Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen (1967, tr. Tiina Nunnally, 1985)

Childhood is the first in a series of three volumes which together form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a work of autofiction by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen (1917-78). It is a striking text, shot through with a tangible note of sadness, in which the innocence of childhood is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of an austere world. (The subsequent volumes – Youth and Dependency, which I’ll touch on at the end of this piece – cover the author’s adolescence and adult years respectively.)

Born into a working-class family in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen, Tove experiences a rather harsh and lonely childhood. With her love of books, songs and poems, Tove is considered somewhat unusual by her family – particularly her mother, whose intolerance and dismissive attitude give rise to a fractured mother-daughter relationship.

Tove finds her childhood narrow and restricting, ‘like a coffin’ in which she is shackled and constrained. In search of solace and a means of expression, Tove longs to write down all the words that flow through her, the fledgling poems that come naturally throughout her days. Nevertheless, she keeps these artistic ambitions to herself for most of her early years, jotting down her poetry in a private album which she hides in her room – mostly out of a fear of being ridiculed by her family. In essence, these poems become a way for Tove to cover the exposed areas of her childhood by enriching her limited existence through creative expression.

It is only once Tove reaches middle school that her world begins to widen somewhat, sparked by her introduction to the public library and everything it contains. While the librarian suggests books suitable for children, Tove finds these too basic for her requirements. It is more challenging fiction that she is after, grittier stories like Les Misérables and other such texts.

By the age of twelve, Tove is experiencing signs of depression, haunted by thoughts of death and mortality. A foreigner in her own world, she longs to escape the narrow confines of her local community, eager to make her own way in life. The conventional trappings of marriage and motherhood are not for her; she shuns everything a reliable, steady life represents, including its feeling of security.

While Tove finds her childhood very restrictive, there is also a sense that she acknowledges these early years to be precious in their own way – possibly something to be looked back on with a degree of nostalgia or fondness, even if they never seem quite so rosy at the time. As her childhood draws to a close with her confirmation, Tove becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of the future, ‘a monstrous, powerful colossus that will soon fall on me and crush me.’

What particularly strikes me about Childhood is Ditlevsen’s powerful tone of voice. The memoir is written in a candid, unvarnished style, almost childlike in certain respects, which fits so naturally with the subject matter at hand. Nevertheless, the reader is frequently pulled up short by the arresting nature of Tove’s experiences – made all the more shocking due to the plain-speaking style in which they are delivered.

Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.… Wherever you turn, you run up against your childhood and hurt yourself because it’s sharp-edged and hard, and stops only when it has torn you completely apart. It seems that everyone has their own and each is totally different. (pp. 30–31, Childhood).

In this respect, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the British writer Barbara Comyns, whose excellent semi-autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a favourite of mine. (There’s a link to my review here if it’s of interest.)

Now that I’ve read all three books in Ditlevesen’s trilogy, I can safely say that they’re all just as absorbing as the first – perhaps even more so given the way Tove’s life develops into adulthood. There is a frankness to Tove’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is hard to resist.

In Youth we follow Tove through a string of unsuitable menial jobs, some of which only last a few days before she is fired for her naivety and unfiltered views. As far as Tove is concerned, her eighteenth birthday can’t come soon enough, a time when she can finally strike out on her own outside of the boundaries of her family.

Throughout her adolescence, Tove continues to write poetry, frequently composing pieces and songs for work colleagues and associates. Her life remains lonely and challenging; nevertheless, there is a seam of dark humour running through this volume (and parts of the subsequent one, Dependency), largely stemming from the author’s matter-of-fact tone of voice and narrative style.

One evening Nadja comes over, dressed, as usual, as if she had just escaped a burning house. (p. 29, Dependency)

There are moments of brightness too, glimmers of hope and determination on the part of Tove that one day some of her poems may be published.

I can’t explain to myself, either, why I want to so badly to have my poems published, so other people who have a feeling for poetry can enjoy them. But that’s what I want. That’s what I, by dark and twisting roads, am working towards. That’s what gives me the strength to get up every day, to go to the printing office and sit across from Miss Løngren’s Argus eyes for eight hours. That’s why I want to move away from home the same day I turn eighteen. (p. 63, Youth)

Meanwhile the impeding outbreak of WW2 rumbles away in the background, casting a shadow of darkness over the external world.

By her early twenties, Tove is a published poet, now married to a literary editor, a much older man named Viggo F – a most unsuitable match as it turns out. In Dependency, Tove recounts the experiences of her early adult life: a sequence of love affairs and marriages, some gratifying and others not so much; pregnancies, both wanted and unwanted (a distressing search for a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion is painfully relayed); and ultimately, a battle with opioid addiction that will consume her day-to-day existence and emotional soul.

There are brief periods of solace when Tove finds an outlet through creative expression, her writing remaining a source of fulfilment whenever it is possible. Nevertheless, the spectre of addiction continues to hover overhead, even during Tove’s ‘clean’ periods of remission.

It [the pharmacy] radiated a muted light from containers of mercury and beakers filled with crystals. I kept standing there, while yearning for small white pills, which were so easy to get, rose inside me like a dark liquid. Horrified, I realized while I stood there that the longing was inside me like rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own, even though you want nothing to do with it. I pulled myself away reluctantly, and kept walking. (p. 130)

This is a remarkable series of books – clear, candid, striking and elegant. It has something of the power of the most compelling memoirs, coupled with a simplicity that feels almost poetic, certainly at times. In short, very highly recommended indeed. A wonderful rediscovery on the part of the publishers.

Childhood, Youth and Dependency are published by Penguin; personal copies.

38 thoughts on “Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen (1967, tr. Tiina Nunnally, 1985)

  1. Radz Pandit

    Great review Jacqui and I agree with everything you have written! Indeed, it is a wonderful rediscovery by Penguin Classics. I had absolutely no clue about this author until her name started popping up all over Twitter when these books were about to be published and even after publication.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Radhika. I need to go back and read your piece now that I’ve posted my own! (I tend not to read other bloggers’ or reviewers’ posts about a particular book if I’m about to start reading it myself, just to avoid being influenced by other perceptions. I’ve made that mistake in the past to my detriment, unfortunately.) Like you, I hadn’t come across Ditlevsen until John Self started tweeting about these books in the run-up to publication earlier this year. It’s interesting to see this resurgence of interest in women writers like Ditlevsen and Natalia Ginzburg. Maybe the market is more receptive to autofiction these days, particularly from women?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s the way in which Ditlevsen conveys these insights into her life that makes them so arresting. Her style/tone-of-voice is very frank, almost stripped down at times.

      Reply
  2. Liz Dexter

    These books sound so striking and clear-sighted, I’m glad she’s been republished and is getting attention. How was I not following your bog, by the way? I am now!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I’m glad we’ve found one another now! Clear-sighted is absolutely spot on. There’s no attempt on the part of Ditlevsen to dress up or glorify certain aspects of her life here. She just tells it straight in a candid, no-nonsense style, something that gives the books a strong sense of veracity and authenticity.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    These books sound very much worth the read. Tove’s life here seems to have been unfortunately harsh and sad. With that, I find auto fiction to be a little bit of an odd style. I sometimes think that a more conventional autobiography makes more sense.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, to tell you the truth, they read very much like a three-part memoir. In fact, I only realised they were were being classified under ‘fiction’ when I came to write them up. In my head, I think of them as being highly autobiographical, if that helps…

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Lovely review. I read the first two volumes in a book called Early Spring. I would like to read the third volume, so have to decide whether to buy a matching set of these new editions or just get book 3.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I recall you saying as much when we saw them in Foyles! If anything, I think the third book is probably the best of the lot, definitely worth investing in irrespective of the edition. Maybe you could put the matching set on your Christmas list as they look so lovely together? Penguin have done a really super job with the styling, the photographs in particular.

      Reply
  5. realthog

    I’d never heard of these, so thanks for the introduction!

    In my own experience, most things by Scandinavian authors called Tove tend to be pretty good. Mind you, I can think of only one Scandinavian author called Tove aside from this one . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome! Oddly enough, I am not such a fan of Tove Jansson as many other bloggers and readers appear to be. She’s a writer whose skills I admire rather than love, if that makes any kind of sens?. I find that I have to be in the right frame of mind for her, whereas other European writers — Ditlevsen included — often seem more appealing to me!

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Fab review, Jacqui.I am fighting hard against the temptation to get these, but they sound so good. She seems to be a fascinating author, and I’m surprised she’s been so neglected. I may add them to my Christmas list… ;D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know they’re everywhere at the moment, which can make them very tempting. Nevertheless they really are very, very good. I’d love to know the story behind her ‘rediscovery’ by Penguin, how they found her, what prompted them to publish the trilogy etc. She seems to have written quite a lot of different stuff – poems, short stories, essays, novels — but I’m not sure how much has been translated into English.

      Reply
  7. Cathy746books

    To describe childhood ‘like an illness you survive’ – fascinating. I’ve been hearing great things about this, mainly from John over at the Asylum. Sounds fascinating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! That quote is so powerful, isn’t it? That sense of her really not fitting into what is expected of ‘childhood’ comes through so strongly, as if she’s an alien in her own skin. There’s very little warmth or affection in her family life, just a feeling of having to get through the days with only the solace of her poetry as a temporary escape from reality. I think it would be fascinating to see the poems she wrote as a child/adolescent, if they’re still in existence somewhere.

      Reply
  8. ireadthatinabook

    I read a collection of her poetry earlier this year and have been looking for copies of her memoirs ever since, so I’m glad to hear that you liked them! Hopefully I’ll eventually stumble upon a good copy, preferably in Danish.

    Reply
      1. ireadthatinabook

        I did, that’s why I wanted to try the memoirs in Danish too. Although if I find them in Swedish or Norwegian first I guess I’d settle for that. However, reading Nordic authors in English feels wrong, although the Penguin editions do look nice…

        Reply
          1. ireadthatinabook

            They are, so I guess I could just order them, but I’m not in a hurry so I think I’ll wait until I can catch them in the wild, a.k.a. in a bookstore. It is a good excuse to visit Danish bookstores…

            Reply
  9. buriedinprint

    Oh, this sounds right up my street. And I don’t believe that they are everywhere here (or maybe that’s more a reflection of how I’m in all the wrong places LOL) so I am very grateful to read about them here and, now, off I go to make a request. Good reading to you!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you like the sound of them. There’s been quite a lot of buzz about them over here in the UK, but that may not be replicated in other parts of the world…

      Reply
  10. Scott W.

    I’d never heard of these books or of their author, but the quotations you’ve selected are powerful. I’ll definitely look for these, which I’ve seen in no bookshops here in the US.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      To be honest, I’d never heard of Ditleven until John Self at the Asylum started talking about her on Twitter in the run-up to publication of these reissues earlier this year. They may not be that well known (or available?) in the US, but they’ve had a lot of publicity in various literary circles over here. Definitely worth grabbing if you come across them at any point. Ditlevsen’s tone of voice is so frank and stripped down that it makes her experiences feel all the more striking….the sort of writing that really get under your skin, if you know what I mean. I’d love to be able to read some of the poems she wrote as a child. Maybe Penguin will delve into her back catalogue in a bit more detail as a consequence of the critical acclaim for this trilogy? We’ll see…

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    I’ve just finished Childhood which I very much enjoyed – I liked the way she described childhood almost as if it were something you wear. I do think it’s a little cheeky of Penguin to publish it in three volumes when only the third is a new translation, but I have to say I think their track record over the last few years has been great in terms of discovering new writers.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad to hear you liked it so much! (I thought you would, but one never knows…) Yes, her descriptions of childhood are quite particular and distinctive. Like you, I was struck by the sense of Ditlevsen feeling very uncomfortable in her own skin. As you say, almost as if it was something she tried to wear, even though it clearly didn’t feel right or fit properly in any way.

      Are you panning to read the others too, just to see how her early life develops?

      Reply
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