(Hilton Als’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 2/8. PHOTO: Photograph from AKG / TT News Agency. )
The Danish memoirist built a literature of disaster, brick by brick.
Don’t think yourself odd if, after reading the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s romantic, spiritually macabre, and ultimately devastating collection of memoirs, “The Copenhagen Trilogy” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), you spend hours, if not days, in a reverie of alienation. It’s because the author, who died by her own hand in 1976, when she was fifty-eight, makes profound and exciting art out of estrangement. Like a number of dispassionate, poetic modernists—the writers Jean Rhys and Octavia Butler, say, or the visual artists Alice Neel and Diane Arbus—Ditlevsen was marked, wounded, by her own sharp intelligence. Her world—the world she describes in “Childhood,” “Youth,” and “Dependency,” the three short books that make up the trilogy—was cash poor, emotionally mean, and misogynist. The sun must have shone sometimes in Denmark before and during the Second World War, but the atmosphere in “The Copenhagen Trilogy” is damp, dark, and flowerless. It’s not so surprising, then, that one of the first works Ditlevsen published, as a teen-ager, was a poem titled “To My Dead Child”:
I never heard your little voice.
Your pale lips never smiled at me.
And the kick of your tiny feet
Is something I will never see. . . .
See how I kiss your icy hand,
happy to be with you yet awhile,
silently I kiss you, weeping not,—
though the tears are burning in my throat.
In this attempt to imagine a mother’s repressed grief at the stillbirth of a child, Ditlevsen, who went on to publish more than twenty volumes of verse, fiction, children’s literature, and memoir, was beginning to explore the territory she masters in the trilogy’s terse, cinematic chapters: the drama and the particularity of disappointment.
You can’t be disappointed without first having hoped. As a little girl, Ditlevsen yearned for a complete union with her mother. “Childhood” (which was published in Danish in 1967 and is translated here by Tiina Nunnally) opens with the five-year-old Tove living with her parents, Alfrida and Ditlev, and her older brother, Edvin, in a small apartment in Vesterbro, the red-light district of Copenhagen. Times are hard. But they’ve always been hard. Tove’s parents met while both were employed at a bakery before the First World War. Ditlev, who was ten years Alfrida’s senior, had been sent to work as a shepherd when he was six. Social advancement was connected to economic advancement, and you couldn’t achieve either without an education. But higher education—or high school—was not an option if you were penniless, like Ditlev. A bookish socialist who wanted to be a writer—a dream that “never really left him,” according to his daughter—he was eventually hired as an apprentice reporter at a newspaper, but, “for unknown reasons,” he gave up the job. In any case, Ditlev’s love of words can’t compete with Alfrida’s constant arias of disillusionment. Alfrida is unhappy with the life she has made with her husband, but what can she do? She’s a woman. And poor. Her life is limited. Still, she makes an opera out of her dissatisfaction, and Tove is her rapt audience. Being an audience is one way to be loved. Being silent is another. Ditlevsen writes:
In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper. . . . Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window. On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child. Below the picture it said, “Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.” Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad. But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once. . . . [I]f I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me. Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us. And my heart could have still whispered “Mother” for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it. . . . Then something like love would have filled the whole world.
No mother is ordinary to her child. She is always as beautiful, confusing, and monumental as the world. It’s only when the child grows up that the parent becomes ordinary—which is to say, human. Part of the work of becoming an adult is figuring out how to reconcile your vision of your parents with who they actually are. Ditlevsen’s early obsession with writing may not have given her insight into that process, but she did learn how to use language to describe the rejecting force of Alfrida’s various gripes and dismissals. By the age of seven or so, Ditlevsen knew that writing was her vocation, and that, as such, it would separate her, “unwillingly, from those I should be closest to”; the gravitational pull of creativity would tear her away from her family, as it does to so many writers, even as she tore her family apart, the better to see it and tell its story.