... beautiful and fearless ... Ditlevsen’s memoirs...form a particular kind of masterpiece, one that helps fill a particular kind of void. The trilogy arrives like something found deep in an ancestor’s bureau drawer, a secret stashed away amid the socks and sachets and photos of dead lovers. The surprise isn’t just its ink-damp immediacy and vitality—the chapters have the quality of just-written diary entries, fluidly translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman—but that it exists at all. It’s a bit like discovering that Lila and Lenú, the fictional heroines of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, were real ... A half-century later, all of it—her extraordinary clarity and imperfect femininity, her unstinting account of the struggle to reconcile art and life—still lands. The construct of memoir (and its stylish young cousin, autofiction) involves the organizing filter of retrospection, lending the impression that life is a continuous narrative reel of action and consequence, of meanings to be universalized ... Ditlevsen’s voice, diffident and funny, dead-on about her own mistakes, is a welcome addition to that canon of women who showed us their secret faces so that we might wear our own.
Don’t think yourself odd if, after reading the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s romantic, spiritually macabre, and ultimately devastating collection of memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy , you spend hours, if not days, in a reverie of alienation. It’s because the author, who died by her own hand in 1976, when she was fifty-eight, makes profound and exciting art out of estrangement ... Ditlevsen was marked, wounded, by her own sharp intelligence ... A wonderfully destabilizing writer, she admits to something that a more timid memoirist would never cop to: monstrous self-interest. By baring her bathos along with her genius, she makes us reflect on our own egotism. How many of us have thought only of ourselves at a time of great calamity for others? ... Unlike Karl Ove Knausgaard and many other recent memoirists, Ditlevsen doesn’t have a larger philosophy about pain or death; she is drawn to the flatness of facts and the way they mix with dreams. She builds a literature of disaster, brick by brick, entombing within it all the people who couldn’t love her and whom she couldn’t love ... For some, mucking things up can be an assertion of will; negative attention is better than none. Reality—or one’s understanding of it—can be as dependent on pain as it is on hope, and Ditlevsen is addicted to both.
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 Copenhagen Trilogy 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 ... 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 ... 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.
What might seem in other writers a retroactive precocity is believable here. Ditlevsen is self-deprecating and effective at conveying the fish-eye view of a child in a claustrophobic environment; she understands that part of the memoirist’s job is to remember how life felt and synthesize it in a way she couldn’t have at the time ... Ditlevsen is a master of slow realization, quick characterization, and concise ironies ... The appeal of a memoir is not that it contains stable facts, but rather a stable perspective, and part of the propulsion of these odd books is Ditlevsen’s steadiness ... Her unlikely success as an advice columnist must have had to do with her ability to see herself as clearly as she saw others, which involved seeing how she was different ... What is superficially unstable is revealed to have a much deeper connection to real events than it appears; it’s the book’s separation from reality that allows it to express what is true. Similarly, when Ditlevsen published her first poetry collection, she thought, 'The book will always exist, regardless of how my fate takes shape.' To bring things back to marketing, this means you don’t have to advertise that an author died by suicide on the back of her book. The work is important; the fate is merely a fact.
...one of Denmark’s most famous and extravagantly tortured writers, whose many identities—dreamy working-class misfit, ruthlessly focused artist, ambivalent wife and mother, literary outsider and drug addict—were constantly at war. While always the central protagonist in her dispatches from the frontline of her own life, she never pretended to be the heroine. Which makes it unsurprising that in an era with an appetite for autofiction, her mordant, vibrantly confessional autobiographical work should be experiencing a revival ... Though written years after the events they describe, the pages—fluidly translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman—have the immediacy of diary entries so fresh that the ink has barely dried. In reconstructing her own gaucheness, lack of education and shameless opportunism, Ditlevsen’s strength as a writer lies in her militant refusal to present her choices and their consequences—be they love affairs, backstreet abortions or chronic drug addiction—through the filters of hindsight or amour-propre ... It builds to a wrenching climax made all the more poignant by the fact that after five years of virtual captivity in the realm of addiction, Ditlevsen—finally clean, but a stranger to her own children—remains shakily aware that the gift of her third marriage lingers in her blood. And there it would stay. At the age of 58, after a series of mental breakdowns and a fourth divorce, Ditlevsen put an end to her own life. Although the Copenhagen Trilogy is only a small part of her extraordinary legacy, its evocation of a working-class woman’s battle with masters, leashes and her own demons makes it a masterpiece in its own right.
... majestic memoir of art and addiction ... The trilogy is stridently honest, entirely revealing – she makes no effort to hide the many shameful episodes of a shambolic, drug-addled existence – and, in the end, devastating ... One of the many semi-miraculous elements of Ditlevsen’s prose, which appears at first glance breezily artless, is the way she’ll settle on an object and rub her characters up against it, grounding them in the physicality of her world ... The affectless prose is interrupted by glorious poetical flourishes, and these bursts of lyricism are more than merely ornamental ... Ditlevsen’s trilogy is remarkable not only for its honesty and lyricism; these are books that journey deep into the darkest reaches of human experience and return, fatally wounded, but still eloquent.
Ditlevsen spent most of her adult life as a literary celebrity in her native country ... As this suggests, there’s indeed a level of what the Telegraph called 'soap opera' drama to the story, but that fails to do justice to Ditlevsen’s sophisticated technique and scalpel-sharp prose, or to her prescient exploration of form. The term autofiction had yet to be coined when she wrote the trilogy (1967–71), but it is the only word that can adequately describe what she is doing ... And yet Ditlevsen’s literary project cannot be dismissed as escapism. She looks the slimy and intolerable in the eye and burnishes it into cut glass. She’s a writer who, like Jean Rhys, explores the seamy ambiguities of female abjection – with a voice whose power blasts through. The subjective truths she tells are about agency and passivity, narcissism and self-destruction, artistic idealism and psychological squalor. Paradoxically, the sense of immediacy and authenticity she projects is achieved through language that often feels uncannily dissociated ... Even when she thinks she’s using men – for example, in marrying her first husband to get published and become bourgeois – her text reveals how little control over her life she really has. Discomfitingly, it’s her very lack of self-empowerment that empowers her work ... The force of her writing is not to be found in her superior endurance skills or moral strength, but in the precision with which she uses words and unexpected images.
I bring news of Tove Ditlevsen’s suite of memoirs with the kind of thrill and reluctance that tells me this must be a masterpiece ... a portrait of an artist and a portrait of an addict—and the product of a terrifying talent ... They exert a particular fascination, these books. It’s like watching something burn. The language is plain, unadorned, almost masklike — a provocative composure that settles even more tightly over the narration as we enter Dependency, in which Ditlevsen describes her years of addiction ... It’s this composure that gives the trilogy its suspense — and it’s a kind of composure that is much misunderstood ... Ditlevsen confesses and confesses, but it is what she does not say, what she shows us and does not acknowledge — the murk in the book — that gives the memoirs that rippling quality of something alive, something still unfurling.
Ditlevsen, as The Copenhagen Trilogy attests, refused to view the autobiographical text as a method of refining and distilling the self or granting it the long-view continuity a bloated project like Knausgaard’s My Struggle aims for. Resolution and synthesis were the lies of an average pen. Often described as a confessional writer, Ditlevsen seems implicitly to pose another, more urgent question: How exactly does one confess when the self is jagged, discontinuous, and prone to shifting with the wind? ... Ditlevsen’s writing can feel almost classical at times, a doomed Entwicklungsroman , rather than ethereal or self-evading; the early pages of The Copenhagen Trilogy brim with realist portraiture and charming neighborhood grotesques ... what complicates Ditlevsen’s self-portrait is her willingness to wield her reluctance to cohere as a battering ram—the text’s atmosphere is closer to the unwieldy essayism of Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights than the overdetermined misanthropy of a book like My Year of Rest and Relaxation . Contaminated by uncertainty and ambivalence, the notational quality of Ditlevsen’s depressive perception reveals itself as something more complex—experience isn’t so much flattened in her work as fractalized ... the distance of the present-tense narration is infinitesimal, almost asymptotic. Absent any hindsight, a preternatural evenhandedness reigns ... Her great achievement in The Copenhagen Trilogy was to compose a book that registers at once its author’s claims to continuity and the jagged contours of fact, that allows her projected salvation and terminal despair to coexist—if not in life, then at least on the page.
... the three books...have an easy, natural cadence to them, as though they are being typed out in front of you ... Like hundred-year-old glass, Ditlevsen’s writing is elegant, transparent, with glorious whorls of minor distortions and an unaffected beauty, but this seamless surface belies a scaffolding that is forbiddingly sound ... Her books consistently wield their striking present-ness, vibrating with the frequency of first-time experience. Ditlevsen is not big on agonized self-reflection. Nor is she big on reckoning with her traumas. Instead, temporality folds like a Möbius strip, and she crafts a story of her future from material that is always already in her past. Her writing maintains its paradoxical present tense, its unrelenting immediacy, a position in which she too apparently doesn’t know what’s going to happen, even as she prefigures the events to come so that when they do inevitably come, they come with echoes ... Details that seemed superfluous, merely residual symptoms of realism, are exposed as deliberate inclusions; they at once reveal not only the haunting of a life, but also the thoughtful narrativization of it ... For us, the wound is slowly assimilated over the course of the trilogy by an exacting Ditlevsen, compelling us to reckon with her past and trauma in just the order she presents it to us.
What Tove aspires to, even if only instinctually, is far beyond the scope of her mother’s experience and knowledge. Her mother’s aggression is not only the result of being reminded that certain facts of life are unalterable (such as having a daughter at a young age), but also, more importantly, the result of feeling that Tove can escape indisputable facts by turning to poetry ... In the volumes that follow, Tove will go on attempting to become one of her mother’s social betters, even as her mother will go on attempting to help her secure a safe life that resembles her own. What makes Ditlevsen’s memoir so powerful is that it does not avoid difficult questions about the relationship between women’s bodies, cultural capital, and social class. Nor does Ditlevsen suppress Tove’s social and material aspirations. Tove wants to be a poet not only because she wants to see her name in print, but also because she realizes that to be a poet is to have a life different from her mother’s—to escape her mother literally rather than figuratively ... In showing that Tove’s life has been upended by such attempts at normalization, the beauty of Ditlevsen’s memoir lies in the fact that no narrative can encompass a life fully, or explain it away. One of the points Ditlevsen makes is that, inside the Tove of Youth and Dependency , there is still the Tove of Childhood. This Tove, like her mother, is “beautiful, untouchable, lonely,” the poet who understands that life is the sum of everyday occurrences, of trivial, inconsequential, ephemeral, and ordinary experiences and observations
Wrenching sadness and pitch-dark comedy regularly partner her swift progress from a cramped Copenhagen tenement to literary fame. Ditlevsen published these three compact memoirs between 1967 and 1971. They capture the naivety, terror and rapture of her early life across a fast-changing palette of prose colours ... Her ‘longing’ for oblivion will persist, ‘like rot in a tree’. Tove may forever feel as ‘scruffy, confused and alone’ as the stray mutts she watches as a girl. But her aghast scrutiny of hostile reality will also yield books as sharp, tough and tender as these.
Ditlevsen's brilliance is evident ... a crisp translation ... Told in a sneakily plain, highly addictive voice ... Such a summary may make the book sound harsh or depressing, but oddly, it's the opposite. Many of Tove's escapades are amusing, especially in volume two, and even the account of her Demerol addiction has a clear-eyed briskness that sucks us in with its immediacy ... Perhaps because she was a poet, Ditlevsen knows the eloquence of leaving things out. The Copenhagen Trilogy lies at the opposite end from Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle whose six volumes try to tell us everything about his life no matter how pedestrian. Her entire trilogy clicks in at a cool 367 pages — 100 fewer than the shortest volume of My Struggle, though her struggle was far greater than his ... Like Grace Paley and Alice Munro, Ditlevsen's a master of compression who can capture the whole story of a marriage in a couple of pages. With a born writer's killer instinct, she likes to pounce on us with arresting chapter openings ... Even if writing couldn't save her from herself, it lets her soar above the world's expectations and seek the truth on her own terms.
Ditlevsen’s voice seems to reach us from a place of psychological remoteness. It is, at times, unnerving just how isolated she seems to be. Ditlevsen’s nonbiological relationships—with her friends, with her several husbands—feel contingent, as does her connection to the events of her own life ... Reflection and introspection burn slowly in the books, but pure facts are often relayed at this clip. Pivotal, life-altering moments might be sublimated into two or three sentences, or lines of dialogue ... This style of narrative, when deployed to describe trauma—taut, lucid, composed—can have the paradoxical effect of giving readers the impression that Ditlevsen is not an agent of the things that happen to her. How seamlessly does her life descend into disaster, and how little does she seem to resist ... Ditlevsen resists the conventions that would make her memoirs conform to the narratives placed on so-called rediscovered women writers, whose stories are often expected to proclaim victory over the conditions that would have rather had them toiling away in obscurity ... These brisk memoirs are the sort one might write if they knew tragedy, both the quiet and disastrous sort, awaited them ... Yet the experience of The Copenhagen Trilogy won’t leave one completely distraught. It is easy to be saddened by the wreckage Ditlevsen leaves in her wake, and by the knowledge that it only continued to accumulate: Ditlevsen died by suicide five years after publishing Dependency. But while suffering for one’s writing is far from glamorous (and certainly far too over-romanticized), it is a small victory that Ditlevsen, whose life seemed due for suffering anyway, got to choose it at all. And the writing is beautiful.
There are some writers whose sentences sting like a steady stream of ice-cold water from the tap, and others whose prose feels pleasurably warm as they gradually increase the temperature. The Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen managed to do both ... Loneliness is a major theme in these books, and while Ditlevsen’s prose is often straightforward and uncomplicated, the effect is a hypnotic longing, the pull between desiring the life of an artist and wanting some sense of normalcy ... These books are especially moving because of how accurately Ditlevsen writes about societal pressures on women artists, as well as issues regarding class, motherhood, and agency.
Much of the power of Childhood comes from this precise, mature expression of the childish experience, so easily conveying the feeling (as well as acknowledging the childish inability to express it in any way clearly then—an inability-to-make-oneself-understood so common to that time in life) ... Childhood is very rich for such a slim memoir, as Ditlevsen's economy of style is nevertheless very—cautiously—revealing. It's a very fine exploration of the poet as a child, and a lovely read.Youth...has a few scenes of peculiar but very funny comedy ... Youth is a fine memoir of that in-between time on the way to adulthood, while also offering, in all the background, a fascinating glimpse of life in 1930s Denmark ... a solid continuation of her memoir, concluding here with the stirrings of great change ... The Copenhagen Trilogy as a whole is a solid memoir. Very much focused on the author, there's also a lot of color of the place and times; much of Dependency takes place during the Nazi occupation, and there are times when the matter-of-fact treatment of that as background material can almost be more disturbing than if there was a greater focus on it. Ditlevsen has nice touch with her observations, keen and quick, and quickly moving on—she rarely lingers on anything, making for a powerful understated effect.
The version of her child self that Ditlevsen offers us is naive, but likably so. She is certain of exactly what she wants, which is at first relatable, then attractive, and finally, in the end, devastating ... That all of these wants are presented to us with such a straight face, even when they are unflattering, is part of what gives The Copenhagen Trilogy its enormous emotional power. It is a story about wanting, about a giant and constantly vexed ambition, offered up to us simply and straightforwardly, as though the book were a pool of clear water and we can see all the way down to the bottom. It’s only when we wade in that we start to realize just how deep the pool is, how numbingly cold its depths. I could not read through Ditlevsen’s life with a dispassion that matched the calm of her narrative voice. During the worst of it, I found myself throwing down my copy of the book to get up and pace furiously, desperate to get out of that head, that mental space where agony was being observed and recorded with such a clear-eyed lack of sentiment. But every time I was compelled to return. Her dispassionate, willfully naive voice drew me back inexorably. I felt an almost physical pull to reimmerse myself in the freezing cold water of the trilogy, which understands the trauma of childhood and its reverberations like nothing else I have ever read.
The gradual submersion into addiction and madness is brilliantly accomplished, though it’s a bitter, claustrophobic kind of excellence. Think of Jean Rhys rather than Proust—there are no poetic reveries about abjection here, no meandering modifying clauses. Ditlevsen writes firm, direct, often monotonous sentences that march the reader through the scenes at such a businesslike gait that one fails to notice just how far removed from rational behavior Tove has strayed ... There is no detached authorial intelligence commenting on what happens, nor is there much narrative interiority. Like Tove herself, the reader is balanced on the surface of the moment, appallingly captive to events as they unfold.
They are the best books I have read this year. These very slim volumes slip in like a stiletto and do their work once inside. Each has its own distinct tone, which just about justifies Penguin’s money-chasing decision to issue the trilogy (around 350 pages in total) as three separate books ... the simple declarative sentences of Natalia Ginzburg and the pervasive horror of a good fairy story. To Ditlevsen, childhood is a sentence to be endured, a skin to be shed. How could it be otherwise, when her world was upside-down from the beginning? ... There is a similar disconnect between the dark matter of these books and the thrilling impact on the reader. They act as a manifesto for art, showing that literature is not the base metal: it is the process of alchemy, and the gold that results.
Some books lodge themselves in your consciousness, threatening significance, before you’ve even read them. The sense that they might be of enormous personal value creates a combination of excitement and something like dread. Such was the case for me with Tove Ditlevsen’s Dependency ... it’s bitterly sad ... She refuses the kind of interiority and self-flagellation we demand of women’s addiction stories, and so is read as pure horror, as monstrous ... I, too, wondered how Ditlevsen really felt about certain neglected relationships, especially with her children. But I also wanted to shake her hand for denying me a view on her shame, for challenging my belief that it was something to which I was entitled ... I see Dependency as a rare, early entry to the literature of addiction—as such, it is thrilling ... it is Ditlevsen herself who demands we foreground this part of her biography. In her own telling of her life, she reserved more than an entire third—141 of 370 pages—for her struggles with love and drugs. That was a radical act for a woman, anywhere on the globe, in 1971. I believe we ought to consider that math in our appraisal of her work.
Ditlevsen is candid about the personal toll that the claustrophobic poverty of her early life had, though she does not extend this to any type of broader political argument. Though her family explicitly align themselves with the social democratic party, read socialist books, and appear steeped in an understanding of their class identity, Ditlevsen’s view is somewhat more individualized. Perhaps the connections between these early experiences and her troubled later life were meant to be obvious. If so, she might be surprised to find that many of these same challenges of the literary world—economic precarity, classism, insularity—persist today ... though her success was hard won, Ditlevsen is not intent on making herself into some kind of noble example. Her novels, poetry, and memoirs are only concerned with expressing the specific experience of one female twentieth century writer: herself. And her work—the whole point after all—is probably stronger for it.
No one has written about childhood quite as memorably as the Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen, or described the compulsion to write with so much hope and foreboding. Her memoirs of growing up in working-class Copenhagen before the Second World War read like Ferrante meets Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick’s psychologically insightful memoir of maternal entanglement. But Ditlevsen’s brooding lyricism is all her own as she recalls the inner life of a sensitive child trying to parse her surroundings, comprehend an overwhelming, illogical mother, and appease her own exigent, unlikely gift.
The intrusions of young Tove’s poetic compositions and the narrator’s poetic lens suffuse the memoirs with a distinct sense of larger-than-life-ness. The impressions given off by the scenes in this trilogy are reminiscent of the shadowy, sharply-contrasted portraits of Caravaggio: characters loom out of shadows, thrown into sharp relief. They are silhouetted, dramatic, and exaggerated, yet still squarely rooted within the realm of reality. Like the best autobiography, there is an irrefutability to Ditlevsen’s writing. This comes as a result of a near-perfect symbiosis between Ditlevsen’s style and her subject matter. Ditlevsen’s vision of her life’s story is so distinct, so assured, that reading her one is thoroughly convinced that not only did these events in her life happen, but that they happened exactly the way she recounts them. Of all the ways to tell these stories, we are convinced that this is the only possible way to tell them.
The Copenhagen Trilogy is a sequence of her memoirs—the English translations are being issued in a single volume in the U.S.—remarkable in the way they privilege literature over life ... Childhood and Youth record the confessions of a gifted ingénue who is constantly afraid of losing out on her big chance ... Ditlevsen tells her story in long, breathless paragraphs, with bursts of aphoristic brilliance ... Dependency, the third book, has a more conventional plot ... The writing is again decked with spectacularly quotable quotes.
What emerges in these pages—via exacting translations by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman—is an unblinking investigation of the self: its inconsistencies, its ties to others, its basic wish to be understood ... Ditlevsen is a uniquely spatial writer, and childhood, for her, has the shape of a coffin: sharp-edged, narrow, a thing you 'run up against' ... Humming beneath these scenes is her abiding interest in the relationship between literature and reality ... Ditlevsen is supremely engaged in a sense of truth. It’s a truth that is shifting and precarious, but always there—even in her most ruinous moments. Within The Copenhagen Trilogy, her truths appear again and again, awaiting a reader to find them, to listen, to understand.
In her memoir, The Copenhagen Trilogy , [Ditlevsen] still commands the facts of her life with that same prolific, torrential force that has sprawled through dozens of texts, that tells of madness and poverty and femininity in the various violences they enact upon a single body—a fastidious discernment that is only concerned with what can be made material by ink and paper. In the reading of this monument to a life of letters, one is left with the sense that yes—a whole person is too much to take, in the way that anything, forced to be seen with such unimpeded clarity, is ... the author is herself grasping the glimmers of what can be told to make sense of the now ... Were I to speak with her, I believe Tove Ditlevsen would stand—at least in part—with me in my position that poets are born, not made. As such the efflorescence of a young devotion to language marks the most immediate, epiphanic, and tortured portions of Childhood ... To read Ditlevsen’s young verse here is sweet, consolatory; we know that within their immaturity, a certain glory is supine and patient. Poetics are glimpses at destiny; they indicate one’s innermost pursuits, discerns what is seen from what is looked at, and paves the path that the poet follows, in reverie ... With the first two parts translated by Tiina Nunnally and the last by Michael Favala Goldman, the English prose honours the lilting musicality that Ditlevsen has cultivated with her poems. They are of a careful, unexacting oratory—one hears within the chiming of the words an ease of someone who knows the fascination she evokes, the grip she exerts with her medium. Even as she describes herself in the tumult of insecurity, or shame, or regret, or the horrific deluge of her addiction, in the confines of the page she is fearless, precise in her remembering, commanding in her retelling.