Tove Ditlevsen was reputed to be a renowned literary figure in Denmark with many poetry collections and novels to her credit.
But before I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, I had no clue about her existence let alone her impressive body of work.
Thanks to the internet and Twitter, I became aware of these incredible set of memoirs when Penguin Modern Classics reissued them last month. It is safe to say that they will easily find a place in my Best of the Year list.
The Copenhagen Trilogy is a collection of Ditlevsen’s memoirs; the first, second and third books are titled, Childhood, Youth and Dependency respectively.
In Childhood, Tove is living with her parents and her elder brother Edvin in Vesterbro, a working class neighbourhood in Copenhagen.
The family exists on the fringes of poverty, a fact further exacerbated by the father being in and out of jobs and her mother not holding on to one either.
Tove attends school but in essence is a lonely child believing herself to be a misfit in the environment in which she belongs.
The one thing that motivates her is her passion for writing poetry.
Tove, meanwhile, has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother. She thinks it is exhausting to not only gauge but also pander to her mother’s moods.
When hope had been crushed like that, my mother would get dressed with violent and irritated movements, as if every piece of clothing were an insult to her. I had to get dressed too, and the world was cold and dangerous and ominous because my mother’s dark anger always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove. She was foreign and strange, and I thought that I had been exchanged at birth and she wasn’t my mother at all.
What’s more, her father does not really understand Tove’s love for poetry either because this is how he responds when she takes the courage to voice her dream:
‘Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet.’
Tove’s father is a socialist who is often unemployed, something that the mother always resents. The parents, however, have greater expectations from Edvin.
Besides finding solace in poetry, Tove increasingly longs to escape her confined childhood. She is waiting to turn eighteen and move away from her parents’ home.
Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.
In such an environment, Tove manages to befriend Ruth, a red haired girl, who is extroverted and daring, a sharp contrast to Tove’s personality. In the dynamics of that relationship, Tove is clearly in Ruth’s shadow.
Meanwhile, hope begins to glimmer when one day Edvin demands to read Tove’s poetry. Suitably impressed (even though he derided it previously in the same manner as the mother), he offers to pass it on to his friend Thorvald who can give her pointers on how to get those poems published.
It’s a big chance for Tove, a big opportunity for her dreams – of getting published – to come true.
That in a nutshell is the essence of Childhood, the first installment in The Copenhagen Trilogy.
Two immediate striking features are apparent – the voice of the narrator (Tove herself), and the language.
Tove’s voice is frank, fresh and distinct, and way she chooses to express herself comes across in the writing which is lyrical and sublime.
Although the overall tone of Childhood is gloomy, the gorgeous quality of the prose takes it up a notch making the reading experience utterly compelling – it was like being immersed in a gothic fairy tale.
If there is a sense of melancholy pervading Childhood, there is a shift of tone in the next book in the trilogy. Youth is more lighthearted peppered with moments of comedy.
In Youth, Tove has discarded the skin of her childhood behind. She must now venture into the big world and find a job to support herself and contribute to her family. It’s a prospect that terrifies her and paradoxically makes her yearn for her childhood.
The opening lines set the tone for what is to follow…
I was at my first job for only one day. I left home at seven-thirty in order to be there in plenty of time, ‘because you should try especially hard in the beginning’, said my mother, who had never made it past the beginning at the places where she’d worked in her youth.
In Youth, then Tove finds herself wading through a series of dull, meaningless jobs, which heighten her sense of boredom, and yet provide the means to maintain an independent existence. Eventually, once she turns eighteen, she immediately takes the step to leave her parents’ house, and find lodgings for herself.
One of her ladies is a Nazi sympathizer who tries to enlist Tove in various activities, which she manages to dodge. There is also the fear of the Second World War looming large. Indeed, Tove casually juxtaposes the broader canvas of these unsettling developments with what is happening in her own life…
The next day I start my job at the Currency Exchange typing pool and Hitler invades Austria.
Tove is also now dating and there is one comic set piece where she attempts to have sex for the first time with her boyfriend. Her friends think it’s shocking that she hasn’t already taken that step.
There are other spells of playfulness too when she enrolls for a few sessions in drama school, or when she is composing love songs for one of her employers.
In the final section, after a couple of disappointing attempts, Tove finally manages to get a poem published in a literary journal called ‘Wild Wheat’, edited by Viggo Moller, who goes on to become the first of her four husbands.
This finally paves the way for her dreams to materialize, as her first poetry collection manages to find a publisher.
We then move on to the final book in the trilogy, Dependency. There is once again a shift in tone as the writing gets more intense, feverish and terrifying. This book addresses some difficult times in Tove’s life making you wonder whether her youth – working in those dull jobs as an independent woman – wasn’t actually her best.
It addresses dependency in its many forms – marriage and drug addiction. Interestingly, the Danish novel was called Gift, which in the original language means both married and poison.
In Dependency, Tove is now an established author but her marriage to Moller is beset with problems. There are compatibility issues thanks largely to the big age gap between the two (Moller is old enough to be her father).
Tove finds some stability in her second marriage and goes on to have a daughter with her husband. However, the marriage is not without its share of problems, and there is one unsettling but riveting set piece where Tove is hell bent on terminating her second pregnancy and is on the hunt to find a doctor willing to perform an abortion.
Somewhere along the way, Tove falls prey to the dangerous allure of drugs notably Demerol and Methadone. These developments are entwined with a disastrous marriage to her third husband – a weird quack responsible for her addiction – and her debilitating struggle to break free from this ordeal.
These sections are quite harrowing and there is a creeping feeling of dread and foreboding as the book progresses. Indeed, for Tove, the drugs are an escape from a reality she can’t cope with, or a balm for the gnawing feeling of emptiness inside.
It is only when she is writing her novels, poems or short stories that she feels truly alive. When she is not writing, this is how she feels…
I have a huge void inside me that nothing can fill. It feels like everything is going into me but nothing is coming out again.
The title Dependency is an apt one for this volume. The reference to addiction is the obvious one. But the book also explores how Tove increasingly depends upon marriage to support her and many of her decisions. This despite the fact she was an independent woman in her youth. For instance, her marriage to Moller is influenced more by her mother’s insistence that she be supported by her husband rather than work herself. Even when married to her second husband Ebbe, the decision to abort the second child is more out of a fear of their marriage ending. And yet, in all of her three marriages, which are detailed here, it is Tove who took the decision to end the union.
There is a glint of hope when the novel ends and the overall trilogy concludes – a sense that she is on the path to recovery even if that path is anything but smooth.
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 as long as I live.
The Copenhagen Trilogy then is a wonderful piece of literature, one of those works where the sheer force and beauty of Ditlevsen’s writing makes various elements and emotions in the books – bleakness, comedy, terror, dread – ultimately riveting, immersive and thoroughly absorbing.