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A woman on fire and one falling apart: The genius of Tove Ditlevsen

‘Childhood is like a coffin, and you can’t get out on your own’
Tove Ditlevsen: ‘Childhood is like a coffin, and you can’t get out on your own’

Lucy Scholes on the intense memoirs of Tove Ditlevsen, novelist and addict, who took her own life in 1976

“There’s something painful and fragile about being a young girl who makes her own living. You can’t see any light ahead on that road,” the Danish poet and novelist Tove Ditlevsen writes with haunting, timorous honesty at the end of Youth, the second volume of her intense, elegant autobiographical series The Copenhagen Trilogy. This vulnerability was an integral part of Ditlevsen’s writing: “She’s the Billie Holiday of poetry,” according to Dorthe Nors, “accessible, complex, and simple all at the same time. There’s a special mournful sweetness in the earlier poems that belongs to the girlish. Later, her prose turned the dreams and disappointments of life as a woman inside out”.

Still relatively unknown among English-speaking readers, Ditlevsen was born in Vesterbro, a working-class district in Copenhagen, in 1917, and after many years battling drug and alcohol addiction, took her own life when she was 58, in 1976. Along the way, though, she experienced great success. The centenary of her birth two years ago prompted a renewed interest in her work in her native Denmark, and now, with the publication of her bravura memoirs – Childhood (1967), Youth (1967) and Dependency (1971) – translated into English for the first time, Penguin Classics are hoping to spread the word.

Ditlevsen’s portrait of Vesterbro in the Twenties has something of the same texture of Elena Ferrante’s description of the poor Neapolitan neighbourhood in which her heroines grow up; a small enclosed community where certain figures loom large, both in reality and in the younger residents’ imaginations. “There’s not one damn corner where you can have anything for yourself,” Ditlevsen’s older brother Edvin moans in exasperation. “I can’t have anything for myself, either, you know,” his sister reminds him, “and neither can mother or father. They’re not even alone when they… when they…” This claustrophobia reaches beyond the walls of the tiny family apartment, down into the courtyard below with its “rancid stench of beer and urine” and the front building’s wall “that’s always crying as if it has just rained”. Everyone knows everyone else’s business: exactly how very many “gentlemen” come to visit young, pretty and unmarried Ketty; or when Rapunzel’s parents – who work at Carlsberg and “each drink 50 beers a day” – are beating her with a stick or attacking each other with “bottles and broken chair legs”.

“Either the men drank – and most of them did – or else they harboured a violent hatred toward those who did,” Ditlevsen explains. Her own father doesn’t drink, but her mother’s father was an alcoholic. “It was his own fault, the drunken pig!” Ditlevsen’s mother yells. “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.” Addiction thus hangs over Ditlevsen’s life from the very start, a tragic legacy waiting to be fulfilled.

'Addiction thus hangs over Ditlevsen’s life from the very start, a tragic legacy waiting to be fulfilled'

This suffocating sense of oppression permeates the entire book. Rivalling T S Eliot’s famous pronouncement that childhood is a rotting corpse best left buried, Ditlevsen describes it as something that “clings to you like a bad smell”, “long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own”. She emerges in Youth battle-scarred – “Wherever you turn, you run up against your childhood and hurt yourself because it’s sharp-edged and hard, and stops only when it has torn you completely apart” – but more firmly resolved than ever. Writing – long since the “only consolation in this uncertain, trembling world” – is her only goal.

While Hitler’s rise to power rumbles on in the background (despite declaring itself neutral, Copenhagen is occupied by Germany from 1940 through to the Allied victory), the now teenage Ditlevsen is “terrified” that her life will be over before it’s even begun, “as if the swells from the great ocean of the world could capsize my fragile little ship at any moment”. She’s forced to take various thankless day-jobs to make ends meet. Most pressingly, though, she needs to get her poems published. Enter the predictable gatekeepers: old white men, often with roving eyes and hands.

When Dependency – Gift in the original Danish, a word that means both “marriage” and “poison”, and there’s a similar duality of meaning at work in the English title – opens, she’s married one of them: her first editor and publisher of her work, a man who’s 53 to her tender 20 years. Dependency is the tour de force of the trilogy, not to mention the only book that could satisfyingly be read as a stand-alone volume, just about vindicating Penguin’s decision to print them separately rather than as a collected work. It’s also worth noting that the translator changes here too, Tiina Nunnally’s excellent work swapped for the less declarative but no less nimble prose of Michael Favala Goldman. As a sign of the author’s transition from immaturity to adulthood, this slight shift in tone works well. The episodic feel of the early volumes – like memories that bloom then burst – is replaced by a narrative, the cumulative power of which relies on a stricter chronological approach.

With her son Peter Andreasen Credit:  A E Andersen/Scanpix Norway/Press Association

As an adult, Ditlevsen is in turn a woman on fire and one falling apart. However harrowing, the experiences described in Childhood and Youth pale in comparison with those in Dependency: literary success and fame; four marriages (her third husband is institutionalised for psychosis); three children, one fathered by her second husband with another woman, whom he and Ditlevsen adopt: “I didn’t think one child more or less made any difference,” she explains sagely; two backstreet abortions, and with them a vivid foray into that particular “women’s world of blood, nausea and fever”; and last but not least, an increasingly debilitating opioid habit, which occasions some of the most potent writing about addiction, rehab and relapse I’ve ever read. And these are only the selected highlights. With a new twist at every turn, the story is wild, so much so it’s as if it’s come straight out of a soap opera’s writers’ room. Ditlevsen’s struggle is all too real though.

Towards the end of the book, walking through the city streets one night, the well-lit window of a pharmacy transfixes her. “I kept standing there,” she writes, “while the yearning for small white pills, which were so easy to get, rose inside me like a dark liquid. Horrified, I realised while I stood there that the longing was inside me like rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own, even though you want nothing to do with it.”