FEBRUARY 10, 2021
TOVE DITLEVSEN’S first novel, A Child was Harmed, was sent back from the publisher with the accusation that she had “been reading too much Freud.” But Ditlevsen says she didn’t know who Freud was, a declaration that, 200-plus pages into her three-part memoir — a clear-eyed exploration of the lifelong echoes of a traumatic childhood — seems just as unlikely coming from her as it would from Elena Ferrante or Jamaica Kincaid. Then again, maybe it’s true. Ditlevsen was born near the end of World War I, when Freud’s cultural hegemony was not yet guaranteed. She wasn’t a particularly voracious reader, and Denmark is pretty north of Austria. Surely memoir doesn’t lie.
Written in the late 1960s and early ’70s toward the end of Ditlevsen’s life, The Copenhagen Trilogy looks back on the Danish author’s upbringing, work, marriages, and drug use with a rare combination of self-awareness and lack of self-judgment. Translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman and published together for the first time in the United States this winter, the three books Childhood, Youth, and Dependency have an easy, natural cadence to them, as though they are being typed out in front of you. When her husband first read the manuscript of A Child was Harmed, released in 1941, he experienced a similar sensation: “There’s not a comma out of place.”
Ditlevsen saw the success of her work in real time, a pleasure not always afforded to female writers of the 1940s and ’50s. With her poetry nationally celebrated by the time she was in her early 20s, Ditlevsen then produced a series of novels, short stories, poetry collections, as well as a weekly advice column. Her books later became staples in Danish school curricula, a literary legacy that is too often tied to her early suicide at the age of 58.
Like hundred-year-old glass, Ditlevsen’s writing is elegant, transparent, with glorious whorls of minor distortions and an unaffected beauty, but this seamless surface belies a scaffolding that is forbiddingly sound. Because the act of writing itself was not torturous for Ditlevsen, because a stream of manuscripts manifested peacefully without the exacting labor of revision, it can be easy to overlook the careful construction of her memoirs. Youth and Dependency slowly reveal a life marred by the traumatic experiences of Childhood, a portrait so keen that one wonders just how much psychoanalytic theory she had read before writing it.
It is a well-worn trap to mine the work of female writers for truths of The Woman behind them (especially when the marquee has suicide on it). But is it still a trap if the work in question is a memoir, and the table has been set so perfectly? After completing A Child was Harmed, Ditlevsen explained: “In one way or another it’s about me, even though I may never experience the things the people do in the book.” It is true that Childhood may just as well have been called A Child was Harmed: the memoir is a beading together of formative traumas, a book that, unlike its successors Youth and Dependency, is unmistakably dramatic:
Childhood must be endured and trudged through hour by hour, through an absolutely interminable number of years. Only death can free you from it, so you think a lot about death, and picture it as a white-robed, friendly angel who some night will kiss your eyelids so that they never will open again.
It’s not that the morbid weight of Childhood is overemphasized, but that we can’t yet comprehend its towering figure in full until the trilogy’s completion. Childhood, Youth, and Dependency unfold with an arsenal of foreshadow in the place of exposition. Her books consistently wield their striking present-ness, vibrating with the frequency of first-time experience. Ditlevsen is not big on agonized self-reflection. Nor is she big on reckoning with her traumas. Instead, temporality folds like a Möbius strip, and she crafts a story of her future from material that is always already in her past. Her writing maintains its paradoxical present tense, its unrelenting immediacy, a position in which she too apparently doesn’t know what’s going to happen, even as she prefigures the events to come so that when they do inevitably come, they come with echoes. At the end of Youth, Ditlevsen holds her first published poetry book in her hands and thinks, “The book will always exist, regardless of how my fate takes shape.” Of course, with The Copenhagen Trilogy we hold not only Ditlevsen’s books but also her own account of her fate. The result is a set of memoirs that illuminate how childhood carves a life like a river does a canyon, slowly over time, in the daily moments quite unremarkably, and in the end quite unbelievably.
“In the meantime, there exist certain facts,” or so Ditlevsen begins an early chapter Childhood, prefacing her biographical details as a series of inconsequential truths. She then self-reports her birth year as 1918, thwarting astrologers and psychoanalysts alike (the date has since been awkwardly debunked). She was actually born in 1917, making the newspaper headlines that she relays in Childhood’s opening pages — about the Spanish Flu and the Treaty of Versailles — still a stretch for a one-year-old’s memory. From the outset, Ditlevsen gently divorces her story from a more objective reality, something she has “never cared for” and “never write[s] about.” The realism she is interested in is not marked by the passage of time or its heady contemplation, so much as it is by character, mood, and setting, the accordion of remembrances that shape a person. Facts remain relegated to the meantime.
Growing up in the working-class neighborhood of Vesterbro, a western district of Copenhagen just outside the city center, Ditlevsen describes her family’s apartment like a stage set, sparse and constant. And much like being in a theater, Tove has no privacy; until the age of 14, she shares a bedroom with her parents, while her older brother occupies the downstairs. For the long stretches that her father is unemployed, the family subsists on discounted stale pastry. They only visit the doctor under “dire circumstances.” Dire circumstances abound though: her aunt’s cancer deathbed is erected in their living room, her brother’s painting job gives him a nasty persistent cough, and Tove herself has a three-month hospital stay for diphtheria. When sickness is not overwhelming the household, her childhood is largely consumed with the troubling task of deciphering her mother Alfrida’s personality, and she arrives at the unsatisfying conclusion that it is both “mysterious and disturbing,” capable of holding irrational multi-day grudges and justifying senseless slaps. A semblance of peace can be found in the “no-man’s-land” that spreads between Tove and Alfrida mid-mornings, often while her mother wistfully sings old war songs. Tove’s fondest memories are when Alfrida forgets her daughter’s age, her child-ness, and confides in her like a close friend. Tove makes herself as small and silent as possible to avoid reminding her otherwise. The opening chapter of Childhood ends in an uncharacteristic, more explicit reflection on their relationship:
Our peculiar and infinitely fragile happiness thrived only when we were alone together; and when I stopped being a little child, it never really came back except in rare, occasional glimpses that have become even more dear to me now that my mother is dead and there is no one to tell her story as it really was.
For just a moment we speed far into the future, into a pocket of grief, into the self-conscious acknowledgment of storytelling and its limits; then we are turned away, moved hurriedly along, far from the loss that only the failures of language can lay bare before you. For Ditlevsen, childhood is rarely a memory. It is a jarringly tangible object, an entity she seeks to define, a force she observes in others and herself: in adults who bury it deep down and in her sturdy friend, Ruth, whose childhood is smooth “without a single crack” and looks like it will “outlive her.”
In Youth, we leave Ditlevsen’s childhood street and enter a broader world where interpersonal relationships are strained and muddied by class, gender, and global fascism. She rotates through a slew of jobs, counting down the days until she turns 18 and can move out, dreaming secretly of a future as a writer in spite of her father’s belief that girls can’t be poets. As the tide of increasingly bad news swells worldwide, she avoids newspapers. When Hitler comes to power, she likens herself to a ship that “trembles with a vague fear of capsizing.” But apart from brief moments of concern, the fear stays vague, never materializing as more than a backdrop, a shallow threat. When England declares war on Germany, Tove feels a sinking feeling, as if she “were very hungry.” What will happen to her poetry book? What will happen to her prospective husband? Will Hitler come to Denmark? These questions quickly dissolve and she writes, “But already the next day it’s clear that daily life will go on as if nothing had happened. At the office the divorce cases, property line disputes, and other heated disagreements between people pile up.” The bigger the sinking feeling, the more things just go on, most of all the bureaucratic minutiae. Ditlevsen’s centering of her own experience and desires, though not especially admirable, is terribly resonant.
The distance between Ditlevsen and the world exists not only in disaster but also in the everyday; Ditlevsen repeatedly describes a veil between herself and reality. Her earliest poems, denigrated by her brother as “lies,” conjure a lively and imaginative romantic life alien to her. Writing, she acknowledges, helps to pin up the veil, to secure a buffer between herself and the outside world, to envelop her “increasingly sensitive soul” in a “protective membrane.” It is a way to cover the places her childhood left threadbare, the “new skin under a scab that hasn’t yet fallen off completely.”
After a brief first marriage to an editor 20 years her senior, Tove divorces and remarries an economics student named Ebbe. Per the indoctrination of her mother, Tove has always trusted marriage to be her safety net, a structure of relief and freedom — the potential for financial support and a room of her own. But caring for their first child, Helle, threatens this romantic arrangement. Tove and Ebbe fight, first about her lack of sex-drive and then about her work, when he is upset that she has borrowed his personality for a character (“That’s not art”). Tove confides in a friend: “When I’m writing I don’t care about anyone. I can’t.” This has always been writing’s lure, the ability to create firm boundaries for selfhood that aren’t subject to real-world logic — the veil a protectant, allowing her to take shape in the space flowing behind it. One night soon after their argument, Ebbe sleeps with someone else. To cope, Tove sits down to work: “Then I sit at my typewriter and I forget, while I’m writing, that my husband has gone to bed with someone else. I forget everything, until Helle starts crying because she’s hungry.” Tove’s relief is short-lived. For what is a greater reminder that you are in the world than a child whose life depends on it?
When Tove learns she is pregnant again, she is distraught. A second child would further endanger Tove’s independence, her career, her fragile happiness. The moment fizzles with the doctor’s announcement, when she feels as if “the curtain that is always hanging between me and reality turns grey and perforated, like a spider web.” Yet, in the wake of the veil’s dissolution, she notices a missing button on the doctor’s coat and a stray hair peeking out of his nose. Her writer’s eye is compulsive, revealing that the veil is not impenetrable but a process, a task to be constantly undertaken. Tove must repeatedly write the veil into existence: in the act, reality presses itself hotly against the veil’s boundary, its imprint appearing strikingly on the page.
Tove goes on a quest full of dead ends to get an illegal abortion in Nazi-occupied Denmark, which isolates her even further from Ebbe. He can’t understand the decision given the risks, but the women in her life do. Her mother says that she has never liked children — surprise — and recommends imbibing amber oil. Nadja, a friend, complements Tove’s own thinking on the matter: “You hate the thought of it growing eyes and fingers and toes and you can’t do anything about it. You stare at other children and you don’t see any redeeming qualities in them. You can’t think of anything but being alone in your own body again.”
What Tove cobbles together is a two-part abortion without clear medical instruction. After finding someone to poke the amniotic sac, preforming only half of the operation, Tove must wait at home for the arrival of fever and blood, signs that would require a clinic to remove the fetus. A febrile Tove spends Christmas in the clinic, looking at frosty decorations. She goes temporarily deaf from sneaked quinine pills in an attempt to prompt bleeding, but when the pills don’t work, a generous acquaintance slides her own blood-soaked sheets under a miserable Tove. In the morning, the nurse dons a contrite expression and scrapes out her insides. The veil is restored. Tove is able to write again.
But the veil is slippery: at first life-enabling, it soon becomes life-distorting. Ditlevsen prevents us from mapping it to just one meaning. In this, it acts as a floating signifier, or empty signifier, terms introduced by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his critique of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift. The empty signifier can have a plurality of meanings, and because of this, perhaps no meaning at all. It is an open container for signification, a hand with fingers pointing in every which direction, a hand with all fingers clenched tightly in a fist. In the original Danish, Ditlevsen’s third memoir, Dependency, is fittingly titled Gift, a homonym that means both married and poisoned. The slipping begins.
Tove’s careless affair with a repellent doctor named Carl means that her next abortion is seamless, en-suite. It also introduces her to the painkiller Demerol, the name dreamy “like birdsong.” She leaves Ebbe for Carl who gives her shots and has gruff sex with her while she’s high. When the high dissipates, she describes the descent of “a gray, slimy veil” that “covers whatever my eyes see.” Rather than her trusted defense mechanism, the veil is the scum at the bottom of an uncleaned tub. It prevents her from seeing clearly. Now, without Demerol, finding that untroubled state of writing is impossible. The straightforward metaphorical veil fans into an array of possibilities, working against the notion that everything is fixed. Perhaps, if the veil can shift shapes, so too can everything else; nothing, not even one’s Childhood, is prohibitively determinative.
On her rapid downward spiral, Ditlevsen writes, “No price was too high to be able to keep away intolerable real life.” Yet, the price is extraordinary. Her unstable new husband nurses her addiction then withholds the drug. Tove invents an earache, but it backfires, becoming an obsession for Carl. He cooks up an operation that involves the shuddersome act of shaving down her bone and then solicits a compliant surgeon to execute it. Ditlevsen loses hearing permanently in one ear, an artful conclusion of the quinine episode’s foreshadow. It dawns on her that the anxious woman she observed in the waiting room of an abortion doctor must have been an addict, the kind she is now. Details that seemed superfluous, merely residual symptoms of realism, are exposed as deliberate inclusions; they at once reveal not only the haunting of a life, but also the thoughtful narrativization of it.
Ditlevsen likens her addiction to tree rot or an unwanted embryo. Metaphor is no longer neat. She looks at her youngest daughter — yes, with Carl she has more children — and feels that she is being watched, “soberly with a child’s inscrutable face.” Ditlevsen, who has masterfully characterized even the most passing of encounters, is clueless as to what her own child is thinking. Her inscrutable mother is now her inscrutable child.
Tove’s fate in Dependency calls us back to the breathing text of her Childhood. When she is barely six years old, her mother spends time in the hospital for a stomach ache. Her older brother laughs cruelly, in the older brother way, explaining that their mother “had ‘ambortated.’” While Tove does not, as Oedipal cliché would have it, become her mother, the echo of Alfrida fills the walls of these books. It resounds like the songs she sings in the beginning of Childhood, of which Ditlevsen writes, “[W]hile my mother is singing them I can do whatever I want because she’s so completely absorbed in her own world that nothing from outside can disturb her.” This is the familiar promise of writing, of Demerol, for Tove: absorption, relief, her very own world, a world with the potential to supersede the one she has always known — her enduring childhood. Singing secures a kind of veil too. Ditlevsen herself is aware of the overlap, reproducing her mother’s mawkish lyrics with the same format she employs for her own poetry verses peppered throughout the early chapters of her memoir, admitting a similarity of function through form. When Alfrida sings it is “loudly and shrilly, as if dissociating herself from the words.” The words that Alfrida distances herself from? She sings: “Mother — is it Mother? / I see that you have wept.”
Trauma theorist Cathy Caruth argues that both literature and psychoanalysis are interested “in the complex relation between knowing and not knowing.” In her book Unclaimed Experience, Caruth invents the metaphor of “the wound” to explore how trauma manifests in literature. An inimitable characteristic of the wound is its “very unassimilated nature — the way it was precisely not known in the first instance — that returns to haunt the survivor later on.” But it is clear that Ditlevsen understands best of all how her childhood has shaped her; without illusion, she refers to it as “that library of the soul from which I will draw knowledge and experience for the rest of my life.” Instead, it is the reader who does not know Ditlevsen’s life and the nature of her wound. For us, the wound is slowly assimilated over the course of the trilogy by an exacting Ditlevsen, compelling us to reckon with her past and trauma in just the order she presents it to us.
Ditlevsen writes that it’s only once your childhood has “been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.” She looks at it, surely. But does she survive? Or do you read the illness of childhood and understand that it was cancerous, like tree rot, until all you can think of is to be alone in your own body once again?