.
At the age of ten, Ditlevsen started writing poems and it was with poetry that her literary career commenced. Prose and Poetry was her first published work; the poem appeared in Wild Wheat, No. 9, in July 1937. Her first volume of poetry was published in her early twenties while her first novel, Man gjorde et barn fortræd, was published in 1941. It was, however, her poetry collection Blinkende Lygter (Flickering Lights), published in 1947, that she gained more domestic popularity. Over the course of her career, she published a total of 29 works, comprised of eleven poetry collections, seven novels, and eleven short story collections.
Ditlevsen has also published a score of essays, memoirs, and children’s books. Three of her memoirs Barndom (Childhood), Ungdom (Youth), and Gift (which can mean either poison or married) were collectively published as a trilogy. The first two books were first translated to English by Tiina Nunnally and were published in 1985. The third book was translated by Michael Favala Goldman and was published in one volume in 2019 as The Copenhagen Trilogy. For her works, Ditlevsen has received several accolades such as the Tagea Brandt Rejselegat in 1953 and De Gyldne Laurbær in 1956. The vast scope of her oeuvre made Ditlevsen one of the most important Danish readers of her generation.
Behind the success of her works is a woman who struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. Getting in and out of the psychiatric hospital was a recurring theme of her adult life. On March 7, 1976, Ditlevsen took her own life by overdose of sleeping pills.