The Brutal Transcendence of Tove Ditlevsen

The Brutal Transcendence of Tove Ditlevsen

The Brutal Transcendence of Tove Ditlevsen

By resisting all of memoir’s conventions, the Danish writer tells the story of her life more painfully and beautifully.


I first learned of the existence of The Copenhagen Trilogy several months ago, from someone who told me that Tove Ditlevsen was going to be “the new Elena Ferrante.” This seemed like privileged information—like insider trading, but for literature—and I soon got my hands on a digital galley that I let languish in my inbox. (I hate reading digital galleys.)

By the time I procured the physical, published version of the book, I had begun to feel skeptical of the Ferrante comparison, which others had made, too. Reading The Copenhagen Trilogy is “a bit like discovering that Lila and Lenú, the fictional heroines of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, were real,” Megan O’Grady wrote in her New York Times review. This holds up to some extent: The Copenhagen Trilogy is a memoir in three discrete parts, beginning with Ditlevsen’s youth, spent as a misunderstood child and aspiring poet, and concluding in adulthood, when Ditlevsen has become a famous author as well as a desperate (and then recovering) addict. Like Ferrante’s narrator, Lenù, Ditlevsen grows up in an insular, working-class neighborhood full of busybodies, where children—and especially girls—aren’t expected to grow up to be writers. Both stories are concerned with how to escape these conditions, and seem to offer similar possibilities: art, love.

But there is no brilliant friend: Her social and spiritual life are almost completely bereft of the company that might have otherwise provided her with refuge in the material world. Ditlevsen’s voice seems to reach us from a place of psychological remoteness. It is, at times, unnerving just how isolated she seems to be. Ditlevsen’s nonbiological relationships—with her friends, with her several husbands—feel contingent, as does her connection to the events of her own life. As an adolescent, barred from attending high school and forced to work, Ditlevsen leaves one job after another—after a day, a few weeks, a few months; she doesn’t miss any of them. She gets engaged to a young man after a couple of weeks, breaks off the engagement, enters into a new one. She gets married, divorced, remarried, divorced again, remarried again, addicted to substances, divorced once more, and, finally, falls in love with a man at first sight.

Reflection and introspection burn slowly in the books, but pure facts are often relayed at this clip. Pivotal, life-altering moments might be sublimated into two or three sentences, or lines of dialogue: “The name sounds like birdsong,” Ditlevsen writes of the opioid Demerol, recounting what it was like to receive the first dose from her soon-to-be-husband Carl. “I decide to never let go of this man who can give me such an indescribable blissful feeling.”

This style of narrative, when deployed to describe trauma—taut, lucid, composed—can have the paradoxical effect of giving readers the impression that Ditlevsen is not an agent of the things that happen to her. How seamlessly does her life descend into disaster, and how little does she seem to resist. It would be easy for Ditlevsen to dramatize, embellish, adorn: At the time of the memoirs’ publication, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, she was one of the most famous and prolific writers in Denmark. Instead, Ditlevsen’s recollections come to us this other way because she is uninterested in facts. She knows merely reassembling them reveals cracks in their efficacy, though it’s the cracks she’s concerned with anyway. “Facts never light up and they can’t soften hearts,” Ditlevsen writes early on.

Ditlevsen resists the conventions that would make her memoirs conform to the narratives placed on so-called rediscovered women writers, whose stories are often expected to proclaim victory over the conditions that would have rather had them toiling away in obscurity. Triumph for Ditlevsen did not mean fame and wealth—she achieved both, publishing 29 books over the course of her career. Instead, she sought a permanent state of transcendence, and though her life was punctuated with transcendent moments, she is honest with her readers: She did not reach it.

These brisk memoirs are the sort one might write if they knew tragedy, both the quiet and disastrous sort, awaited them. Ditlevsen was born in 1917 in Vesterbro, Copenhagen, to a working-class family who continually fails to understand Ditlevsen’s desire to be a poet, much like nearly every other person in her social sphere. Money is scarce. Evenings are usually spent in the living room, Ditlevsen tells us in the first part of the trilogy, Childhood—her mother Alfrida singing, her father Ditlev reading some kind of socialist text, and Edvin, her older brother, hammering nails into a board, as practice for becoming a skilled worker. When Ditlevsen learns how to read and write, her love of language falls down like a scrim, estranging her from her family and friends. “Someday I’ll write down all of the words that flow through me,” she thinks one night, looking out the window. This is her ultimate hope; but the same beautiful words and verses also “separate me, unwillingly, from those I should be closest to.”

Writing poetry becomes Ditlevsen’s only retreat from the trappings of her ordinary, often bleak life. Unable to imagine other means of escape—“I don’t know whether there are other streets, other courtyards, other buildings and people,” she thinks at one point—Ditlevsen sees poetry as the only pathway out. The poems are private, until one day Edvin finds her journal and reads and laughs at them, telling her that she’s “full of lies” because they describe experiences (romance, for one) she hasn’t had yet. But later he tells her to show them to a friend of his with connections to a magazine editor, who might print them. When Ditlevsen hands over her poems she feels “as if I’m in a completely different state of existence,” she says. “It’s as if the book is a trembling, living part of myself that can’t be destroyed with a single harsh or insulting word.” A few days later, Ditlevsen goes to visit the editor at his office, and he tells her to come back in a couple of years—her poems are too “sensual” for the children’s page he edits. The first of the three memoirs closes shortly after this disappointment, with Ditlevsen mourning the end of her childhood, despite having wished so much for it to be over.

Ditlevsen, barely a teenager, is thrust unceremoniously into the world of adults. This entails obligations for Ditlevsen to either find a “steady job with a good pension,” or a spouse in possession of these things. Both prospects fill Ditlevsen with dread, and she doesn’t pursue either with much resolve. The second volume, Youth, begins with Ditlevsen hopping from job to job—she works as a nanny, a boarding house cleaner, a stock clerk at a nursing supply company, and an assistant at a lithographer’s office, to name a few—often relying on her mother to explain to her father why she has quit, or been fired from, each of them. She starts dating, but discovers that she goes cold at the touch of her male suitors, whom she regards with equal dispassion: A broken engagement is no more consequential than another lost job. (This section of the book offers further evidence that the trend in contemporary fiction of portraying women left numb and alienated by the drudgery of work has plenty of antecedents.)

The only thing that rouses Ditlevsen from her malaise is when she manages to find a “wedge into the world that is moved by poems.” But this world is a mirage, and the wedges she happens upon offer only narrow paths to it. One day, she opens the paper to find that the editor who told her to return with her poems has died; another older man, who lets her borrow books from his personal library, suddenly disappears without a trace. Ditlevsen eventually saves up enough money to move out of her parents’ house, rent a cold room, and buy a typewriter; but her landlord is a Nazi sympathizer, and she must write to the sound of Hitler’s speeches blaring through the thin walls. Otherwise ambivalent to politics, Ditlevsen views the rise of fascism as another potential obstacle to becoming a writer, “as if the swells from the great ocean of the world could capsize my fragile little ship at any moment.”

When she finally gets her first break, at 18, life begins to move much more quickly. Though the reader might believe that an upward trajectory is inevitable—when the subject of the memoir they are reading is a “rediscovered” woman writer, is there any other possibility?—it is at this point that Ditlevsen begins to hurtle toward addiction and ruin. Ditlevsen marries the first man who publishes her poetry, Viggo F. Møller, an editor of a journal called Wild Wheat. Initially, it seems obvious that she should do so: He belongs to a literary world she always hoped to live in. But it’s not long before she’s disenchanted again. Early in her third memoir, Dependency, she wonders: “Maybe I didn’t really have to marry Viggo F. to make it in the world. Maybe I only did it because my mother wanted me to so badly.” Ditlevsen also feels alienated from other artists. She’s embarrassed by the way Møller’s friends talk about their books and poems, and loath to talk about her own: Writing continues to be something “secret” and “shameful” one does in private.

Soon she has divorced Møller and married Ebbe, a student who quickly becomes insecure about his wife’s growing success. One of the first clues for readers that Ditlevsen has acquired a level of fame is when a friend explains to her why it makes sense that her husband feels inferior to her: “You’re famous, you earn money, you love your work.” Later, Ditlevsen reports that one of her books has received good reviews, and that her mother lent a copy of it to a stranger who asked her what it was like “having a famous daughter.” Otherwise, Ditlevsen hardly seems to register its effects. Poems simply become easier to publish, and editors stop turning her down. She begins to write fiction, too, which she does in quiet moments, then files it away in a drawer.

She and Ebbe have a child together, and motherhood produces another form of estrangement; she loses all of her physical desire for Ebbe, and when it finally returns, he seems less interested in reciprocating. When Ditlevsen becomes pregnant a second time, she sees abortion as the only way to avoid putting even more strain on her marriage. She can think of nothing else but “being alone in [her] body again.” A botched illegal abortion lands her in the hospital, but once the episode is behind her she resumes writing, “and the veil between myself and reality is solid and secure” once more. Ditlevsen has another unintended pregnancy, from a one-night stand with a man named Carl, who—luckily, Ditlevsen thinks—is a doctor, eliminating the need for her to search for someone who will help her terminate it. But when Carl performs the abortion, he gives her Demerol, to which she becomes immediately addicted. “I am preoccupied with the single thought of doing it again,” she says. “I could not care less about Ebbe or anyone else but Carl.”

She leaves Ebbe and enters into a marriage predicated on the roles of addict and enabler. Carl gives her increasingly frequent doses of Demerol, after which they have sex, Ditlevsen in a dreamy, dissociative state. Together they create the fiction that Ditlevsen needs the drug to treat an undiagnosed ear condition, a shared delusion that has dire consequences: Carl eventually finds a doctor who will perform an unnecessary surgery on Ditlevsen, which results in her going completely deaf in one ear. Still, Ditlevsen doesn’t regret it. She has another child with Carl—a ploy to “bind” him to her even more—and agrees to adopt a third with him.

Drugs for Ditlevsen serve the same purpose as writing: They lift her out of her daily life—which is still quite grim, despite her having become a wealthy and successful writer by this point—and into the sublime. Reality is kept out. But as drugs will do, they eventually eclipse writing altogether, rendering Ditlevsen unable to do so much as walk across the room to her typewriter. After some five years of this, Ditlevsen one day has herself admitted to a rehabilitation center, where she looks in the mirror and sees the face of a woman who appears to be 70 years old. (Devastatingly, the last words Carl ever says to Ditlevsen are: “Actually, I never was quite sure about that earache.”) And while indeed it feels as if Ditlevsen has chronicled multiple lifetimes in Dependency alone, she is only about 30.

Ditlevsen recovers enough to leave rehab, and not long after she meets a fan of her work, Victor, who kneels down in front of her and tells her how much he loves her poems. It is at that moment she decides to spend the rest of her life with him. When she relapses, they move away to a town with only five doctors, and he prohibits any of them from filling Ditlevsen’s forged prescriptions. “So it was impossible for me to get the drug,” she says, “and slowly I adapted to accept life as it was.” She enjoys a loving marriage to Victor, the company of her children, and she returns to writing. She is rescued from her addiction, she writes, “but it will never disappear completely for as long as I live.”

This is the abrupt ending of Ditlevsen’s story, leaving readers with the feeling that the transcendence she so desperately sought has been foreclosed. The pleasure and escape offered by not just drugs but also writing seems to have vanished. Whenever “reality got under [her] skin” from then on, she would comfort herself by innocently splitting a bottle of wine with her husband. For the best, the reader thinks, but probably not enough for Ditlevsen.

Is this the portrait of a woman profoundly successful at “getting her own way,” as New York Times critic Parul Sehgal has argued? Is Ditlevsen’s story one of triumph, one of a woman who “wrote as hard as she lived,” as an NPR review suggests? In some ways, perhaps. Part of what is pleasurable about The Copenhagen Trilogy, however, is how it absolutely resists such tidy synthesis.

It is true that writing was an escape for Ditlevsen (though I bristle at the cliché). It is also true that she was able to liberate herself from a life of poverty—a poverty of ideas and beauty, especially—and predictability she feared lay before her as a child. But it is difficult to overlook the damage Ditlevsen inflicted on herself in the process, the pain she endured from splitting one person into two selves—the self who writes, and the other, who must exist in that loathed place “reality.” It seems that she could never quite integrate the two.

Yet the experience of The Copenhagen Trilogy won’t leave one completely distraught. It is easy to be saddened by the wreckage Ditlevsen leaves in her wake, and by the knowledge that it only continued to accumulate: Ditlevsen died by suicide five years after publishing Dependency. But while suffering for one’s writing is far from glamorous (and certainly far too over-romanticized), it is a small victory that Ditlevsen, whose life seemed due for suffering anyway, got to choose it at all. And the writing is beautiful.

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