It begins, for the writer Tove Ditlevsen, with a secret: a Rilkean “song in my heart.” Her father is a factory worker; her brother, an apprentice at a car workshop. They live in a two-room apartment in Istedgade—her mother calls it a “proletarian neighborhood”—in early-20th-century Denmark. One day, Tove blurts out to her family that she wants to be a poet. “A girl can’t be a poet,” her father replies.
And so the pattern is set. Tove learns to never reveal her true self or the intensity with which she sees the world. She writes poems to an imaginary lover in a notebook that she hides inside a dresser drawer.
At 14, she shares her work with a magazine editor, who tells her to try again in two years. But then the editor dies, and she is left to deal alone with the men who thwart her literary hopes: the old lascivious sophisticate who lets her borrow books from his garret, the clueless boy she gets engaged to before losing her virginity. At 18, Tove meets another editor—50-ish, single—who publishes a poem of hers in his magazine. Reader, she marries him.
Coming of Age
By the time she died, in 1976, Ditlevsen had become one of Denmark’s most celebrated writers. The Copenhagen Trilogy is a sequence of her memoirs—the English translations are being issued in a single volume in the U.S.—remarkable in the way they privilege literature over life. Childhood and Youth record the confessions of a gifted ingénue who is constantly afraid of losing out on her big chance.
The teenage Ditlevsen drifted through a succession of jobs because her parents couldn’t afford to send her to high school. Her socialist father would let her read books of stolid prose. She preferred Baudelaire and Les Misérables. “I don’t think very much of reality,” she decides.
The confessions of a gifted ingénue who is constantly afraid of losing out on her big chance.
Ditlevsen tells her story in long, breathless paragraphs, with bursts of aphoristic brilliance. “It is the word ‘stable,’” she writes, thinking of men, “that blocks out all bright future dreams.” And: “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.” Or this, after first hearing from the editor who wants to publish her poem: “If he’s single, I have nothing against marrying him. Entirely sight unseen.”
Dependency, the third book, has a more conventional plot. Ditlevsen is now married to her editor and living in his apartment. She is writing her first novel—of course, she hides the pages from her husband—in a city overrun by the Germans, but the war doesn’t directly impinge on this self-portrait of the artist as a young woman. Ditlevsen has an affair with a poet, gets married again to someone else, gains just enough footing in the literary scene for her books to be snarkily reviewed. The writing is again decked with spectacularly quotable quotes. (On monogamy: “There are other forms of loyalty that mean so much more.” Also: “If I’m not writing … then I’m pregnant.”)
Soon after an abortion, Ditlevsen has moved in with her doctor, Carl, to feed her spiraling Demerol habit. She is ready to have a baby with him to “bind Carl to me even more.” Ditlevsen moves on from Demerol to chloral, then to methadone pills. We see her diversifying, both as a writer and as an addict.
“If I’m not writing … then I’m pregnant.”
Dependency has one of those endless endings that feels true to the theme of the memoir. The drug problem is presented as an inevitable outcome of the need to escape from reality that originally led Ditlevsen to poetry. But did her milieu warrant the escape? After all, she grew up in pre-occupation Copenhagen, and it is possible to review her choices in light of the creeping Fascism.
Her labor-union-loving father is worried that she will become “a reactionary.” She quits a job at a boarding house because her employers keep wishing for Hitler to save Europe. Her first landlord is a Danish Nazi who tries to recruit her to the party. The day war breaks out, Ditlevsen’s thoughts are predictably elsewhere—“Will my poetry collection come out now?” Her worst years of addiction come to pass after the country’s liberation, perhaps because, as she admits, “I always experience things after they’ve happened; I’m rarely in the present.”
Abhrajyoti Chakraborty is a New Delhi–based writer