Ifirst encountered Tove Ditlevsen on a visit to Copenhagen. The whole trip had been a mistake. I kept thinking I should go and see the Little Mermaid. Seeing the statue, even from a distance, would somehow validate the journey. Apart from this depthless panic about how and when I would go and see the Little Mermaid, I was doing very little: wandering around galleries, sitting in the hotel bar. Eventually, I went to a bookshop and bought Childhood, the first part of Ditlevsen’s autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy. As an Irish person, I doubted that the bouncy, healthy-looking Danes could have produced a worthwhile writer. (Their self-assurance, their cycling, their perfect teeth: where was the despair?) I never made it to the Little Mermaid, but by the time I left I’d finished Childhood. Walking the streets of Copenhagen, gloomy and bored, I had accidentally immersed myself in the Tove Ditlevsen virtual reality experience.
Ditlevsen was born in Copenhagen in 1917 and grew up in the working-class neighbourhood of Vesterbro, which was also the city’s red-light district. When Childhood begins, she is five and living in a tiny apartment with her hard-up, no-nonsense parents and her brother, Edvin (whom she worries her parents love more than her). The school principal scolds Tove for knowing how to read and write before arriving at school. ‘She learned it by herself,’ her mother responds. ‘It’s not our fault.’ The child’s intellect is immediately made clear – though she still gets her socialist father to do her homework. He ends one of her school essays like this: ‘America has been called the land of freedom. Earlier it meant freedom to be yourself, to work, and to own land. Now it practically means freedom to starve to death if you don’t have money to buy food.’ ‘What in the world,’ Tove’s teacher asks, ‘do you mean by that nonsense?’
By the age of seven, she has decided to become a writer. Her distant and inscrutable mother, who ‘doesn’t have a single girlfriend she can talk to and laugh with’, worries that her daughter will be even more strong-willed when she has access to adult books. Misunderstood and underappreciated, Tove fantasises about ‘meeting some mysterious person who will listen to me and understand me. I know from books that such people exist, but you can’t find any of them on my childhood street.’
Tove writes devotedly in what she refers to as her ‘poetry album’ and strives to set herself apart. But her prospects are dwindling. ‘Whenever I think about the future,’ she says, ‘I run up against a wall everywhere and that’s why I want to prolong my childhood so badly.’ At the age of twelve, she writes:
Once I was young and all aglow,
full of laughter and fun.
I was like a blushing rose.
Now I am old and forgotten.
This world-weariness, the desire to self-mythologise, is easier to take when one remembers what Ditlevsen is up against. Despite her academic achievements, she is forced to leave full-time education at the age of fourteen to help support her family. Her father tells her that ‘female graduates … are both ugly and stuck-up.’ But you can hardly be sceptical about the possibility of Ditlevsen’s success when you’re holding her book in your hands.
In Youth, Tove goes to work. She lasts one day in her first job. ‘You have to do everything I say or else I’ll shoot you,’ Toni, the small boy she’s tasked with babysitting, announces boldly. She is fifteen when Hitler comes to power. At the boarding house where she now cleans, the ladies cheer. ‘If Stauning were like Hitler,’ they say, ‘we wouldn’t have unemployment’ – but the Danish prime minister is ‘weak and corrupt and drunken’. Ditlevsen is astute on the subject of work: ‘I was someone whose physical strength they’d bought for a certain number of hours each day for a certain payment. They didn’t care about the rest of me.’ She dates, she drinks, she types, she stands in doorways kissing men she has no intention of seeing again. She moves out of her parents’ apartment. A man who agrees to publish her work dies suddenly. She laments the fact that to get published she must ‘make contact with a world that seems to consist entirely of sick old men who might keel over at any moment’.
By the end of Youth, she’s engaged to Viggo F. Møller, a middle-aged literary editor with a double chin, who introduces her to celebrities ‘as if he had invented me’. ‘I once knew someone who said that all people want to use each other for something,’ Tove tells him. ‘I want to use you to get my poems published.’ When her first book of poetry comes out in 1939, she describes it as a ‘miracle’. She hopes that a child ‘will someday read the poems, and feel something from them, something that the people around her don’t understand’. Youth tacks back and forth between cynicism and youthful incredulity. Men fall constantly and embarrassingly in love with her (her seductively brazen author photos, in which she looks a bit like Ingrid Bergman, suggest a reason). At one point, she goes to the cinema for the first time and tries to get up and leave after the commercials because she thinks it’s over. Now I’m in love with her too. Of the film she says: ‘I’m completely enchanted and forget where I am and who I am with,’ which is a bit like the experience of reading Youth. By the time you finish it, you’re convinced Tove will never grow old.
I’m reluctant to summarise the books in this way: reducing them to plot, as if they amount to no more than a TV drama showing a girl finding her voice, her development signalled by her stylish clothes (‘a black coat with an ocelot collar’) and a near mystical level of haircare. Dependency, the last instalment in the trilogy, isn’t an uplifting coming-of-age story. Fame arrives for Ditlevsen, but self-assurance doesn’t. She becomes involved with Piet Hein, another controlling man, who hates her husband and persuades her to leave him. Shortly afterwards, Hein dumps her for a ‘very pretty, very rich’ woman with a mansion in Jylland. Tove moves on, falling for an economics student called Ebbe. She gets pregnant and marries him. After their daughter, Helle, is born, she loses all sexual interest in Ebbe and begins to fool around. One of her conquests is a doctor called Carl. She gets pregnant again after their regrettable one-night stand and he carries out the abortion himself, giving her a shot of Demerol for the pain. Tove is immediately hooked. Carl, who has ‘an underbite and 64 teeth in his mouth instead of 32’, seems newly appealing. ‘I decide never to let go of this man who can give me such an indescribable blissful feeling.’ Tove tells Ebbe that she’s leaving him for another man and taking their daughter with her.
Maybe you’ll get to know Carl. Maybe we can all be friends. No, he said with a sudden vehemence, I never want to lay eyes on that man. I only want to see you and Helle. I propped myself up on my elbow and observed his handsome face with its soft, weak expression. What if I told him the truth? What if I told him I was in love with a clear liquid in a syringe and not with the man who had the syringe? But I didn’t tell him; I never told that to anyone. It was like when I was a small child and a secret was ruined if you told a grown-up.
It’s one of the most appalling accounts of addiction I’ve read. ‘I smiled thankfully at him, and the fluid went into my blood, lifting me up to the only level where I wanted to exist. Then he went to bed with me, like he always did, when the effect was at its peak. His embrace was strangely brief and violent, with no foreplay, no tenderness; and I didn’t feel anything.’ Eventually, she kicks her drug habit. But ‘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 for as long as I live.’
This period in Ditlevsen’s life coincides with – is perhaps prompted by – her disorienting early success. Her first novel, A Child Was Harmed, is published in 1941 to critical acclaim. She contributes a weekly advice column to the Familie Journalen. ‘I get interviewed by Karl Bjarnhof for the Social-Demokraten,’ and ‘get a shock when I see the headline: “I want money, power and fame.” Did I really say that? … I’m portrayed as a vain, ambitious and superficial person, who only thinks about herself.’ By the time she died by suicide in 1976, at the age of 58, Ditlevsen was a celebrated novelist and one of Denmark’s most recognisable public figures.
Childhood and Youth appeared in Danish in 1967; Dependency followed in 1971. In 1968, between the second and the third volume, Ditlevsen published The Faces, a novel governed by the same sort of paranoid logic. ‘Life consisted of a series of minute, imperceptible events,’ the protagonist tells us, ‘and you could lose control if you overlooked a single one of them.’ The Faces is a strange book without a discernible narrative structure. What it most closely resembles is the second half of Dependency (which she hadn’t yet written), though the form couldn’t be more different. The lacerating simplicity of the memoirs is replaced, in The Faces, by a polyphonic style that attempts to reflect the narrator’s fractured unconscious. The novel follows Lise, an accomplished children’s author, through mental dissolution, a suicide attempt and a spell in an asylum. She is tortured by anxieties: the conspiracy she believes exists between her husband, Gert, and her housekeeper, Gitte; her failings as a mother; her suspicion that her husband is preparing to leave her for her teenage daughter. The paranoia manifests as visual and auditory hallucinations:
From the pipes came an indistinct murmur of voices, and there were no faces behind the two gratings.
The door opened and a man in a white jacket with brass buttons came in. He was carrying a basin and pushed down the door handle with his elbow. When he turned around, she saw it was Gert, but that didn’t particularly surprise her. She had gotten used to her world of terrors the way you get used to a physical pain. Maybe there really were several versions of the same person, and this was just a copy.
‘Gert,’ she said, ‘why do you hate me? Have you forgotten how happy we once were?’
‘My name isn’t Gert,’ he said stubbornly. ‘My name is Petersen, and I’m a nurse here. It’s time for you to be washed’ … Then he rubbed the washcloth over her face, and she felt her skin tighten and stiffen like under a mask of egg whites. She ran her fingers across her face.
‘If you try to remove it,’ said Gitte’s voice in the speaker, ‘the skin will come off too.’
‘Stop that, Gert,’ she said, full of fear, ‘or I’ll report you to the police.’
‘You wouldn’t look for help from a band of child murderers,’ scoffed Gitte.
Lise’s obsession with faces lends itself to the use of wild and unpredictable metaphors, both fairy-tale cliché and adult perversion: we could be inside a Paula Rego painting.
All the faces were clear and alert, like after a long night’s sleep, and Gitte had stopped using Miss Poulsen’s face, which had found its way back to her like an exhausted child who finally comes home after wandering around on strange, unfamiliar pathways. She was only in doubt about Mr Petersen, for he still had Gert’s ironic, melancholy eyes, while his own were probably out at the cleaners.
Their faces were white full moons, and she couldn’t tell them apart.
They were longing for their visitors to leave so they could wander up and down the corridor again with listening, inward-looking faces and a hand moving along the tilting wall. They were as flat as paper dolls, while Gitte and the other strangers had a reverse side that they weren’t afraid to show. They had skin, bones, blood and nerves underneath, and they gave off an odour of memories and seasons of the year that struck the nostrils of the insane with a fear that they wouldn’t be able to tolerate for very long.
When Ditlevsen’s work is first about to be published, her mother suggests that she use the pen name Mundus – her own maiden name, and the surname she gives to her protagonist in The Faces. Lise’s relationship with her mother has some of the same difficulties Ditlevsen experienced with her own: an unease about the daughter’s social mobility; the mixture of pride and shame with which the mother views her daughter’s work; the mother’s tendencies towards tenderness on one hand and cruelty on the other. Lise hears Gitte’s voice jeering: ‘You’re getting more and more like her. You’re just as scared of old age as she is. And you understand your own children as poorly as she does.’ For such a singular and unconventional woman, the primary fear was much the same as everyone else’s: that she was becoming her mother. Towards the end of The Faces, Lise hallucinates a confrontation:
‘Do you remember,’ her mother said reproachfully from her pipe, ‘that time you were home alone and out of pure and simple meanness you smashed that vase I liked so much?’
‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘but I’ve regretted it ever since.’
‘That won’t make the vase whole again,’ said her mother drily. ‘We had it in my childhood home, and it was the only memento of my mother that I had. You’ve always been cold-hearted.’
‘I didn’t want to repeat your lives,’ she defended herself. ‘I wanted to have my own.’
There are two central themes in The Faces: the administration of pain and the lurch into fantasy to escape it. When Lise reads a fairy tale to her son, he compares her, bluntly, to the wicked witch. Watching Gert enter a room, Lise describes his shoes ‘getting bigger and bigger, like in an absurd drama where mushrooms grow up between the floorboards and getting rid of them every day is the only meaningful act in the world’. Items appear without context, outsized, like props in a farce – or the radio Lise imagines playing inside her pillowcase.
Lise’s mind, with its rotating conspiracies, and paranoid, self-destructive patterns, is unpleasant to inhabit. She is bitter, self-pitying and warped, often unleashing campaigns of hatred and suspicion. The entire book is a rebuke to those who associate female writers suffering from mental illness with white nightgowns and endless cigarettes. Ditlevsen’s descriptions of the asylum are terrifying and unforgiving: ‘Among the patients moved the quick, slender nurses, wrapped in their confident sexuality and disinfected against contamination, like the staff of a leper colony.’ The ending of the novel is not a happy one. Nothing is resolved; there is the possibility that, for Lise, insanity offers much more than the limitations of normal life. But amid all this chaos – this frenzied fever dream – Lise, like Ditlevsen herself, keeps a sense of humour. On being told that her mother has come to visit her in the institution she remarks: ‘Did they really have visiting hours in hell too?’
What does it all mean? If you’ve read the Copenhagen Trilogy, one natural response to The Faces is to scan it for clues about Ditlevsen’s life. Lise’s literary achievements only compound her feelings of isolation. She explains that ‘Gert had taken her fame as a personal affront. He maintained that he couldn’t go to bed with a piece of literature and he had cheated on her with great diligence, keeping her meticulously informed of his conquests.’ Emptiness plagues Lise: ‘Fame had brutally ripped away the veil that had separated her from reality.’ But what really connects The Faces with the trilogy is their writer’s refusal of conformity.
Throughout The Faces journalists keep calling Lise at the asylum to ask inane questions. Are miniskirts destroying marriage? Does fame have its obligations? Lise isn’t trying to get public approval. Her answer to whether fame has its obligations is that she ‘hadn’t won it in a national election’. Ditlevsen’s relationship to her public image was complicated, but her relationship to her writing was not: it was the sustaining happiness in her life. Poetry, she says in Childhood, is her one consolation ‘in this uncertain, trembling world’. When she is married to Viggo F. she gets up early to write by hand because the noise of the typewriter will wake him. In Dependency, at her most desperate, she moves her hands as if she’s typing. ‘Tomorrow,’ Lise announces in the penultimate line of The Faces, ‘I’m going to start writing.’ She’s speaking to her husband, but he’s already fallen asleep.