Copenhagen Trilogy review: Tove Ditlevsen’s memoir is a masterpiece
January 29, 2021
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“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin,” writes Danish author Tove Ditlevsen in her unnervingly brilliant memoir The Copenhagen Trilogy, “and you can’t get out of it on your own.” The Copenhagen Trilogy, now published in the US in full for the first time, is Ditlevsen’s story of trying assiduously to climb out of the coffin of childhood: that state of miserable vulnerability, that state from which power is impossible to grasp, that state of shame.

Ditlevsen marries four times. She becomes one of Denmark’s most celebrated poets. Her work is now required reading in Danish schools, and she is recognized as one of the originators of the autofiction genre of the memoir-novel hybrid, with a direct line between Ditlevsen and the 2010s phenomenon of Karl Ove Knausgård. Still, she never fully escapes the coffin.

Ditlevsen published her memoir in three volumes between 1967 and 1971: Childhood (Barndom in Danish), Youth (Ungdom), and finally, Dependency (Gift). The first two volumes, translated into English by Tiina Nunnally, have been available in the US since 1985, but this is the first time the final volume, translated by Michael Favala Goldman, has made it to our shores. All three are now bound together in the plain-boned, clear-eyed Copenhagen Trilogy, and taken together, they form a masterpiece.

Throughout all three volumes, Ditlevsen writes almost entirely from the point of view of her younger self, giving her child narrator a child’s understanding of the world. It’s a disarmingly ingenious literary technique, and it allows Ditlevsen to present her younger self to the world without apology. Ditlevsen the character feels shame, because childhood, as Ditlevsen writes it, is a state of shame, one that will always tar us. But Ditlevsen the writer makes no excuses for herself. Her life is her life, and we are free to think of it what we wish.

Only occasionally and jarringly does she allow her current state of hindsight to steal into the text. When she does, it is crushing. The moment she tells her second husband that their marriage is over is the same moment she tells the reader that her second husband is now dead.

The version of her child self that Ditlevsen offers us is naive, but likably so. She is certain of exactly what she wants, which is at first relatable, then attractive, and finally, in the end, devastating.

She wants to climb out of the coffin of childhood. She wants to become an adult: to get married, to find a good husband who will support her, to have children. She wants to become a great woman poet. She wants to transcend her parents’ social class so that she can live a comfortable life. She wants to avoid the trap her mother tells her every day to never fall into: having a baby before she turns 18 and finding herself stuck in the slums forever.

That all of these wants are presented to us with such a straight face, even when they are unflattering, is part of what gives The Copenhagen Trilogy its enormous emotional power. It is a story about wanting, about a giant and constantly vexed ambition, offered up to us simply and straightforwardly, as though the book were a pool of clear water and we can see all the way down to the bottom. It’s only when we wade in that we start to realize just how deep the pool is, how numbingly cold its depths.

I could not read through Ditlevsen’s life with a dispassion that matched the calm of her narrative voice. During the worst of it, I found myself throwing down my copy of the book to get up and pace furiously, desperate to get out of that head, that mental space where agony was being observed and recorded with such a clear-eyed lack of sentiment.

But every time I was compelled to return. Her dispassionate, willfully naive voice drew me back inexorably. I felt an almost physical pull to reimmerse myself in the freezing cold water of the trilogy, which understands the trauma of childhood and its reverberations like nothing else I have ever read.

At the root of everything is Ditlevsen’s mother. (I will note here, on the dreaded issue of the Bad Mother, that as an adult submitting her first novel, Ditlevsen would be accused of reading too much Freud. She’d never even heard of Freud, she tells us.) Ditlevsen’s mother is young, beautiful, and mercurial of temper. She flatly tells her children that she’s never much cared for children. She can only stand the young Ditlevsen when Ditlevsen is pretending not to be a child, but as soon as Ditlevsen’s childhood asserts itself, so does her mother’s violent rage. Ditlevsen understands her world to be one of conflict: They are poor and young and female in pre-World War II Denmark, so everyone is out to get them. It’s her and her mother against the world. But Ditlevsen knows that given the choice, her mother will always pick the world over her daughter.

Ditlevsen’s father is comparatively comforting, a taciturn socialist who has little to say to his daughter but also few mysteries. She can ask him anything, she tells us, but she mostly doesn’t bother to. She knows his feelings on most matters. He is not helpful with her mother.

Neither of Ditlevsen’s parents understand her longing to become a poet. Her mother doesn’t care for books; her father does, but believes girls should not write poetry. Her brother finds Ditlevsen’s racy preteen love poems and howls with laughter. “You’re really full of lies,” he cries.

He’s right to laugh. One of the things that helps make this book a pleasure despite Ditlevsen’s many sorrows is her deadpan humor, perhaps especially when it comes to showing us her own adolescent work. Here’s the verse that drove her brother to such hilarity:

You took me in your arms so strong.
Lovingly you kissed me.
Never, never will I forget
that hour spent with thee.

They’re all like that during this period, overwrought melodrama about sex and death. When she finally gets her poems in front of an editor at age 14, he is astonished. “They’re very sensual, aren’t they?” he asks. When Ditlevsen ventures that not all of the poems are sensual, he is emphatic: “But the sensual ones are the best, by God.”

The editor tells Ditlevsen to come back and see him in a couple of years. Before she makes it back, he’s dead. The next mentor she comes across is a dirty old man who lets her borrow books of poetry while he ogles her pretty friends. Tragedy has a way of compounding on her to almost comic excess: One day when she comes to see him, his building has been blown up and he’s nowhere to be found.

Ditlevsen, in the meantime, has finished her formal schooling, because all girls of her social class leave school at age 14 after being confirmed in the Catholic church. As she struggles throughout her teens to find a way to sell her writing, she works a series of mind-numbingly awful jobs — as a maid, where she ruins a grand piano after washing it with water and a brush; as a tutor for a little boy who points imaginary guns at her; as a clerk at a nursing supply store that fires her when she advises others to join a union.

Writing offers Ditlevsen a mental escape from the drudgery of daily life in her teens, because when she writes, “Long, mysterious words began to crawl across my soul like a protective membrane.” It alternately offers her the hope of a practical escape: If she can make a living through her pen, she won’t have to work as a maid.

Ditlevsen’s experience of life — the example of her mother, of the neighborhood girls whom she watches one by one fall pregnant and marry, usually in that order — has taught her that the way a girl finds a stable position in life is through a man. In her head, the idea of a man who might read her poetry and grant her entrée to the world of literature is equivalent to the idea of a man who might marry her and provide her with a stable life. As she reaches the age of 18 and finally finds an editor willing to publish one of her poems, she is ready to marry this man, she tells us, “sight unseen.”

Ditlevsen does marry that editor. He turns out to be six years older than her mother, and she finds their marriage sexless and isolating. She leaves him for a cad her own age who writes identical love letters to all his mistresses, addressing each one as “Kitten.” She doesn’t marry that man, but she does marry her next boyfriend, Ebbe, though his friends and family alike warn her that he has a weak personality and she’ll have to provide for them.

Nevertheless, their marriage is a mostly functional one; however, after they have a baby, Ebbe, who never wanted a child, begins to drink heavily, and their sex life dries up. And as Ditlevsen’s literary star begins to rise, she mocks Ebbe’s half-hearted political convictions. The German occupation of Denmark has begun by this point, and he joins the resistance against them. Ditlevsen tells him he should leave such things to men without wives and children.

It is in this period that Ditlevsen at last meets her long-desired goal of supporting herself through her writing, when she begins to become a genuine artist. She is celebrated throughout Denmark. She meets Evelyn Waugh. She builds the reputation that The Copenhagen Trilogy will eventually cement. Then her personal life falls apart.

On a whim and under the influence of a great deal of alcohol, Ditlevsen cheats with a young doctor whom she finds, when she’s sober, to be appallingly ugly and dull. (He has an underbite and a double row of teeth.) She winds up pregnant, and having had a bad experience with a back-alley abortion once before, she goes back to the young doctor to ask for his help. It’s here that the memoir takes its final and most devastating turn.

“I can help you with that,” says the doctor, Carl, who invites Ditlevsen to his home, where he’ll perform the procedure himself. He also says that since they met, he’s read everything she’s ever written, that they would have “a fine child” together, that he would like to marry her. But he adds that “it probably wouldn’t be such a great idea to marry [him],” because “I have to tell you that I am a little crazy.”

When Ditlevsen comes to Carl’s house for her abortion, she asks for an anesthetic and he injects her with the opioid Demerol. “A bliss I have never before felt spreads through my entire body,” Ditlevsen writes. As soon as the procedure is over, “I decide never to let go of this man who can give me such an indescribable blissful feeling.”

All of these marriages take place in the last volume of the trilogy, Dependency. Its Danish title, Gift, translates to both married and poison. In English, dependency can refer to both the dependency a wife might feel toward her husband — especially in a society shaped by systemic sexism, where the default idea is that a husband must provide for his wife — and the dependency an addict feels toward their drug. Ditlevsen feels intensely all four meanings of the pun in the title.

She leaves Ebbe for Carl. She marries him, has a child with him, and agrees to adopt his child with another woman so that she can bind him to her as closely as possible and always have access to more Demerol. She tells him she suffers from chronic earaches.

Carl cheerfully provides Ditlevsen with dose after dose of Demerol, occasionally varying the routine with methadone but remarking that she doesn’t have the makings of a “real addict.” He likes to go to bed with her when she’s high because he “like[s] passive women.” He is fond of suggesting she take a dose of Demerol instead of going out with her friends. He suggests she get an operation on that problem ear, taking her from doctor to doctor until he finds one willing to perform it. The operation leaves her deaf in one ear, but it’s worth it, Ditlevsen writes, because afterward she can have unlimited Demerol.

All of this goes on for five years. By the time those five years have passed and she’s reached rock bottom, Ditlevsen weighs 65 pounds and is bedridden.

Eventually she makes her way to a phone and calls a reputable doctor. Carl is committed to a psych ward for psychosis, and Ditlevsen to a rehab facility. She describes her detox in harrowing detail. I started to wonder why anyone ever bothered making up the propaganda in Go Ask Alice when they could have just passed this account around schools, after which no one would ever do drugs again.

The tragedy of Ditlevsen’s addiction is all the more appalling because it keeps her from writing, which is all she truly cares about. It becomes one more thing placed in the way of that enormous ambition: Words, which have been her greatest comfort and escape since childhood, are no longer accessible to her. Even the sardonic dry humor that carried Ditlevsen through her fraught relationship with her parents, the poverty of her teens, her disastrous first marriage and divorce — that, too, falls away here. All that’s left is the bare fact of her addiction, presented to us with great and devastating simplicity.

After her rehabilitation, Ditlevsen briefly believes herself to be cured for good. It feels so good to be healthy once more, and she remembers so vividly what it was like to be clutched by addiction: How could she ever let such a thing happen to her again?

Then she finds herself outside of a pharmacy window, looking at a display of methadone. “I realized,” she writes, “that the longing was inside me like rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own, even though you want nothing to do with it.”

In a brief epilogue, Ditlevsen relapses repeatedly. She does not reach the levels of physical horror she reached with Carl, and her fourth husband refuses to enable her addiction. But she’s never able to escape it, either. She dies by suicide in 1976, and a thousand people follow her coffin through the streets. In the end, that vexed ambition triumphs over everything.

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