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Inga Wiehl: An intense trilogy of gripping memoirs

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copenhagen trilogy

I just finished reading Tove Ditlevsen’s trilogy, “The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood, Youth, Dependency,” which I read in high school in its original language, Danish. I would have liked that availability once again, but the English translation is very good so I can recommend reading the book.

The three volumes offer a series of memoirs dating back to Ditlevsen’s preschool days spent with her parents and older brother in the poor, rough neighborhood of Vesterbro in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is populated with workers who do or do not bring home their wages on a Friday afternoon. Those who do — and their offspring emulating their fathers — become the sought-after bridegrooms for girls like Tove.

Only Tove has no aspiration toward any such marriage. She is bright and a good student. As she enters first grade, the principal rebukes her mother for having taught Tove to read; her mother moves a step or two away from her child and says “faintly, ‘She learned it by herself, it’s not our fault.’” On that occasion, Tove registers that her mother is smaller than a number of other mothers, and younger. When she shies away it is because she is afraid of them, and stabbing her daughter in the back would be her only available defense.

Tove’s teachers recommend she continue on from middle school to high school. But that seems too much of a stretch on the family economy as her father is in and out of work and her mother is convinced that “anything written in books is a lie.” Her older brother, having begun his apprenticeship as a house painter, could add only a little money to the family coffers. Tove, too, had to make a monetary contribution. No butter for them. Margarine only.

The family’s outlook at Tove’s confirmation signaling the approaching end of formal schooling is recognizable to all of us who were confirmed in the Lutheran church. With that occasion, we were considered ready to enter into “the adult ranks,” which for many spelled the end of schooling and a job or apprenticeship. Tove made it through the ninth grade, and that was quite sufficient in the view of her parents. At the end of her confirmation day, with guests having left and dishes cleaned, Tove reads through her poetry album, “and, unawares,” she records, “childhood falls silently to the bottom of my memory, that library of the soul from which I will draw knowledge and experience for the rest of my life.”

Tove tries a variety of occupations. She nannies a boy, a job which ends on the first day with her scrubbing the mother’s grand piano, her initial effort at house cleaning. Her second job is cooking and cleaning in the “sooty, greasy kitchen” of a boarding house for women. Her goal is an office job paying enough for her to rent a room in town. Achieving that, she learns that her landlady is a woman who will listen to Hitler’s harangues but complains about the noise of Tove’s typewriter. They settle for her writing during agreed upon hours.

Her books of poetry, novels and stories show her determination before that typewriter, for they came at a cost. Words crawling “across (her) soul like a protective membrane” protected and separated her from her mother’s increasing hostility but intensifies her aloneness. A friend’s introduction to the writer and literary critic Viggo F. Moller, editor of the literary magazine Wild Wheat, launched her. He published her poems and introduced her to the literary scene. When she married him, she had arrived.

Only Moller was 30 years her senior. Tove wanted a home and children, which he could not give her. Her second husband, a contemporary and fellow writer, fathered their daughter. She could not, however, hold the marriage bonds together and keep up her writing. So they divorced, and Tove married a doctor who against his better knowledge feeds her Demerol to which she becomes addicted to the extent she desires only oblivion. Whereas “Childhood” and “Youth” both appeared in 1967, “Dependency” was published in 1971.

Considering the topic of “Dependency,” it would seem reasonable to think it was four years in the making. But no. Going through her third divorce and a return to a pre-addictive state, Tove keeps writing and publishes “Faces,” a novel developing the mental breakdown of a children’s author “with all the vividness of lived experience.” That novel readied her for “Dependency,” which, like the two earlier novels, deals with her own breakdown and subsequent return to life with her children and a faithful young nanny, who has stayed the course over the years of a missing mistress. In the process, Ditlevsen has learned that the opposite of fear of life and other people’s faces is not happiness, but hope. With that knowledge, she keeps writing till her suicide in 1976, leaving behind 11 books of poetry, seven novels and four collections of stories.

Returning to the title of the trilogy, “Childhood, Youth, Dependency,” a Danish reader would recognize the first two words as literal translations of Barndom and Ungdom. Dependency, however, is a translation of the Danish title Gift, which as a noun means “poison” and, as an adjective, “married.” Given that Tove is married three times to three different men in the course of about 10 years, that reader is likely to conclude that she is using that title for all it is worth.

• Inga Wiehl is a writer and retired Yakima Valley College English professor. She has a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington, and has taught there and at the universities of Utah and Texas. She has written four nonfiction books and writes about books for SCENE in an occasional column.

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