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Tove Ditlevsen’s Fragmentary Self

On the radical facticity of The Copenhagen Trilogy

The Copenhagen Trilogy  by Tove Ditlevsen, translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages.

In an essay in The New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick described Joan Didion as “a martyr of facticity,” characterizing her novels as elliptical, quick, and apt to self-crucify on acerbic details. This might just as well be applied to the works of the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen, whose late-career autobiographical triptych, The Copenhagen Trilogy, was recently released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Ditlevsen has long been hard to come by in English. The first two volumes of The Copenhagen Trilogy appeared in 1985 under the title Early Spring; an experimental autobiographical novel, The Faces, followed in 1991. All in all, Ditlevsen published seven novels, eleven books of poetry, and nearly a dozen short story collections before taking her own life in 1976. A sensation in her native Denmark for much of her adult life, she was accused by literary critics of both sentimentalism, for the way her poetry eschewed the experiments of modernism and fell back on traditional rhyme schemes, and shamelessness—raised in a working-class family, Ditlevsen wrote unabashedly about her own literary striving.

Resolution and synthesis were the lies of an average pen.

And then there was the starkly confessional nature of her novels and memoirs. Couched in a style similar to the corrupted fabulism of Anna Kavan and the fractured surrealism of Ingeborg Bachmann, The Copenhagen Trilogy (comprising Tiina Nunnally’s 1985 translations of the first two volumes and Michael Favala Goldman’s new translation of the third) frankly limns Ditlevsen’s sexual encounters and experiences with mental illness and addiction, offering up an antiheroic narrative of dissociation, one tinged alternately with startling passivity and ruthless self-aggrandizement.

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 was born on December 14, 1917, in Vesterbro, a working-class neighborhood just outside the city center of Copenhagen. Her father, Ditlev, was a stoker who lost his job when Ditlevsen was seven; afterwards, the family lived off his union benefits. “We never starved,” Ditlevsen writes in Childhood, the trilogy’s first volume, “but I got to know the half-starvation you feel at the smell of dinner coming from the doors of the more well-to-do, when for days you’ve been living on coffee and stale pastry.” Her mother, Alfrida, was a temperamental, autocratic figure, whose “dark anger,” Ditlevsen writes, “always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove.”

Childhood, true to form, dishes out the boilerplate tribulations of the budding aesthete. Ditlevsen scrounges for books beyond the mealy syllabus of the parental bookshelf; has her wistful juvenilia discovered and mocked by her brother, Edvin; fails to connect with her firebrand friend, Ruth; and makes a first, languid attempt at suicide, sawing at her wrists with a bread knife while her mother is out running errands.

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. Set over against these descriptions is the violent, naturalistic objectivity that leads Ditlevsen to note the granular details of a miscarriage experienced by her mother. “[T]hey had cut her open from her navel down and removed the baby,” she writes. “When she came home from the hospital, the bucket under the sink was full of blood every day.”

The Copenhagen Trilogy is carefully attuned to the disjunct between Ditlevsen’s dreamy aspirations and the materially prescriptive nature of reality in her poverty-stricken environs. Facts are leaden, peremptory, but can still be glossed over lyrically:

In the meantime, there exist certain facts. They are stiff and immovable, like the lampposts in the street, but at least they change in the evening when the lamplighter has touched them with his magic wand. Then they light up like big soft sunflowers in the narrow borderland between night and day, when all the people move so quietly and slowly, as if they were walking on the bottom of the green ocean.

In the face of facts, the writer’s identity is unstable, cutaneous, the successive layers of her psyche scorched away by their contact with reality. At the first volume’s close, “the last remnants” of Ditlevsen’s childhood “fall away from [her] like flakes of sun-scorched skin,” making way for new estrangements.

The trilogy’s second volume, Youth, is primarily concerned with employment and its attendant depredations: “I was someone whose physical strength they’d bought for a certain number of hours each day for a certain payment.” Ditlevsen works for a while as a nanny, as a stock clerk at a nursing supply company that employs scabs, as a switchboard operator at the State Grain Office. Things are predictably sordid. She’s groped by her boss, and tabulates, obsessively, the cost of living: “I pay twenty kroner a month at home now that I get all my meals there; ten kroner goes in the bank; and then there’s twenty kroner left, a little less when medical insurance is paid for.”

Youth ultimately tracks Ditlevsen’s realization that success for a woman writer means channeling oneself into increasingly rarefied social connections, which offer little stability. Her hopes, she finds, are too frequently pinned to unhealthy aesthetes. “I desire with all my heart to make contact with a world that seems to consist entirely of sick old men who might keel over at any moment,” she writes, “before I myself have grown old enough to be taken seriously.” Projection and psychic displacement mark her striving—it’s not her own health she frets over, but that of her male benefactors.

In the face of facts, the writer’s identity is unstable, cutaneous, the successive layers of her psyche scorched away by their contact with reality.

Writing occurs in the crevices between work and her slight social obligations—late at night, after dances, she writes poems in the kitchen, at a table with crooked legs. Later, living on her own, she rents a typewriter with her last ten kroner. Financial instability is less of a menace in Youth, always and already diminished by Ditlevsen’s certitude of her own eventual success. “Poverty,” she proclaims, “is temporary and bearable.” At the same time, a certain automatism begins to overtake her descriptions of the writing process, a phenomenon that only increases in the trilogy’s third volume, where these passages are often effaced, perfunctory, purely a function of time. Tethering herself to her own ballooning ambition effects a loss of self.

When her first poem is published in the journal Wild Wheat, she latches onto its publisher, resolving to marry him, sight unseen. Meeting him, she feels an almost religious sense of reprieve.  “Gently he puts his arm around my waist and a hot stream races through me,” she writes. “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.” The engagement itself is treated as a foregone conclusion—the third volume starts in media res, with Ditlevsen married and her writing routine (up in the morning, her toes freezing in the predawn chill) already firmly established.

It’s no surprise that a sense of estrangement suffuses nearly every page of The Copenhagen Trilogy. 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.

Traumas and tragedies accelerate in the trilogy’s final volume, Dependency. Ditlevsen’s first and second marriages fall apart; she develops anxiety attacks, undergoes an illegal abortion, and finds herself in a third, sexually abusive marriage to a doctor, Carl, possessed of a fraying mental apparatus and a loose syringe. Their relationship is a thorny cluster of co-dependent motivations and deceptions—she lies about an old ear infection to receive more demerol; aware that she’s lying, he plays up her sickness to keep her drugged and passive.

In a text characterized by detachment, the immediacy of Ditlevsen’s addiction has a revelatory quality, her absent erotic passion displaced onto the regimen of drugs (methadone, chloral, demerol) that allows her to be productive. As Ditlevsen falls deeper into addiction, time fractures, experience slurs, and metaphor and symbolism assume a new, rampant virality. Pregnancy is figured as parasitism, akin to addiction—glimpsing an array of glassware in a pharmacy window, “the yearning for small white pills” grows inside her “like a rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own.” Later, a bedridden Ditlevsen glances shamefully at her dusty typewriter, an outsize emblem of abandoned purpose.

Throughout The Copenhagen Trilogy, the distance of the present-tense narration is infinitesimal, almost asymptotic. Absent any hindsight, a preternatural evenhandedness reigns. Even Carl is gently treated; she blames, in part, her own weaknesses for the catastrophe of their relationship. Examining her ravaged face in the mirror at the height of her addiction, she wonders “which of us is crazy.” Facts, for Ditlevsen, are innocent things, almost unfilterable; keeping track of the knotted complexity of her relations with men becomes its own enervating labor. Literary production for women writers, she suggests, is a doubly fraught parturition.

Dogged in her lifetime by the label of apoliticism, Ditlevsen saved her fullest venom for her non-fiction. Publishing essay collections with titles like Escape from the Dishes and lambasting, among other creeping social illnesses, the simulated sheen of womanhood presented in contemporary magazine advertising, Ditlevsen slots easily into the ranks of second-wave feminists, even if her arguments at times take on a more socialist bent. Her essays persistently question what liberation means in a society that fails to provide women—especially working-class women—with the proper social welfare infrastructure to survive on their own.

Admittedly, The Copenhagen Trilogy is unreflective when it comes to many of the socio-political notabilia you’d expect a writer living through the dense middle years of the twentieth century to comment on—Hitler’s coming to power in Germany, for instance, is tragic only to the extent that it might impact Ditlevsen’s budding literary career. Taken together, the books are political by effect, not gesture: her method is one of harsh illumination, casting a stringent light on hidden material and social realities. (On October 1, 1973, three years after the publication of Dependency, Denmark  passed its first piece of legislation opening up access to legal abortion, a move galvanized in part by Ditlevsen’s depiction of her fraught attempts to receive an illegal abortion in the 1940s.)

What’s left is notational, nonjudgmental—pure facticity. Agonizing has no space to bloom.

Contemporary reviews of Ditlevsen’s fiction likewise elided the latent barbs embedded in her objectivity and the subtler mechanics of her prose. A review of one of her novels, quoted in Dependency, describes the book as lacking “a single glimmer of gratitude,” an estimation that, besides reeking of a certain paternalist brand of sexism, misses the fact that her project was, in part, a reclamation of self-centeredness.

Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion, in The Second Sex, that contemporary women writers were hobbled by their desire to fit into male-dominated literary circles seems, at first glance, to gel with Ditlevsen’s account in The Copenhagen Trilogy of her own starstruck wooziness on entering the literati. What de Beauvoir’s claim misses, however, is that a divided consciousness might lead to a dynamic style, rather than a flat one.

Ditlevsen’s account of her struggles with addiction exemplifies the ways in which quickness and ambivalence can be deployed to register conflicting drives. When she fakes a prescription for methadone, the action is condensed, telegraphic:

Then I sit down at my desk, take out a pair of scissors, and cut out a rectangular-shaped piece of paper. I write it out carefully, get dressed, and tell Jabbe that I’m going for a morning walk. I signed Carl’s name, and I’m sure that, wherever he is in the world, he’ll cover for me, if it comes to that. When I get back, I take two pills and stand there looking at the bottle.

The strobic quality of the prose—the sense that consciousness, or awareness, is on the blink; that the severity of the writing is carrying us over informational gaps—lends a careening quality to the devolution of Ditlevsen’s will. What’s left is notational, nonjudgmental—pure facticity. Agonizing has no space to bloom.

Flatness isn’t an affect, but a stratagem. The fleetness of Ditlevsen’s writing, rather than paper over complexity, allows divergent thoughts to be entertained and discarded rapidly. The fragmentary nature of depicted thought presents dissociation not as a loss of the self, but as a filtering of it into mutually opposed priorities. Revelation becomes an ecstatic pendulation.

In the final pages of Dependency, Ditlevsen falls in love with her fourth and final husband, Victor, a man whose “entire person radiated a kind of disheveled demonic vitality.” Aware of her addiction, Victor acts as a caretaker. As Ditlevsen writes, he “fought against his terrible rival with a constant vigor and rage that filled me with horror.”

The distancing effect of “his terrible rival,” Ditlevsen’s sudden euphemism for addiction, suggests both that her addiction was Victor’s rival for her affection, and that, in a finer sense, it wasn’t her battle at all—a final dependency. Victor would rage, threaten to leave her. “But he didn’t,” Ditlevsen writes. “He never did.”

There was no reason her past, with all its self-lacerations and compromises, should have necessarily ended in tragedy.

A sense of shattering incompleteness haunts the end of The Copenhagen Trilogy—two years after Dependency appeared, Ditlevsen and Victor’s more than twenty-year marriage, scarred by infidelities and her recurring struggles with addiction, ended in divorce; three years later, Ditlevsen took her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills. In this light, Ditlevsen’s declaration that Victor had never left her—that he never would leave her—has the air of protective prophecy, of an attempt to bind her future with the same force of facticity that had defined her past.

Even as The Copenhagen Trilogy gestures at continuity—its three-part structure implying a firm narrative arc, one that proceeds from childhood to young adulthood to marriage, motherhood, and beyond—Ditlevsen’s jagged, discontinuous technique slyly undercuts, at every turn, the text’s claims to narrative wholeness. If the books form a sealed system, it’s one of coruscating fragments, suspended in a prose that inhabits the vertiginous in-between of her identities as mother, writer, lover, and addict.

Narrative, as Ditlevsen knew, was a shifting horizon. There was no reason her past, with all its self-lacerations and compromises, should have necessarily ended in tragedy—that she should have been, in other words, a martyr of facticity—and no reason it couldn’t have ended in peace. 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.