In her column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
It was the Danish writer Dorthe Nors who first introduced me to the work of her countrywoman, the poet, novelist, and memoirist Tove Ditlevsen. This was in spring 2018, when I was commissioning features for the first issue of The Second Shelf: Rare Books and Words by Women, the rare books catalogue–cum–literary magazine of which I’m the managing editor. “She is loved by generations of women and put down by generations of men,” Nors wrote in an email. “She was also nuts and quite extraordinary in her personal life. Many men, drug addictions, often submitted to mental institutions, and LOVED by women readers. I mean: LOVED!”
This was more than enough to intrigue me, but Nors’s finished piece, “The Suicide of Tove Ditlevsen,” only left me all the more fascinated. In it, Nors describes Ditlevsen—who was born in Vesterbro, a working-class district in Copenhagen, in 1917, and killed herself at age fifty-eight in 1976, after many years battling depression and addiction—as “the Billie Holiday of poetry, accessible, complex, and simple all at the same time. There’s a special mournful sweetness in the earlier poems that belongs to the girlish. Later, her prose turned the dreams and disappointments of life as a woman inside out.”
I was keen to read anything of Ditlevsen’s that I could, but despite what seemed to be her relatively steady popularity in Denmark, few of her books had been translated into English, and those that had were out of print and hard to track down. Then, in one of those joyfully serendipitous moments that do somehow seem to happen in the world of publishing, less than a year after we’d published Nors’s essay, I found myself having lunch with a publicist from the Penguin Classics list here in the UK who was raving about their forthcoming reissue of the forgotten Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s “astonishing” three-volume memoir, the Copenhagen Trilogy.
The minute the galleys arrived I fell on them greedily, hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed. I needn’t have worried. Ditlevsen’s autobiographical series—comprised of Childhood (Barndom; 1967), Youth (Ungdom; 1967), and Dependency (Gift; 1971)—is an absolute tour de force, the final volume in particular. They’re as brilliant as I’d been led to expect, but also surprisingly intense and elegant. Ditlevsen’s writing (Childhood and Youth are translated by Tiina Nunnally, and Dependency by Michael Favela Goldman) is crystal clear and vividly, painfully raw. Together, the trilogy tells the story of Ditlevsen’s journey as a writer; as a woman, wife, and mother; and, most candidly of all in that piercing final volume, as an addict. As the trilogy progresses, it becomes clear how deeply intertwined these three different threads of her life were.
With Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s publication next month of the Copenhagen Trilogy, it’s America’s turn to be gripped by “Tove fever.” Meanwhile, here in the UK, Penguin Classics is adding the first of Ditlevsen’s novels to its list: The Faces (Ansigterne, 1968). (The novel, in this, Tiina Nunnally’s, translation, was published in America back in 1991, by Fjord Press, but has fallen out of print in the years since.) It’s an inspired pick, especially for those readers, like myself, whose introduction to Ditlevsen’s work has been the Copenhagen Trilogy, not least because she wrote it alongside her memoirs, during a period of impressive creativity after what had been a shattering stretch of depression and writer’s block.
Ditlevsen was married four times, and her discovery of the delights of opioids contributes to the breakdown of the second of these relationships. As we learn in Dependency, after a fling with a student doctor named Carl, she finds out she’s pregnant. Unsure whether the baby belongs to him or her husband, Ebbe, she asks Carl for an abortion, which he agrees to perform himself. Having had a rather fraught time with a previous backstreet termination, Ditlevsen asks him for some kind of anaesthetic, and he readily obliges with a shot of the painkiller Demerol. “[A] bliss I have never felt before spreads through my entire body” is how Ditlevsen describes this Damascene moment. Immediately after the effects of the drug wear off, she’s desperate for her next hit. “Demerol,” she thinks, riding the streetcar home after the procedure is complete. “The name sounds like birdsong. I decide never to let go of this man who can give me such an indescribable blissful feeling.”
She knows that she’s “in love with a clear liquid in a syringe and not with the man who had the syringe,” but she leaves Ebbe for Carl. As soon as her divorce comes though, she walks down the aisle again, figuring that “once I was married to him it would be even easier to get him to give me shots.” He wants her to have his child, which she also agrees to without question: “Sure, I said immediately, because a child would bind Carl to me even more, and I wanted him with me for the rest of my life.”
So as to convince Carl to give her regular Demerol injections, she pretends an old ear complaint is still troubling her. He suggests she might need an operation—she’s dubious at first, caught in a bind, but when he tells her that she’ll be able to have all the Demerol she wants while recovering, that’s enough to convince her. While they search for a surgeon willing to perform the job, Carl gets his wife a prescription for methadone to tide her over when he’s not in the house with his hypodermic at hand.
It’s a truly flabbergasting state of affairs: the fact that Ditlevsen willingly undergoes a major surgical procedure she doesn’t need, and which ultimately leaves her permanently deaf in one ear. Indeed, her entire relationship with Carl reads like something out of a soap opera: the way he aides and abets her increasingly desperate addiction; the fact that relatively early on in their relationship, on discovering that another woman is pregnant with Carl’s child, Ditlevsen adopts the baby—“I didn’t think one child more or less made any difference,” she explains serenely—and raises it as her own, alongside her daughter (fathered by Ebbe) and her son (fathered by Carl); and perhaps most dramatic of all, the way their marriage culminates in Carl’s institutionalization for psychosis, at the very moment that Ditlevsen herself is first sent to rehab.
With the same gruesome, unflinching attention to detail with which Ditlevsen describes these real-life trials and tribulations in Dependency, in The Faces she tells the story of Lise Mundus, a forty-year-old wife, mother, and successful children’s book author, who loses her grip on sanity and finds herself in a parallel nightmarish world of psychiatric wards and hallucinations.
When we first meet Lise, she’s living with her philandering husband, Gert, her children, and the woman who works as the family’s housekeeper and nanny, Gitte. A relatively new addition to the household, Gitte is “the result” of Lise’s sudden rise to fame two years earlier, when she won a prestigious literary prize. Until that point, life had been easy. Her books had been “nicely reviewed in the women’s pages, had sold well,” but Lise herself had been “reassuringly overlooked by the world that was preoccupied with literature for adults.” Winning the prize changed this though:
Fame had brutally ripped away the veil that had always separated her from reality. She had given a thank-you speech that Gert had written for her, and during the speech she had been seized by her childhood fear of being unmasked, fear that someone would discover that she was putting on an act and pretending to be someone she was not.
Most unnerving of all though, Lise hasn’t been able to write another word since.
The Lise we meet in the opening pages of the novel is like a rabbit caught in the headlights. She’s wary, her various suspicions tipping over into full-blown paranoia. Her fears seem irrational, but just as she’s slipping into a sleeping-pill-assisted oblivion one night, her husband appears at her bedside, bringing with him the news that his lover, Grete, has committed suicide. Her marriage clearly has its problems. The next morning, Lise thinks she hears Gert and Gitte plotting to try to get her to do away with herself, just like Grete, but when she confronts them, they accuse her of confusing “dream and reality.” In an attempt to escape what she now thinks of as their evil clutches, she takes a massive overdose of sleeping pills then immediately calls her doctor for help: “Hell enveloped her and she hid her face in her hands. Tears slid down her cheeks and it felt like her face was melting and running through her fingers.”
Two days later, she wakes up in hospital—the “toxic trauma centre” to be exact—her throat raw from having had her stomach pumped. Physically, she’s in sound condition, but psychologically, she’s still struggling. She’s moved to the state hospital, and this is where things begin to go drastically downhill. She believes someone’s hidden a loudspeaker in her pillow, and she searches for it anxiously. Meanwhile, when the woman in the next bed introduces herself, Lise is shocked to see that her neighbor has the head of a donkey:
Frightened, she turned away without answering. Another donkey head was lying on that side, staring at her. She turned onto her back and looked up at the ceiling while her mind was convulsed with terror. She knew that there were institutions filled with deformed and monstrous human creatures who were kept hidden from the world, and who lived and died without anyone other than the hospital personnel ever seeing them. Had they brought her to that kind of place?
This is only the beginning of her torments. Patients sound like “wound-up dolls whose batteries were almost dead,” and Lise hears her husband speaking to her from behind the pipework and grating in the hospital bathroom. Then Gitte appears, dressed in a nurse’s uniform, offering a glass of juice. They’re still plotting to kill her, Lise realizes: “The liquid had dark particles on the bottom, and all at once she knew there was poison in it.”
By inviting the reader deep into the dark, troubled recesses of Lise’s mind—presenting what she hears and sees as hard facts, in exactly the way that Lise herself is experiencing it—Ditlevsen delves headfirst into the horrors of psychosis. But there’s also something transcendent about Lise’s experience: “Time raised its terrible wings and flew away toward a reality that was not her own. All weight was lifted from her, and she stared up into a blue sky that was studded with memories.” In yielding to the voices, Lise finds relief: “They spoke to her so tenderly that the sweetness of surrender filled her like a drug.”
“The fact that Ditlevsen was herself one of insanity’s intimates does much to explain this book’s harrowing authenticity,” wrote Susan Spano Wells in her New York Times review of the novel in 1991. Depression and addiction stalked Ditlevsen’s life from the very beginning. Her maternal grandfather was an alcoholic. “He drank a whole bottle of schnapps every day,” Ditlevsen’s mother tells her daughter in Childhood, “and in spite of everything, things were a lot better for us when he finally pulled himself together and hanged himself.” Theirs isn’t the only family in their neighborhood dealing with such problems. The courtyard below the building in which Ditlevsen grows up is thick with the “rancid stench of beer and urine,” and another little girl, Rapunzel—whose parents work at Carlsberg and “each drink fifty beers a day”—beat their daughter with a stick or attack each other with “bottles and broken chair legs.”
Although not physically abused herself, Ditlevsen still envisages childhood as bodily harm. “Wherever you turn, you run up against your childhood and hurt yourself because it’s sharp-edged and hard, and stops only when it has torn you completely apart,” she writes in Youth. It’s a sentiment that’s echoed in the early pages of The Faces, when Lise describes how attuned she is to the hidden terrors lurking in the corners of her home: “It was essential to remain completely still and avoid sudden movements so that whatever was inside the built-in cupboards, those disturbing cavities, would not come tumbling out with all the compressed terror of her entire childhood.” Ultimately, both Ditlevsen and Lise discover the act of writing provides a lifeline—it’s what Ditlevsen poignantly describes as her “only consolation in this uncertain, trembling world.”
This battle between her writing and the demons that plagued her raged right up to the very end of Ditlevsen’s life. It’s remarkable that she managed to publish as much work as she did, and of such high quality, given what else she was dealing with along the way. As Dependency draws to a close, we can see the dark conclusion to her life story beckoning—it was published only five years before she committed suicide. While wandering the city streets one dark night, Ditlevsen finds herself transfixed by the brightly lit window of a chemist’s shop. “I kept standing there,” she writes, “while the yearning for small white pills, which were so easy to get, rose inside me like a dark liquid. Horrified, I realised while I stood there 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.” By contrast, The Faces offers us the possibility of a more positive, albeit sadly fictional, future. In the final lines of the book, Lise—back at home, reunited with her family, and about to fall asleep—resolves that tomorrow she’ll start writing again.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.