Tove Ditlevsen’s Unsentimental Education

Tove Ditlevsen’s Unsentimental Education

Blunt Clarity

Tove Ditlevsen’s unsentimental education.


In the early months of 1938, the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen, then 20 years old, moved from her parents’ small Copenhagen apartment into a room of her own. Her mother called her “heartless” for moving, and for taking her nannying wages with her; her father, a frequently out-of-work socialist, added to the guilt trip, reminding her that she already had a bedroom in which to “write all the poems you want.” Ditlevsen left anyway. In her new home, for which she paid 40 kroner a month, she could entertain her friends, come home late, and, most important, nurture the dream of writing a book. That said, the unheated room was “ice-cold,” and the miserly landlady, Mrs. Suhr, was an ardent member of the Danish Nazi Party, prone to addressing a portrait of Hitler she hung in her living room as if it were her boyfriend.

Ditlevsen describes her time at Mrs. Suhr’s in Youth, the second volume of her astounding tripartite memoir The Copenhagen Trilogy, translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman. (Nunnally translated the first two volumes, Goldman the third.) She uses a crisp, spare present tense that renders her memories not only intense but immediate. On one especially bad night, she writes,

I sit and freeze even though I have my coat on, and I can’t concentrate on writing because [a radio broadcast of] Hitler’s speech roars through the wall as if he were standing right next to me. It’s threatening and bellowing and it makes me very afraid. He’s talking about Austria, and I button my coat at the neck and curl up my toes in my shoes.

Here and throughout The Copenhagen Trilogy, Ditlevsen shows not a hint of self-pity. Her whole body of work shuns sentimentality, instead describing misery, instability, and vulnerability with impressive precision and clarity. She was blunt about her own experiences: Her first two marriages—to Viggo Møller, a much older editor who had published her earliest poetry, and then to an alcoholic student named Ebbe Munk—ended swiftly. Her third, to a controlling doctor who supplied her with pills and injected her with the opioid Demerol, led to a five-year period of near-deadly addiction, which became the subject of Dependency, the memoir’s third volume. Divorce, addiction, and mental illness, in fact, appear throughout Ditlevsen’s fiction. She “mined her life for material,” Goldman notes, for which she was “adored” by her “female Danish readers” but “looked down upon by the male Danish literary establishment.”

The Copenhagen Trilogy’s three volumes came out between 1967 and 1971. By then, Ditlevsen’s poetry and fiction had been nationally famous for two decades and she was writing an advice column for a women’s weekly magazine, Familie Journalen. American audiences, however, took longer to warm to Ditlevsen. In the 1980s, Nunnally translated the memoir’s first two volumes, Childhood and Youth; in 1991, she released a translation of Ditlevsen’s 1968 novel The Faces, which is drawn from her time in psychiatric hospitals. The books were well-received. The New York Times praised The Faces’s “harrowing authenticity” and Nunnally’s “deliberate, close-to-the-nerve translation.” But neither got much traction, and it was only years later, when Goldman read Dependency, that he decided to complete the trilogy. Its 2021 release, alongside Nunnally’s translations, have proved to be a rare hit for literature in translation, comparable, in many ways, to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels or Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.

Now, a year after The Copenhagen Trilogy’s success, Nunnally’s translation of The Faces has been reissued by Farrar, Straus and Giroux alongside Goldman’s translation of The Trouble With Happiness, which collects two volumes of Ditlevsen’s short stories: the 1952 The Umbrella and the 1963 The Trouble With Happiness. In the collection’s first half, Ditlevsen draws on her childhood and her unhappy first two marriages in stories whose characters, generally poor or working-class, chafe against the constraints of gender, class, and romantic norms. In its second half, written well after Ditlevsen had become famous, her characters, like their creator, are richer but not happier. One story’s protagonist lets her husband persuade her to quit her job so they can get tax breaks; before long, she’s lonely and depressed, unable to do much but “nurse her despondency.” Marital issues also appear in The Faces, but they take a back seat to mental illness. Its protagonist, Lise Mundus, is a successful children’s-book author who, rattled by the moral and social pressures of fame, suffers a psychotic break. For much of the novel she’s hospitalized, arguing with the disembodied voices that emerge from a grating beside her bed.

In both books, Ditlevsen’s prose is unfailingly sharp, elegant, and—in tone, if not spirit—colder than Mrs. Suhr’s room; she is the rare writer who shuns sentiment but not empathy. The Faces and The Trouble With Happiness also share a relentless focus on ignored moments in the lives of characters who are socially invisible or profoundly misunderstood. Both of these books stand in opposition to the Victorian literary works that ask readers to feel sorry for, or charitable toward, their poor or struggling protagonists. Instead, Ditlevsen turns readers into uncomfortable but unblinking onlookers to forms of suffering that she herself knew intimately.

The Trouble With Happiness is, at its heart, a book about how marriage makes you miserable and how children, as one story’s protagonist remarks coolly, “make people poor.” Its stories are set in mid-20th-century Copenhagen, usually after World War II, and tend to occur within their main characters’ homes, which seethe with marital, sexual, or existential discontent—or, more often, all three. The characters, male and female alike, chafe at the stifling expectations that often came with postwar marriage and domesticity.

Consider “The Umbrella,” in which a working-class newlywed named Helga channels her inchoate desires and discontents into a fervent yearning to own an umbrella. Her longing is aesthetic, not practical: She dreams not of keeping her hair dry but of admiring her umbrella’s “shiny ribs [and] tiny, adorable silk buttons.” As a child, Helga saw a neighbor—a single woman of whom her parents disapproved—carrying such an umbrella, and at first the story invites readers to assume that Helga’s dream is a muddled way of wishing that she were as sexually and romantically unfettered as the neighbor seemed to be.

Helga’s marriage is certainly not satisfying. Her husband, Egon, is inattentive, yet she hardly seems to recognize how badly she needs companionship. Indeed, Ditlevsen takes pains to specify that Helga recognizes none of her own needs; her “entire character,” Ditlevsen writes, “consisted of a pile of memories without a pattern or a plan.” Only such a person, the story seems to imply, could persuade herself that what she needs is an umbrella rather than friends, intellectual stimulation, and a life that revolves around more than doing “domestic duties and [getting] the most out of Egon’s salary for everyone’s benefit.”

Yet when Helga achieves her umbrella-owning dream, her joy is so “pristine” that the reader is left to wonder whether, in fact, the umbrella truly wasn’t all she really wanted—and whether it was snotty and classist to decide she required more. Ditlevsen uses Helga’s happiness to prod readers into investigating their own impulses toward pity. The story also undermines the conventional mode of literary analysis, in which readers or critics interpret (or guess at) the motives behind the characters’ inner lives. By the end of “The Umbrella,” Ditlevsen has made it plain that we cannot understand Helga. We certainly can’t determine what she needs or what would be best for her; only Helga can do that.

In the rest of the stories in The Trouble With Happiness, Ditlevsen may vary her uneasy demand on readers but remains insistent that we can never truly know or understand the needs of her characters. In “The Cat,” she tells us about a nameless couple so nondescript that your “eyes [wouldn’t] land” on them on a train; no matter how bored you were, you “wouldn’t guess if they were married or not, whether they had children, how old they were, their occupations, et cetera, just to pass the time.” Many writers would be tempted to add drama to the lives of such characters, rendered invisible by their outer dullness. Ditlevsen, instead, doubles down on their banality, giving them one of the most common disagreements there is: The wife wants kids, while the husband is terrified of the effect that children would have on their “standard of living.” Ditlevsen depicts this worry with blunt realism. She makes it clear that the husband’s fear is not a failure of generosity or love, but a result of the social pressure on men to provide for their families, just as the wife’s longing for a child comes in part from the social glorification of maternity. Regardless of the origin of these desires, Ditlevsen also makes it clear that they are irreconcilable—and that there is no right answer here. Both halves of this nameless couple have inner lives as transparent as Helga’s is murky, and yet their way forward is just as obscure.

“The Cat” is a peak example of marital misery in The Trouble With Happiness. Child-induced struggle, the collection’s other major theme, appears most strongly in “Life’s Persistence,” which shares the lightly scornful tone Ditlevsen uses in “The Umbrella.” Its protagonist, Alice, anchors her sense of self-worth in the belief that “love and marriage rarely had anything to do with one another.” Retaining this conviction enables Alice to carry on an affair with a married man, Bent, whose wife “let him do whatever he wanted, as long as…the outer appearance of civility and domesticity was maintained.” It also gives her a sense of dignity in the story’s climactic scene: When she seeks an abortion after Bent gets her pregnant, she refuses to appease the doctor by faking shame or innocence, even though she senses—correctly—that he will refuse to treat her as a result. Instead, she prioritizes her pride over her financial security and her relationship with Bent, which she knows cannot “bear a bond like” parenthood. Ditlevsen does not praise Alice’s choice, but she also does not moralize it by treating it as foolhardy or tragic. Instead, the story underscores the brutality of the situation—all too normal then; all too normal now—in which Alice finds herself: She can secure her future freedom by performing a submission to male standards, or she can put herself at practical risk by asserting her moral independence. Ditlevsen does not overtly empathize with her protagonist, and yet she also is careful to show how Alice chose dignity over security.

In The Faces, Ditlevsen focuses on a very different type of unseen character. Her protagonist, Lise Mundus, is far more socially visible than characters like Helga and Alice: She’s a famous writer whose life plainly parallels her creator’s. (Indeed, Mundus was Ditlevsen’s mother’s maiden name.) To a certain extent, in writing The Faces, Ditlevsen was asking her readers to become an audience not only to her work but to her pain—which, intriguingly, is just as coolly portrayed here as it is in her nonfiction, yet written much more viscerally. In The Copenhagen Trilogy, every sentence is precise enough to seem assembled with tweezers. In The Faces, Ditlevsen deploys bursts of figurative language that Nunnally translates with impressive force. Often, Lise seems to be pressing at the walls of language, trying everything she can to make herself heard.

Lise is profoundly unhappy. She shies away from her readers, worried that people will think she’s “ugly in person” or condemn her for shirking the “obligations” of fame. At home, her emotional needs go ignored. Her husband, Gert, starts sleeping with Gitte, the housekeeper Lise has used her new income to hire. Gitte seems to supplant Lise in her own home, leaving her more isolated and fragile. Lise begins suffering from frequent hallucinations that go unnoticed by her husband and teenage children. In order to escape her domestic misery, she overdoses on sleeping pills, hoping not to die but to be taken to a mental institution where, she feels sure, she’ll be in the company of “Friendly souls…women she could talk to.” She does wind up in the hospital, but there, she’s even more deeply alone. Her nurses, deeming her “undisciplined,” put her in a locked ward without company. Gert appears only in hallucinated form. Her mother comes once to scold her, saying, “You…have everything! And you’re famous, besides”—a moment that demonstrates how isolating fame can be. Lise’s mother denies her sympathy on the grounds that Lise no longer deserves it: She’s too successful to need maternal care.

Fame is as central to The Faces as marriage is to The Trouble With Happiness. It is the primary cause of Lise’s suffering and her invisibility; it is impossible to erase, though not necessarily impossible to escape. Indeed, Lise’s nervous breakdown may be a way of fleeing not only her solitude but the success that brought it about. But once the setting of The Faces moves into the locked hospital ward, Ditlevsen does something that she has not done in any of her stories: She starts introducing broad questions about the moral weight of public visibility. Lise’s mother’s friends suggest that “fame has its obligations,” a notion Lise wants to reject but cannot. Nor can she trust her own artistic resolve to “describe the world I saw, not to participate in it.” Is it truly valuable, the novel asks, to bear witness to suffering? Is there a difference between paying attention to widely known pain and paying attention to ignored pain? And regardless of what form of pain an artist chooses to represent, do her obligations change if and when she acquires a wide audience? Lise starts to have hallucinations of Gitte, who, in her phantom form, asks Lise why she does not worry “about the bombed children in Vietnam because you only love your own”? As both a writer and a citizen, Gitte insists, Lise is obligated to care equally about all sufferers.

Ditlevsen does not have Lise answer these questions but she does indirectly do so in the novel. The Faces is acutely interested in the conditions of psychiatric patients like Lise, who, on her voyages down the hospital halls in her “state-owned slippers,” resolves to “write to the Minister of Justice and tell him they ought to investigate the situation” in the institution, which seems to treat its patients harshly. Although the novel never transforms into the work of advocacy that Lise’s hallucinations lobby her to produce, it does demand that readers look squarely at Lise and her fellow patients, who are sequestered from society and rendered invisible by the state’s discomfort with and lack of compassion for the mentally ill. It also forces them to reckon with the impossibility of a guaranteed happy ending in stories like Lise’s—or, for that matter, like Ditlevsen’s own.

Ditlevsen does not allow readers to sidestep the fear and uncertainty that Lise herself feels. At the novel’s end, Lise remains fragile, flawed, and sick. She may leave the locked ward in the book’s final chapter, but she is still dogged by “remnants of her illness”—hallucinated faces and voices that seem unlikely to go away.

Neither Nunnally nor Goldman had the opportunity to collaborate with Ditlevsen, who died by suicide in 1976. She was famous enough that Nunnally, then a graduate student in Copenhagen, recalls that her funeral was discussed on the nightly news. Her legacy is a tremendous one for a translator to tackle—and as a translator myself, I consider Goldman’s and Nunnally’s renditions of The Copenhagen Trilogy, The Trouble With Happiness, and The Faces even more impressive given that they never met the author. It is no easy task to bear witness to one’s own suffering on the page. In some ways, translating that witness is just as difficult. Literary translation demands an unusual mix of critical reading and deep empathy that, to a certain extent, mirrors Ditlevsen’s blend of narrative coolness and commitment to bearing witness. Good translators must simultaneously analyze and inhabit the books they work on. Even tougher, they have to avoid imbuing their language with their own emotional reactions to the text, while still provoking those same emotions in their readers. Ditlevsen’s work is an excellent example of this challenge: It is impossible to read her fiction or memoirs without having intense reactions, but if either Nunnally or Goldman had made that emotion too palpable in their translations, they would have ruined the detachment on which Ditlevsen’s prose depends.

In an article in World Literature Today on translating Ditlevsen, Goldman writes that he found Dependency so wrenching that, while working on it, he at one point “broke down sobbing.” I cannot imagine that he could have produced a moving translation without the ability to respond in kind; the same goes for Nunnally. It is a true feat—and a true tribute to Ditlevsen—that they have given us translations as pitiless and as compelling as these.

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