The Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen spent her childhood in a state of perpetually dashed hope. Yearning for her mother’s love, she received only her laughter. She befriended a local girl, who really only paid attention to her when Ditlevsen was almost killed by a train. “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin,” Ditlevsen writes in Childhood, the first volume in The Copenhagen Trilogy, “and you can’t get out of it on your own.”
In these memoirs, Ditlevsen retreats behind a mask of silence, pretending to be ignorant rather than innocent. She secretly writes poems that separate her, “unwillingly, from those I should be closest to,” another sort of mask altogether. The mood is sepulchral. The courtyard wall opposite her window is “always crying as if it’s just rained.” She can’t get away fast enough. And yet, once Ditlevsen exits childhood, she looks back to find a period of golden innocence, “that library of the soul from which I will draw knowledge and experience for the rest of my life.” Life cannot be understood, or even appreciated, as it is lived, but only in retrospect.
Born into a working-class family in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighborhood in 1917, Ditlevsen published her first poems while still in her late teens. She would go on to write more than forty books, including novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, and poetry collections, and win a number of awards, including the prestigious Søren Gyldendal Prize. She wrote the three memoirs between 1967 and 1971—Childhood and Youth, both translated in the 1980s by Tiina Nunnally; and Dependency, recently translated by Michael Favala Goldman for this new edition of The Copenhagen Trilogy. Five years later, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
The trilogy covers the years between Ditlevsen’s birth and her marriage to her fourth husband in 1951. In between these events, it covers a lot of ground, private and public: urban poverty between the wars, the menial jobs afforded to a young woman, the formation of an artist, and the trials of marriage. Ditlevsen works in a boarding house, a printmaking shop, and various government ministries. She writes and publishes several books of fiction and poetry, and even dines with Evelyn Waugh.
But the big events are not Ditlevsen’s main focus. Her writing flattens dramatic moments—the fights between her parents, her first sexual experiences, several births and several abortions—latching instead onto seemingly stray, insignificant details: how her grandmother “smooths down her dress as if defending herself from an unpleasant impression;” the publisher whose complexion is “pink and white and transparent like a child’s.” She has a wonderful memory for expression, like the man whose “solid, durable face” seems “made to last his whole life.” Other people flit ambiently through the book, little bundles of more or less striking traits but fundamentally alien to Ditlevsen.