By the time Tove Ditlevsen committed suicide in 1976, she was one of Denmark’s most popular and acclaimed writers. In the fifty-eight years of her life, she’d had two children and custody of a third, and four husbands. She’d soared out of poverty, and all told, she’d published about thirty books—primarily collections of poetry but also novels, memoirs, stories, and children’s books. She’d written magazine pieces, too, and, of all things, an advice column.
The information readily available about her in English is oddly sketchy, and little of her work has been translated into English, but what we have includes her memoir, The Copenhagen Trilogy, and a novel, The Faces. Both were published in Danish between 1967 and 1971, though neither was translated into English until years later.
The Copenhagen Trilogy and The Faces are very different books, but they draw on the same material—Ditlevsen’s life—and both display a distinctive style; an uncanny vividness; a gift for conveying atmospheres and mental sensations and personalities with remarkable dispatch; the originality and deadpan, trapdoor humor of the significantly estranged; a startling frankness; and a terrible commotion of unresolved conflicts and torments. Both books also accelerate from zero to sixty before anyone has a chance to buckle up.
The Faces starts right off with the protagonist, Lise Mundus, experiencing flickerings of delusion, which in short order explode into full-blown psychosis. It’s generally a poor idea to go rooting around in a work of fiction for clues to its author’s life and psyche, but the invitation here is so unequivocal it seems boorish to turn it down. Among other parallels Mundus is, like the author, a famous writer, and like the author she is suffering from marital problems as well as the inability to work that’s known rather emptily as “writer’s block”; Mundus was the maiden name of Ditlevsen’s mother (who once urged her daughter to use it as a nom de plume); and Ditlevsen herself endured several institutionalizations.
In its articulation of deeply oppressive anxieties—concerning fame, class, love, money, aging, identity, autonomy, feelings of fraudulence, and the question of a writer’s responsibilities concerning social issues, to name a few—writing clearly provided her, in this instance at least, with an orienting echo. Paradoxically, the novel’s explicit portrait of Mundus sheds more light on some of the concrete matters that bedeviled Ditlevsen than does her strictly autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy.
The most conspicuous difference between The Faces and The Copenhagen Trilogy is tone. The Faces crackles and seethes with rage. Treachery, cruelty, and malevolent stupidity encroach on Mundus from every direction, and perhaps the greatest dramatic satisfaction the book offers is its courtroom feeling of ambient culpability: Lise Mundus v. husband, housekeeper, children, and world—and vice versa.
The Copenhagen Trilogy, by contrast, is fastidiously unjudgmental toward those who people it, including its author, though an autobiographical account is an ideal vehicle of complaint. The reader of autobiographical material more or less expects allocations of blame, at least implicit ones, often neatly dovetailing with lurid confession—in other words, a satisfyingly simple, easily understood way to interpret a life, though nothing of that sort can be entirely accurate or honest. Humans, to be blunt, rarely have the faintest idea why we do what we do, but we yearn and pretend to understand, spinning out explanation after explanation. One can’t comfortably premise one’s life on this great void in human understanding, but a memoir that accommodates it is bracing, as well as profoundly unsettling.
Memoirs and autobiographies have their own, very individual purposes, but however complex and mysterious the author’s motives, they reveal things no other sort of account can—while foreclosing alternative views. An outline of Ditlevsen’s behavior, and that of others who appear in The Copenhagen Trilogy, would include a lot that you don’t want to encounter in your parent, child, lover, or spouse, but we are asked neither to condemn nor to forgive—only to look. The author presents herself to us with very little editorializing and, it seems, very little varnish.
The narrative of The Copenhagen Trilogy is governed, like the narratives of other memoirs, by the exigencies of memory within the fluid time of the mind—and also by the fact that in reality, as opposed to fiction, it’s reality, not some writer, that gets to decide what comes first and what next.
There are plenty of lacunae in The Copenhagen Trilogy and some apparent inconsistencies, but its seductive sheen is irresistible, and, after all, it’s the memoir of a poet, not a dossier. There are no inert sentences, nothing that feels forced or written for effect. The language is elegant—as natural, responsive, and true as wet clay—and the observations provide the pleasurable shock of precision, rather than the sort of approximation we have more reason to expect when reading. Ditlevsen stays remarkably faithful to the unformulated consciousness of the moment. Clichés about poverty are absent, and no scene is distorted or obscured by the usual sediment of consolatory and sentimental attitudes. The experience is overwhelming—it’s as if Ditlevsen has moved into your head and rearranged all the furniture, and not necessarily for your comfort. The book is as propulsive as the most tightly plotted thriller; even when you want to put it down, it seems to adhere to your hands.
The three short volumes that constitute The Copenhagen Trilogy are “Childhood,” “Youth,” and “Dependency,” and the trajectory brings Ditlevsen from the strangeness of childhood—the awkwardness of finding oneself set down on the planet without having quite the right equipment or quite the right shape to exist on it—through the period of exploration and discovery following her graduation from middle school at the age of fourteen, and ultimately into the gothic nightmare of her maturity.
“Childhood” opens with little Tove’s beautiful mother, Alfrida, sitting absently over the newspaper reports of the Treaty of Versailles and the Spanish flu:
My mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old….
Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window. On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child. Below the picture it said, “Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.” Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad. But my mother burst out laughing….
When hope had been crushed like that, my mother would get dressed with violent and irritated movements, as if every piece of clothing were an insult to her…. [Her] dark anger always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove…. I carried the cups out to the kitchen, and inside of me long, mysterious words began to crawl across my soul like a protective membrane. A song, a poem, something soothing and rhythmic and immensely pensive.
The spell is so intense, the hand so light, that you hardly know how you came to find yourself enclosed in this snow globe with a terrifyingly volatile mother; a possibly self-deluding father; an economic and historical setting; a tiny, incipient author who can already conceal and fortify herself within a protective bower of words; and raging storms of love, fear, resentment, isolation, desire, shame, delight, grief, and pity.
Tove was born in 1917, so it’s unlikely she could read 1918’s news, but as she writes in The Faces, “She never thought ‘yesterday’ or ‘tonight,’ but always ‘once.’” She was “Mother’s girl,” she tells us in “Childhood,” though her mother hit her “often and hard,” and she had little feeling for her father, Ditlev, who never hit her and, on the contrary, was always kind to her. “All of my childhood books were his, and on my fifth birthday he gave me a wonderful edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, without which my childhood would have been gray and dreary and impoverished.”
Ditlev, who was sent out as a shepherd at the age of six, once had literary ambitions of his own, though by the time Tove was a child he worked, she tells us, as a stoker. He lost his regular job when she was seven and subsequently was often unemployed, but Tove’s family was not as poor as her parents had been growing up, and it was relatively peaceable and affectionate, despite the unrelenting frustrations of hardship: she slept with her parents, her brother in the other room, and although the family never actually starved, at times there wasn’t enough food; her front teeth were pitted from rickets until she was an adult and could have them fixed.
A slightly creepy fairy-tale mist, courtesy of the Brothers Grimm, clings to the Copenhagen neighborhood of Vesterbro where Tove grows up. Downstairs lives Rapunzel with her long golden braid, whose parents both work at the Carlsberg brewery and “each drink fifty beers a day.” When they come home they keep drinking and beat Rapunzel, who always comes to school with bruises. “When they get tired of beating her, they attack each other with bottles and broken chair legs” until, invariably, the police come, to the disapproval of Tove’s parents, who “think Rapunzel’s parents should be allowed to kill each other in peace if they want to.”
In the adjacent apartment is the “spiritlike” Ketty, who looks like Snow White in her white fur, silver high heels, and yellow silk dress—a “beautiful sight that cheers my heart night after night,” though Ditlev says, bewilderingly:
It’s scandalous when there are children around…. My mother doesn’t say anything, because during the day she and I are often over in Ketty’s living room drinking coffee or hot chocolate. It’s a wonderful room, where all the furniture is red plush.
Although Tove’s parents don’t fight, they know how to wound each other in sensitive spots. Alfrida disdains Ditlev’s love of books as well as his politics: “My father was a scoundrel and a drunkard,” she says, “but at least he wasn’t a socialist.” And Ditlev isn’t above callously spoiling his lively, girlish wife’s moments of joy.
A dutiful joylessness seems in fact to have been rather a specialty of the “melancholy, serious, unusually moralistic” Ditlev, though the burden falls mainly on Tove’s wonderfully promising older brother, Edvin, who seems destined to have a future as a “skilled worker”—which, according to the author, ensures a future of cloth instead of newspaper on the table and eating with a knife and fork. To this end, Ditlev refuses to allow Edvin to quit his car-painting apprenticeship, although Edvin hates the job passionately and the cellulose lacquer is destroying his lungs.
Tove is under no such pressure; girls are supposed to marry “a stable skilled worker who doesn’t drink,” be supported, and have babies, or else find a steady job. When, as a small child, Tove announces that she wants to be a poet, Ditlev’s response is “Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet.” But she was born irrepressibly a poet, and although for years after the incident she kept her aspirations to herself, it didn’t stop her from writing poems throughout her childhood.
Like many mother’s girls who have scary, unpredictable mothers, Tove became especially adept, especially early, at concealing her “true self”—a skill that eventually got a stranglehold on her. But there’s one thing she does not have to conceal from her mother: her intelligence, which Alfrida tries, poignantly, to leverage into a bit of special standing. “Poor people’s children can have brains too,” she announces.
When Tove turns six, Alfrida enrolls her in school, proudly telling the rude, witchy principal that her daughter “can read and write without mistakes.” The chilly response is “‘That’s too bad…. We have our own method for teaching that to children, you know.’… My mother moves a little bit away from me and says faintly, ‘She learned it by herself, it’s not our fault.’” And like many mother’s girls who empathize with their mothers’ suffering, Tove experiences in herself Alfrida’s shame, whether she is cause or witness.
Unsurprisingly, Tove is a weirdo, and she exhibits various peculiarities in addition to brains that seem often to appear in a constellation along with a drive to make things out of words: she doesn’t really know how to play (I was elated to learn that like me she was baffled by hopscotch), at times she seems amazingly obtuse, she risks bursting into tears when she encounters beauty, she’s unusually sensitive and unusually self-involved, she’s repelled by coarseness or an ugly use of language, she often doesn’t get the joke or the point, and she can be hilariously literal-minded.
Her parents allow her to go to middle school, where she will be among “better” people, and for a while she can stave off the terrifying prospect of fending for herself in the wide world. Her father is not too moralistic, it seems, to write her papers with or for her, though the results can be a bit bizarre. But it is understood that her education is to end with graduation from middle school and her confirmation, after which she’s to find a job and pay her room and board at home—at least until she’s allowed to move out at eighteen.
The implacable future is at the threshold, and the distress and sheer peculiarity of childhood are burning off, leaving Tove with only an ashy residue of warmth and comfort:
I read in my poetry album while the night wanders past the window—and, unawares, my 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.
“Being young is itself temporary, fragile, and ephemeral,” the author writes in “Youth.” “You have to get through it—it has no other meaning.” And by implication, you have to get through it to something—the place that’s waiting for you in the world. Tove has envisioned her place from the start: she has a vague desire “to break into high society someday,” but that is subsidiary to her fierce drive to write poems and become known for them.
The writing poems part is no obstacle. The private act of writing is the core of her being, her desperately needed peace and pleasure. But how on earth is she going to find anybody who’s interested in reading or publishing her poems?
Luck is the only real resource for young people whose ambition is in no way matched by privilege, and Tove turns out to have a few lucky encounters as she wanders through the forest of things arbitrarily chosen by life—jobs, habitations, boyfriends, and so on—that must be gotten through. A friend of her brother knows an editor who reads her poetry and tells her kindly to get back in touch with him when she writes some poems for adults. It’s hardly the response she was hoping for, but on the other hand it’s a serious one, and it resides in her mind as a distant, guiding star until one day by chance she sees in the newspaper that the editor has died.
Sometime later Mr. Krogh appears in her life. He is the first truly kindred spirit she has ever encountered, aside from her beloved little thieving childhood friend, Ruth, though he and Ruth occupy the opposite—or oppositish—ends of some spectrum. Strangely enough, it is Ruth herself who effects the improbable introduction. Mr. Krogh has offered, not very credibly, to introduce Ruth to somebody who can give her a job as a chorus girl, and Ruth brings her friend along as a bonus to both Tove and Mr. Krogh: a cash source for the young girl, another young girl for the cash source.
The favor Ruth does, however, is not the one she intended to do. “How in the world did you two ever find each other?” Mr. Krogh exclaims, and dismisses out of hand Tove’s viability as a chorus girl. But no matter—his apartment is a miracle, lined with books and paintings, and a recognition between aesthetes has already occurred. Tove returns home with a borrowed copy of Les Fleurs du Mal and vastly extended horizons.
Hitler is now chancellor of Germany, sending seismic tremors throughout Europe, and Tove is renting a freezing-cold room with tissue-thin walls. She finally has a private place to write, though the noise of the typewriter is painful to her exquisitely sensitive landlady, Mrs. Suhr, who rhapsodizes over the picture of Hitler she has hanging in the living room and the music of his speeches blasting away on the radio.
One night Mrs. Suhr bursts into her tenant’s room: “‘Did you hear him?’ she shouts enraptured. ‘Did you understand what he said? You don’t need to understand it at all. It goes right through your skin like a steambath.’” She offers Tove a cup of coffee, and although Tove hasn’t had anything to eat or drink all day, she doesn’t want to sit under Hitler’s picture: “It seems to me that then he’ll notice me and find a means of crushing me. What I do would be considered ‘decadent art’ in Germany.” The next day Germany invades Austria.
Ditlevsen describes with disdain the allure of authoritarianism among people she runs into and their misplaced identification as its beneficiaries. And yet she has a counterbalancing aversion to political engagement. In The Faces, set and written during the worldwide political and social upheaval of 1968, Mundus hallucinates Gitte, her young housekeeper, saying accusingly:
“You quoted Hemingway. Repeat what you said.”…
“Let those who want to save the world do so,” [Mundus] said slowly, “if only I can be left in peace to comprehend it clearly….”
“Yes,” said Gitte, satisfied, “that’s what you said. And thus your fate was sealed. Hemingway shot himself in the head…. He belonged to the dead world.”
And in The Copenhagen Trilogy, during the occupation almost the only mention of the Nazi presence is when a woman on the streetcar showily moves away from some German soldiers sitting next to her; Tove herself sees the soldiers simply as tired boys who would no doubt prefer to be at home, and she writes a poem about them. The world’s fragile situation fills her with horror and fear, but it’s specifically fear of the effect it might have on her personal life.
Although unemployment is high, Tove finds a succession of jobs that range from the preposterous to, eventually, several office jobs that she likes. Surprisingly, she enjoys learning shorthand and applying the skill. In the evenings she goes out dancing with her friend Nina, and then back to her typewriter.
One day after a long hiatus Tove goes to visit her friend Mr. Krogh, but the building where he lived has been torn down. So a second conduit to her ardently desired future has disappeared into thin air. But at one of the evening dances a life-changing few minutes casually tick by. An attractive young man asks Tove to dance. He is somewhat more polished and expresses considerably more interest in her than the usual young men, and he ascertains that she writes poetry. He does, too, as it happens. After the dance is over, his attention turns abruptly to a pretty girl sitting alone across the room, but Tove has already elicited what she needs: the name of someone—Viggo F. Møller—who edits a poetry journal, Wild Wheat.
She mails off a few poems to him and finally, finally a response arrives: “Dear Tove Ditlevsen: Two of your poems are, to put it mildly, not good, but the third, ‘To My Dead Child,’ I can use.” She calls, and they arrange to meet. “You know what,” says her mother, “that editor—he probably wants to marry you.” And as amused as she is by her mother’s fantasy, it occurs to Tove that—assuming he’s single—she herself has “nothing against marrying him. Entirely sight unseen.”
Nor does she change her mind when she does see him, despite the thirty-odd-year difference between them. She finds Viggo F., as he’s called, warm, knowledgeable, magnificent, even handsome. “Like all other young girls,” she says, “I want to get married and have children and a home of my own.”
The romance that follows is heartrendingly flimsy:
I sit close to him so that our legs are touching each other, but it apparently doesn’t make any impression on him…. Gently he puts his arm around my waist and a hot stream races through me. Is this love? I’m so tired of my long search for this person that I feel like crying with relief, now that I’ve reached my goal. I’m so tired that I can’t return his tender, cautious caresses…. “You’re like a child,” he says kindly, “a child who can’t really manage the adult world.”
The roles they’ve assigned themselves so expeditiously—of helpless, pre-sexual prodigy and knightly rescuer—are just plausible enough to serve for their two years of marriage; after all, many marriages are built on nothing more substantial than some similarly clarifying piece of theater. But before the marriage can take place, things of great import are happening. Tove’s first poem has appeared in Wild Wheat to great acclaim and other poems have followed, Viggo F. has introduced her into the shiny literary social world she has imagined, and he is in the process of getting a collection of her poetry published.
And then suddenly:
England has declared war on Germany, and I stand with thousands of other silent people and follow the reader-board headlines flashing on Politiken’s building…. I have a painful, sinking feeling in my stomach…. Will my poetry collection come out now? Will daily life continue at all? Will Viggo F. marry me when the whole world is burning? Will Hitler’s evil shadow fall over Denmark?
Viggo F. has reason to be concerned, given his anti-Nazi writings, but Hitler’s evil shadow or no, Tove’s collection of poems rolls off the press, and “Youth” concludes with her incredulous joy at the fact that she herself has produced a physical volume of the sort that sustained her during her arduous childhood—and with her desire to savor the object alone, before she shows it to Viggo F.
The Danish title of the third volume of the trilogy is “Gift,” which means (stunningly) both “married” and “poison” and has been translated (stunningly) as “Dependency.”
The warm, nurturing bachelor Viggo F. was quite different from the husband Viggo F., who is brittle, reduced, preoccupied, and remarkably tightfisted. In company and with artists, he seems to remain the original man, but while he has a coterie of worshipful young admirers, he has his share of detractors, too. Bets have apparently been placed on how long the marriage will last, and friends of Viggo F.’s (some evidently friends who enjoy friendships based on ridicule) say that Tove has simply used him to get ahead.
There’s some truth to the charge, she concedes—and she certainly has gotten ahead, thanks to him—but there was more to the marriage than that. The reader is bound to agree, and the inevitable dissolution of the sterile, confining, and rather absurd marriage is as sad as its inception.
As a young, suddenly free, suddenly celebrated writer from a working-class background, Tove has an alluring luster. She is invited to a party held by a group of students in their twenties, where it seems a foregone conclusion that she will hook up with their most glamorous member, Ebbe. Ebbe is home with the flu, but he’s dragged to the party, fever and all, to meet Tove. They dance, and fall drunkenly into bed. “I feel happy and loved for the first time in my life,” the author writes.
The German occupation shades the book’s background as a faint air of desperation. In the foreground, there are parties, new friends, and great quantities of drinking. Ebbe is charming, attractive, and sweet. He’s also a big drinker at twenty-five and studying economics, in which he has no real interest, with no degree in sight. The very friends who brought them together warn Tove that she’ll be supporting him if they get married. But they do get married, and, in fact, the marriage provides a fortress around Tove’s real life—her writing. She is writing fluently, and reviews of her abundant publications tend to be glowing.
Ebbe’s real interest is literature, and although now and again he rather bores or irritates Tove, she’s glad—up to a point—to have him read what she’s written during the day. His social class is far above her parents’, but he doesn’t condescend to them—unlike Viggo F., who talked to them in a loud voice as if they were slightly deaf.
But when their daughter, Helle, is born, between Tove’s nursing, child-rearing, and writing, there’s just not quite enough love or attention left for Ebbe, and however hard the two adults struggle, they can’t figure out how to reweight the scales. When Tove discovers that she’s two months pregnant again, she decides that an abortion is imperative. “I don’t regret what I did,” she writes, “but in the dark, tarnished corridors of my mind there is a faint impression, like a child’s footprints in damp sand.”
For a time, life with Ebbe, Helle, and her writing is good. One evening, when she’s at loose ends, having just turned in a collection of short stories to her publisher, Tove goes off to a party, leaving Ebbe at home to take care of Helle. The party is even more than usually drunken and unbuttoned, and Tove nonchalantly goes to bed with somebody named Carl—a young scientist who’s recently gotten a medical degree. In the morning she wakes up hungover, notes without much interest that she finds Carl hideous and peculiar, bicycles home, lies to Ebbe, and realizes she’d forgotten her diaphragm, though she’s been very careful since the abortion.
“You get pregnant just walking through a draft,” her friend and confidante Lise says some weeks later. It’s unclear whether the child is Ebbe’s or Carl’s, and Tove definitely does not want a child with Carl! But at least Carl is a doctor, so he’ll be able to terminate the pregnancy.
As it happens, Carl calls her even before she gets in touch with him; he’s been reading everything she’s written and he wants to marry her. He can help out with her problem, he says, but they’d make a fine child—a scientist and a poet! “I already have a very suitable husband,” she says, “and a lovely daughter.” Oh, well, he tells her, it might not be a great idea for her to marry him anyhow. There’s a lot of mental illness on his father’s side, and his mother’s not very bright.
Up until this point, the author’s talents have made the fairly banal disorders of her life riveting, but now things take a turn, and no horror movie I’ve ever seen—however potent its imagery or metaphor—has come near the rest of the book for sheer terror.
She has asked if Carl can give her a painkiller for the procedure. The following day, having told Ebbe she’s going to visit Lise, she arrives at Carl’s room for their appointment and sees that he
has obtained a high table…and there’s a white sheet over it…. He’s wearing a white lab coat, and he washes his hands and scrubs his nails, while he pleasantly asks me to make myself comfortable. There are some shiny instruments on the bookshelf next to the table.
He fills a syringe with a clear liquid. “You have good veins,” he says. He gives her the injection,
and a bliss I have never before felt spreads through my entire body. The room expands to a radiant hall….
When I wake up…I still have the blissful feeling, and I have the sense that it will disappear if I move.
What was it he gave her? she wants to know. Demerol, he tells her.
I take his hand and put it up to my cheek. I’m in love with you…. I wish I could marry you, I say, stroking his soft, thin hair…. While I ride home in the streetcar, the effects of the shot wear off slowly, and it feels as if a gray, slimy veil covers whatever my eyes see.
She tells Ebbe there’s someone else—though that’s hardly accurate—and she and two-year-old Helle leave, moving into an inferno with Carl that is to last five years.
Tove gets a divorce and marries Carl and his syringe. Sex is brief, a bit rough, and unpleasant, but so what—her mind is in a blissful elsewhere. “I love passive women,” Carl comments, somewhat redundantly. In order to keep him and his Demerol bound to her, it seems she’ll go to any length. She has a child with him, Michael, and she takes in an infant, Trine, fathered by Carl with a woman from a prominent family that wants to forget the whole thing. Tove pays to have a house built that has plenty of room for the children and for a remarkably kind and unsuspecting housekeeper, Jabbe. The place has a beautiful yard with fruit trees on the lawn, where the children will be fine on their own—and mainly, it’s far enough from the center of town that Tove’s friends won’t come pestering her.
These two intelligent people quickly become skilled at the unspoken collusion that enables Carl to persuade himself, or some part of himself, that Tove legitimately needs the Demerol it so benefits him to administer to her. Although their subterfuges are transparent enough, he seems at times almost to believe that she is really in pain, that she really can’t sleep, that she’s really only taking what he prescribes, though she has learned to forge prescriptions for methadone, to which she has also become addicted. Chloral—a potent sedative that Carl gives her to help her sleep—joins the list.
Tove succeeds so well in faking a persistent earache that even when the specialist who has been monitoring the complaint refuses to treat her for it, Carl apparently feels justified in hiring a crank, who agrees—because he hates the previous doctor—to operate on the perfectly healthy ear. The result is deafness on that side and nearly intolerable pain. The hospital refuses to provide anything stronger than aspirin, and Carl has to sneak into the building to give her a shot of the Demerol for which she has sacrificed her hearing.
Not long into the relationship with Carl, when Tove has become pregnant with Michael, she receives a spectral visit from Carl’s friend John. John is worried about Carl: “Has Carl ever told you, he said, about his institutionalization a year ago?”
Tove is having to go through ever more trouble to stay high, those good veins of hers have clogged up, and she is conspicuously emaciated and dehydrated. Her mother shows up one day when Carl is out and sits by her bed: “She takes my hand and pats it. Your father and I, she says, drying her eyes with the back of her hand, are of the opinion that Carl is making you sick. We can’t say how exactly, but I don’t think he’s right in the head.”
Sometimes Carl makes what seem to be rather serious attempts to get Tove to cut back on the drugs, and he tries, though without much conviction, to persuade her to go through withdrawal. His mind remains impenetrable, and—maybe because it is impenetrable to him, too—he seems just as bewildered and trapped as Tove. Sometimes she’s able to write, sometimes not, and sometimes she loses interest in writing entirely. Between the drugs and withdrawal she’s almost always sick. If the situation becomes truly intolerable, she thinks, she’ll call Geert Jørgensen, a psychiatrist who helped her separate from Viggo F., and tell him everything: “I wouldn’t do it just for the sake of my children, but also for the sake of the books that I had yet to write.”
One night when Carl is asleep she does call Jørgensen, but she’s incoherent. “He’s putting water in the syringe,” she says. At Jørgensen’s demand, she puts sleepy Carl on the phone: “It’s Geert Jørgensen, I say. He wants to talk to you. Oh, is that it, he says quietly, rubbing his unshaven chin. Then my career is ruined. He says it without reproach.”
If addiction is the ninth circle of Tove’s hell, rehab is the tenth, and the months of excellent care she receives entail unspeakable and vividly described agony. But she is finally released with a tentatively clean bill of health; Carl has fortunately left the scene, but she will still have to be unflaggingly vigilant against temptation, she is told.
Jabbe is ecstatic to have her back and healthy, the garden blossoms, and the children become accustomed to her again. The idyll lacks a man, but during Tove’s hospitalization Ebbe’s longtime friend Victor has been stopping by to visit the children, and to make a short story shorter, Victor drops by again. He adores Tove’s poetry; he’s wanted to meet her for years; in her opinion, he’s perfect, he’s beautiful; she’s never believed in love at first sight before, but now she does. Within a matter of minutes they’ve vowed never to separate, sent the children out to buy candy, and fallen into bed: “What about your wife? I asked. We have the law of love on our side, he said. That law, I said, kissing him, gives us the right to hurt other people.”
Excuse me? Am I the only reader who clutched her head here?
The story of one’s life—the story that one tells oneself and others—is bound to differ according to where one stands when telling it, the season, the time of day. Tove and Victor married in 1951, as soon as she could divorce Carl, and they stayed married for a good long time—until 1973, three years before her suicide. But she describes the mortal struggle with relapses during that marriage, when she returns to writing prescriptions for herself and hunting down doctors who will give her Demerol. Victor, for his part, threatens—eternal love notwithstanding—that he’ll leave if she doesn’t stay clean.
But during the 1960s and 1970s she also suffered episodes that landed her in psychiatric hospitals and survived various suicide attempts. Some of this was reported by the press, but it is elided in the book. What is not elided at all is terror. As it goes about its unique concoctions, nature is indifferent to the torments suffered by any individual. In Ditlevsen it produced some wildly enviable results, though none that would ensure her safe passage through life. The haste with which The Copenhagen Trilogy concludes—its declaration of the provisional triumph of love—leaves one’s heart pounding. It’s as if demons were nipping at the author’s heels and she’s just barely managed to throw a ragged red flag over something fearsome looming in her path—the intricate razor-wire rigging of fate—both as a warning about the future and as a bit of protection against it.
March 25, 2021
A Gift for the Long Game
The Emergency Everywhere