This trilogy from Tove Ditlevsen, a pioneer in the field of genre-bending confessional writing, explores themes of family, sex, motherhood, abortion, addiction, and being an artist. This single-volume hardcover contains all three volumes of her memoirs
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.
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.
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.