The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Like many readers, I was gripped by Tove Ditlevsen’s arresting Copenhagen Trilogy when Penguin reissued it in 2019. Beautifully written in a candid, piercingly stark style, this autofictional series touches on key experiences from the author’s life, encompassing depression, troubled relationships, pregnancies (both wanted and unwanted) and drug addiction. During her career, Ditlevsen found an outlet in creative expression, producing some thirty books, spanning poetry, autofiction, novels and short stories – two volumes of which have been brought together here in this beautiful Penguin edition, The Trouble with Happiness.

In this post, I’m covering the stories in the first part of the book – originally published in Danish as Paraplyen (‘The Umbrella’) in 1952. These ten stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we have stories of petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelty and the sudden realisation of deceit, brilliantly conveyed by the author with insight and sensitivity.

While some of the women in Ditlevsen’s stories are actively seeking an escape from their abusive husbands or the mundanity of a domestic existence, others have cause to question their sense of happiness, suddenly realising that they have been living a lie. In My Wife Doesn’t Dance, one of my favourites in this collection, a woman has been lulled into a false sense of security by her husband’s apparent acceptance of a physical limitation – a childhood paralysis that left her with a limp. It is only when she overhears him talking to someone on the phone that she realises the true nature of his duplicity – it’s as if someone has opened a door, exposing her to ‘an invisible, […] icy cold wind’ of betrayal.

He has no idea, she told herself. He doesn’t have any idea what I’m going through. And suddenly she perceived him as a complete stranger, a person she just happened coincidentally to be in the room with, and she was able to feel disconnected from him, from her love for him, her solidarity with him, and she decided again from her profound loneliness to ask who had called… (p. 32)

There is deceit of another kind in His Mother, a particularly creepy story in which Asger, a young man in his late twenties, pays a visit to his elderly mother with his new girlfriend in tow. As the mother shows the girlfriend some old family photographs, a striking resemblance is revealed, calling into question the true nature of Asger’s relationship to his Aunt Agnes – a woman who experienced a complete mental breakdown and suffered terribly during her life.

The writing is terrific here, fill of vivid imagery that adds to the unsettling feel. Asger’s mother is a morose, sardonic woman, someone who actively sniffs out others’ misfortunes and nurses them as her own; and as Asger’s girlfriend acclimatises herself to this oppressive environment, something of the mother’s aura seems to penetrate her soul.

A reflection from the eyes across from her, so filled with misery, reached her own open and questioning gaze, and a speck of invisible dust settled on her features, as if for a moment she had merged with the silent horde of photographs which spent their shadowy lives here on the furniture and the windowsills, where no flowers seemed to thrive. (p. 39)

Ditlevsen writes brilliantly from a child’s point of view, showing us how children often understand more than we realise, especially where family relationships and tensions are involved. In A Nice Boy, a seven-year-old has to adjust to a change in family dynamics when his adoptive parents have a baby of their own. This is an excellent story – very sad but exquisitely observed, especially in its depiction of the boy’s evident anxieties.

In Evening, a young girl finds herself caught between her biological parents, both of whom have remarried following the breakdown of their relationship. In truth, the girl wishes they could get back together, a desire that becomes apparent as we access her inner world.

Children are a focus too in One Morning…, a very affecting story of the break-up of a household, a family split in two by the wife’s affair with her lover. Consequently, the couple’s children are separated from one another – the girl moving out with her father while the boy stays behind with his mother. How does a five-year-old see this? asks Ditlevsen at one point. How long before she feels betrayed? By focusing on the fractured lives of one family, Ditlevsen encourages us to see the wider societal implications of broken relationships, highlighting the universal in the personal as she mines her characters’ lives.  

And beyond him [the father]: millions of miserable children, tons of loyal housekeepers and an incurable army of lovers, abandoned husbands, disloyal husbands, betrayed and flighty women, all kinds of people, all kinds of lives, and all equally lonely. (p. 57)

It’s a point she also makes very capably in Life’s Persistence, a story of a young woman seeking an illegal abortion. There are resonances with Annie Ernaux’s Happening in this one, highlighting the societal shame of unwanted pregnancy (and the challenges of securing a termination), particularly when the woman must deal with the risks alone.

Behind each of these women was the shadow of a man: a tired husband who toiled for a throng of children, and whose income couldn’t bear the strain of another child; a disloyal chap with pomaded hair who was already a thing of the past, an ephemeral, hasty tryst that had little to do with love; a student who was loved but too young, who was now pacing outside on the sidewalk, teetering between hope and fear; a carefree superficial guy who had ‘found an address‘ and bought a way out of the predicament he had gotten himself into; or one who had moved away from the city and left his difficult burden here like a piece of forgotten furniture; at any rate a man, a trap, a careless costly experience, maybe the first one – (pp. 68–69)

What Ditlevsen does so well in this collection is to convey the anxieties, sadness and pain that many women and children experience at the hands of their families. Her characters have rich inner lives, irrespective of the restrictions placed on them by society and those closer to home. The writing is superb throughout, demonstrating the author’s skills with language and a flair for one-liners with a cutting, melancholy note.

Suddenly his mother was on her like a cold draft. (p. 37)

They share children between them as if they were furniture, she thought… (p. 53)

She had placed her life’s great despair outside the door, and only when she left home did the sorrowful black cape wind back around her. (p. 29)

This is a tremendous collection of stories to read and revisit, one of the very best I’ve read in recent years. (I’m also planning to cover Book 2, The Trouble with Happiness in the future, maybe in a week or two.)

The Umbrella forms the first part of The Trouble with Happiness, published by Penguin Classics in 2022; personal copy.

27 thoughts on “The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

  1. MarinaSofia

    Might have to splurge on this one -sounds exactly the sort of thing I love! Currently reading Hilma Wolitzer’s short stories and I think they’d go well together.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s quite a bit here that would likely resonate with you…Hilma Wolitzer is a completely new name to me, so I’m curious to hear more about her work, especially if there’s some overlap with Ditlevsen’s themes.

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    I’ve only read the first part of Ditlevsen’s trilogy but, like you, I was struck by her spare, pared-back style which made it all the more striking. I might leap-frog the other parts to this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Childhood was my favourite of the three parts of the Copenhagen trilogy, partly because the series gets darker with each successive section. These stories are terrific though, and just the right length to be memorable. Best read with plenty of gaps between each piece, I think – otherwise there’s a danger that the bleakness starts to become overwhelming (if you know what I mean)!

      Reply
  3. mallikabooks15

    Sounds like she’s captured the different, and not often noticed, dynamics that are at play within the family really well in these stories. The ones with the children interest me the most, since most often people are likely to treat them as not really able to understand what’s going on.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly! I love how she captures some of these situations from the child’s point of view. Children often realise when something is ‘off’ in the parents’ relationship, even if they don’t fully understand all the subtleties of a particular situation. Ditlevsen conveys the child’s-eye view of family dynamics so brilliantly here, something that resonates quite strongly with ‘Childhood’, the first of her autofictional Copenhagen Trilogy. (Penelope Fitzgerald is another writer with a talent for this – and Elizabeth Taylor, of course!)

      Reply
  4. jenniferbeworr

    Very beautifully done. This review is a keeper. Moving and very persuasive that we’d be much the poorer for not reading this collection. Thank you.

    Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Brilliant review Jacqui, and you really capture just how wonderful her writing is. I think her child’s eye viewpoint is remarkable, really authentically conveying how things look to a child. And the betrayals the women experience, as well as the lies families tell themselves. She’s such a good writer, and I’m so glad she’s been translated!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, good point about the self-deceptions. I think she very clearly shows us how those charades can arise and how disillusioned people feel when the scales finally fall from their eyes. Interestingly, I’m just re-reading William Trevor’s story collection, After Rain, at the moment (it’s my book group’s choice for June), and there’s a story (Child’s Play) with a similar set up to One Morning… Trevor keeps to a smaller canvas than Ditlevsen, so the wider societal implications aren’t explicitly drawn out as they are here, but it’s interesting to see the parallels nonetheless!

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    This sounds like an excellent collection. I was impressed with Ditlevsen when I read the first two of the Copenhagen trilogy in another volume. That quote from My Wife Doesn’t Dance is particularly drawing me to this one. I should probably get around to the third of that trilogy first though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely worth finishing the Copenhagen series, although it’s fair to say that the last volume explores some particularly distressing experiences. I think I founds the stories easier to read in a way (despite the bleakness), partly because the highly personal nature of the trilogy made it feel so raw…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I completely understand, Gert…her themes are disturbing (especially those she explores in the Copenhagen Trilogy as everything feels pretty raw and personal), so she’s not for everyone for sure. The stories are more approachable, I think, but still very piercing…

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    Fantastic review, Jacqui. A good idea to divide in two, not simply because of the original publication but also because these stories are often so sad. I, too, thought she handled the perspective of the children superbly. She is so good at identifying the cracks in relationships (and, I suppose, individuals).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant! Yes, I felt I needed a bit of a breather between the two books. Plus, there’s more than enough to talk about in the first book alone to justify a dedicated piece. I’ve read the whole collection now and think it’s superb. There’s only one story (from the second book) that didn’t quite land with me – although that said, it could be interpreted as a reflection of the protagonist’s fractured state of mind. As you say, Ditlevsen has an innate ability to pinpoint the fault lines in these relationships, showing us how easy it is for families to be cleaved apart…

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    I’m terribly out of step here – everyone seems to be reading Tove Ditlevsen and loving her work, but it all sounds so utterly bleak to me. I can see she wrote perceptively and honestly about difficult situations, and perhaps her writing from a child’s point of view will be the way in for me, but must admit, right now she doesn’t much appeal.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s okay, Jule. She’s not going to appeal to everyone, for sure. Funnily enough, I had most of my book group over yesterday afternoon for tea and cake (with a few others Zooming in from different locations). We were talking about William Trevor’s short story collection, After Rain, and while most people in the group really liked the author’s observations on human nature and could appreciate the skill that had gone into crafting the stories, one member of the group found the collection unremittingly bleak. I very much doubt she’ll be reading any more of Trevor’s work in the future!

      Reply
      1. Julé Cunningham

        Maybe someday one of her books will suddenly be exactly what I want at that moment! Though I’ve been an ardent fan of Trevor’s work for a long time, I do understand why your fellow book groupie found him bleak, he doesn’t cover a dirty wall with pretty paint…

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I think he’s brilliant at capturing the small cruelties in life, the things we do and say to one another out of jealousy, distrust or spite.

          Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Liz Dexter

    I’m with Jule on this author – I admire her bravery and honesty tremendously but it’s just too bleak for me. I’m glad more of her work is getting translated and shared.

    Reply

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