Little known in the U.S., the writer Tove Ditlevsen (1917–1976) is widely beloved in her native Denmark. She wrote dozens of books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, but her crowning literary achievement is the Copenhagen Trilogy, a trio of frank, riveting memoirs published stateside by Farrar, Straus and Giroux earlier this week. An excerpt from the third volume, Dependency, newly translated from the Danish by Michael Favala Goldman, appears below.
Everything in the living room is green—the carpet, the walls, the curtains—and I am always inside it, like in a picture. I wake up every morning around five o’clock and sit down on the edge of the bed to write, curling my toes because of the cold. It’s the middle of May, and the heating is off. I sleep by myself in the living room, because Viggo F. has lived alone for so many years that he can’t get used to suddenly sleeping with another person. I understand, and it’s fine with me, because now I have these early morning hours all to myself. I’m writing my first novel, and Viggo F. doesn’t know. Somehow I think that if he knew, he would correct it and give me advice, like he does all the other young people who write in Wild Wheat, and then that would block the flow of sentences coursing through my brain all day long. I write by hand on cheap yellow vellum, because if I used his noisy typewriter, which is so old it belongs in the National Museum, it would wake him up. He sleeps in the bedroom looking out on the courtyard, and I don’t wake him until eight o’clock. Then he gets up in his white nightshirt with the red trim, and with an annoyed look on his face, he walks out to the bathroom. Meanwhile I make coffee for both of us and butter four pieces of bread. I put a lot of butter on two of them, because he loves anything fattening. I do whatever I can to please him, because I’m so thankful he married me. Although I know something still isn’t quite right, I carefully avoid thinking about that. For some incomprehensible reason, Viggo F. has never taken me in his arms, and that does bother me a little, as if I had a stone in my shoe. It bothers me a little because I think there must be something wrong with me, and that in some way I haven’t lived up to his expectations. When we sit across from each other, drinking coffee, he reads the newspaper, and I’m not allowed to talk to him. That’s when my courage drains away like sand in an hourglass; I don’t know why. I stare at his double chin, vibrating weakly, spilling out over the edge of his wing-tip collar. I stare at his small, dainty hands, moving in short, nervous jerks, and at his thick, gray hair which resembles a wig, because his ruddy, wrinkle-free face would better suit a bald man. When we finally do talk to each other, it’s about small, meaningless things—what he wants for dinner, or how we should fix the tear in the blackout curtains. I feel glad if he finds something cheerful in the newspaper, like the day when it said people could buy alcohol again, after the occupying forces had forbidden that for a week. I feel glad when he smiles at me with his single tooth, pats my hand, says goodbye, and leaves. He doesn’t want false teeth, because he says that in his family men die at fifty-six, and that’s only three years away, so he doesn’t want the expense. There’s no hiding the fact that he’s stingy, and that doesn’t really match the high value my mother put on being able to provide. He’s never given me a piece of clothing, and when we go out in the evening to visit some famous person, he takes the streetcar, while I have to ride my bicycle alongside it, speeding along so I can wave to him when he wants. I have to keep a household budget, and when he looks at it, he always thinks everything is too expensive. When I can’t get it to add up, I write “miscellaneous,” but he always makes a fuss about that, so I try not to miss any expenses. He also makes a fuss about having a housekeeper in the mornings, since I’m home anyway, doing nothing. But I can’t and won’t keep house, so he has no choice. I feel glad when I see him cut across the green lawn toward the streetcar, which stops right in front of the police station. I wave to him, and when I turn away from the window, I completely forget about him until he shows up again. I take a shower, look in the mirror, and think to myself that I am only twenty years old, and that it feels like I have been married for a generation. It feels like life beyond these green rooms is rushing by for other people as if to the sound of kettledrums and tom-toms. Meanwhile I am only twenty years old, and the days descend on me unnoticeably like dust, each one just like the rest.
After I get dressed, I talk with Mrs. Jensen about lunch and I make a list of what needs to be purchased. Mrs. Jensen is taciturn, introverted, and a bit insulted that she’s not alone in the house anymore, like she used to be. What nonsense, she mumbles, that a man of his age would marry such a young girl. She doesn’t say it so loud that I have to answer, and I can’t be bothered to listen to what she says. I’m thinking about my novel all the time, which I know the title of, though I’m not completely sure what it will be about. I’m just writing; maybe it will be good; maybe not. The most important thing is that I feel happy when I’m writing, just as I always have. I feel happy and I forget everything around me, until I pick up my brown shoulder bag and go shopping. Then I’m gripped again by the morning’s vague gloom, because all I see in the streets are loving couples walking hand in hand and looking deep into each other’s eyes. I almost can’t bear the sight of it. I realize I’ve never been in love, except for a brief episode two years before, when I walked home from the Olympia Bar with Kurt, who was going to be leaving the following day for Spain to take part in the civil war. He might be dead now, or maybe he came back and found himself another girl. Maybe I didn’t really have to marry Viggo F. to make it in the world. Maybe I only did it because my mother wanted me to so badly. I poke a finger into the meat to see if it feels tender. This is something my mother has taught me. And I write on my little notepaper what it costs, because I’ll forget before I get home. When the shopping is done and Mrs. Jensen has left, I put everything out of my mind so I can hammer away at the typewriter, now that it won’t disturb anyone.
My mother comes and visits me regularly, and together we can be pretty silly. A couple of days after I got married, she opened up the closet and looked through Viggo F.’s clothes. She calls him “Viggomand,” because she has just as much trouble as other people calling him by his real name. I can’t do it either, because there is something immature about the name Viggo when it’s not referring to a child. She held all his green clothing up to the light and found a set that was so moth-eaten, she thought it couldn’t be worn anymore. Mrs. Brun could use this to sew me a dress, she concluded. It was never any use to oppose my mother when she made a decision like that, so offering no resistance, I let her leave with the clothes, hoping that Viggo F. wouldn’t ask about it. Sometime later we visited my parents. We don’t do that very often, because there’s something about the way Viggo F. talks to them that I can’t stand. He speaks loudly and slowly, as if to mentally disabled children, and he searches carefully for subjects he thinks might interest them. We visited them, and suddenly he prodded me with a confidential elbow in my side. What a coincidence, he said, twirling his mustache between his thumb and forefinger. Did you notice that the fabric of your mother’s dress exactly matches a set of clothes I have hanging in the closet at home? Then my mother and I dashed from the room and burst out laughing.
During this period I feel very close to my mother, and I’m not harboring any deep and painful feelings about her anymore. She is two years younger than her son-in-law, and they never talk about anything except how I was as a child. I don’t recognize myself at all in my mother’s early impressions of me; it’s like they’re talking about a different child altogether. When my mother comes to visit, I stuff my novel away in my locked drawer in Viggo F.’s desk. I make coffee and we drink it while we chat. We talk about how good it is that my father has gotten steady work at the Ørsted factory, about Edvin’s cough, and about all the alarming symptoms from my mother’s internal organs, which have plagued her ever since Aunt Rosalia’s death. I think my mother is still pretty and youthful. She’s petite and her face is nearly wrinkle-free, just like Viggo F.’s. Her permed hair is thick as a doll’s, and she always sits on the edge of her chair, with a straight back and her hands on the handles of her purse. She sits the same way Aunt Rosalia always did when she only was going to stay “a brief moment,” and then didn’t leave until several hours had passed. My mother leaves before Viggo F. comes home from the fire insurance company, because he is usually in a bad mood then and doesn’t like it if anyone is here. He hates his work at the office and he hates the people there, too. He has something against everyone, I think, unless they happen to be artists.
After we’ve eaten and gone over the household budget, he usually asks how far I’ve come with The French Revolution, which is supposed to be part of my basic education, so I make sure that I have read at least a few new pages in it. After I’ve carried out the dishes, he lies down to rest on the divan, and I glance at the blue globe outside the police station, which illuminates the deserted courtyard with a glassy light. Then I roll down the shades, sit down, and read Carlyle until Viggo F. wakes up and wants coffee. While we drink it, and if we don’t have to go out to visit some famous person, a strange silence spreads between us. It’s as if everything we might have said to each other was used up before we were married, as if we spent all the words that ought to have lasted the next twenty-five years; because I don’t believe he’s going to die in three years. The only thing occupying my thoughts is my novel, and since I can’t talk about that, I don’t know what to talk about. A month ago, just after the occupation started, Viggo F. was alarmed because he thought the Germans were going to arrest him, since he had written an article in the Social-Demokraten about the concentration camps. So we talked about what might happen. And in the evening his equally frightened friends, who had similarly troubled consciences, came by. But now they all seem to have forgotten about the danger, and they live mostly as if nothing ever happened. Every day I’m afraid that he will ask me if I have finished reading his manuscript for the new novel he’ll be sending to Gyldendal Publishing. It’s lying on his desk, and I’ve tried to read it, but it’s so boring and wordy and full of knotty, incorrect sentences, that I don’t think I will ever be able to get through it. That also makes the atmosphere between us tense—that I don’t like his books. I’ve never said that out loud, but I’ve never praised them either. I’ve just said that I don’t understand much about literature.
Though our evenings at home are sad and uniform, I still prefer them to the evenings with the famous artists. When I am with them I’m gripped by shyness and awkwardness, and it’s as if my mouth were full of sawdust, because it’s impossible for me to come up with clever answers to their jovial remarks. They talk about their paintings, their exhibitions, or about their books, and they read aloud poems they have just written. For me, writing is like it was in my childhood, something secret and prohibited, shameful, something one sneaks into a corner to do when no one else is watching. They ask me what I am writing at the moment, and I say, Nothing. Viggo F. comes to my rescue. She’s reading right now, he says. You have to read an awful lot to be able to write prose, and that will be the next thing. He talks about me almost as if I weren’t present, and I’m relieved when we finally get up to go. When he’s with famous people, Viggo F. is a completely different person—cheerful, self-confident, witty—just like he was with me in the beginning.
One evening, out at the home of the illustrator Arne Ungermann, they mentioned wanting to gather together all the young people who are published in Wild Wheat, since they are most likely very lonely, scattered around Copenhagen. They would probably be happy to get to know one another. Then Tove could be the head of the association, says Viggo F., giving me a friendly smile. Thinking about that makes me happy, since otherwise I only see young people when they venture out to us with their work, and they barely even glance at me then, since I’m married to this important man. My elation frees up my tongue and I say it could be called “The Young Artists Club.” The idea draws general applause.
The next day I find the addresses in Viggo F.’s notebook, and in a few brief phrases I write a very formal letter in which I suggest a meeting at our home one particular evening in the near future. Then I deposit all the letters in the mailbox beside the police station, imagining how happy they will be, because I think that they’re poor and lonely like I was not long ago, and that they’re sitting in ice-cold, rented rooms all around the city. It occurs to me that Viggo F. knows me quite well after all. He knows I’m tired of only being around old people. He knows that I often feel suffocated by life in his green rooms, and that I can’t spend my entire youth reading about the French Revolution.
—Translated from the Danish by Michael Favala Goldman
Tove Ditlevsen was born in 1917 in a working-class neighborhood in Copenhagen. Her first volume of poetry was published when she was in her early twenties and was followed by many more books, including the three volumes of the Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood (1967), Youth (1967), and Dependency (1971). She died in 1976.
Michael Favala Goldman is a widely published translator of Danish literature, a poet, educator, and jazz clarinetist. More than a hundred of his translations have appeared in such journals as Harvard Review, World Literature Today, and Columbia Journal. Among his sixteen translated books are the Water Farm Trilogy, Farming Dreams, and Something to Live Up To: Selected Poems of Benny Andersen. His first book of poetry, Who has time for this?, came out in 2020. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Excerpted from Dependency: The Copenhagen Trilogy: Book 3, by Tove Ditlevsen, translated by Michael Favala Goldman. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 1971 by Tove Ditlevsen & Gyldendal, Copenhagen. Translation copyright © 2019 by Michael Favala Goldman. All rights reserved.