This trilogy of autobiographical novellas from one of Denmark’s best-known poets and writers is one of the most striking memoirs I’ve read, reflecting on life, art and addiction with remarkable, matter-of-fact clarity and honesty.
Though autobiography is rarely my preferred literary genre, I’m more willing to read memoirs of a writer, even when I know absolutely nothing about them. I don’t know how well-known Tove Ditlevsen is outside of her native Denmark, but I’ve never heard of her until one day I read a blog review of her Copenhagen Trilogy, which piqued my interest.
I must confess, when I first picked up the book and leafed through it, my face fell at the sight of one of my biggest reading turn-offs: no paragraphs. Many chapters run as a pure wall of text, or with minimal indentations here and there. A massive paragraph in a book will often try my patience and I’ll find myself guiltily skipping to the next, more easily digestible paragraph. How would I manage an entire book like this?
If there was any sign that I was in the good, capable hands of a truly gifted writer, it’s that I raced through the book as if hypnotised. Ditlevsen’s prose is simple, precise and unadorned, with a real pulse behind it. You never feel bogged down in words and descriptions, instead it’s as if you are effortlessly riding along with a stream. What also makes the writing so immersive is that Ditlevsen primarily narrates from the perspective of herself as a young girl and later a young woman, only occasionally pulling away and making observations from the distance of years. This gives her memoirs a raw, immediate feel of journal entries.
Ditlevsen was born in the working class neighbourhood of Vesterbro, Copenhagen, in 1917. Her father, a socialist who often found himself out of work, was kind and distant; her mother was beautiful and had a mercurial temper. Tove is an unusually serious, melancholy child, a misfit with a love of books and a secret compulsion to write poetry. This compulsion will shape the rest of her life, but it also makes her feel hopelessly alienated from her surroundings, where her brightest prospect is a marriage to a “stable skilled worker” and no one can understand her longing to become a poet.
Despite the bleakness and the overwhelming sense of helplessness, Childhood was probably my favourite of the three novellas, mainly for the strong sense of time and place it evokes. Ditlevsen’s recollections of her Copenhagen feel as deeply personal, alive and specific as Naples in Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed novels. She recounts those early years, with its bright spots as well as darkness and cruelties, without any sentimentality or rose-tinted nostalgia. “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin,“ Ditlevsen writes, “and you can’t get out of it on your own.”
In Youth, Tove has a string of tedious jobs, as well as a string of disappointing relationships with the wrong men, while grasping at any chance to get a foothold in the world of writers and those who care about literature. In the second wrenching half of Dependency, Ditlevsen dispassionately chronicles her five years of addiction to Demerol and methadone, and her frankly terrifying third marriage to a doctor who was her enabler. It’s a truly chilling depiction of a toxic co-dependent relationship based on the denial of reality. These chapters are harrowing as Tove slowly disintegrates mentally and physically, and becomes incapable of writing. Though it ends on a semi-hopeful note, Ditlevsen is brutally honest about the fact that the ghost of addiction never leaves her.
Brutal honesty is in fact how I would sum up the principal appeal of the book. There’s something spellbinding about Ditlevsen’s clear, to-the-point writing style that seems to just tell it like it is, and doesn’t flinch away from occasionally casting her in an unflattering light. It’s strange that a book with so much sadness and tragedy can simultaneously feel so euphoric, yet such was the effect of these memoirs.