The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Back at the beginning of June, I wrote about Tove Ditlevsen’s 1952 short story collection, The Umbrella, which forms the first part of the recent Penguin reissue, The Trouble with Happiness. The book as a whole takes its name from the second collection included here – a volume of eleven stories, published in Danish in 1963. Ditlevsen experienced severe depression, addiction to drugs and alcohol, and several broken marriages during her life – she divorced four times. As such, many of these influences, alongside those of her austere childhood in working-class Copenhagen, have made their way into her books, these stories included.

The titular piece feels particularly autobiographical in nature, a quality augmented by its personal, almost confessional style. Here we see a talented, seventeen-year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood, desperate to spread her wings and escape the constraints of her family. The girl’s mother is severe and judgemental, while the father remains largely absent or asleep, adding to the fractured nature of life in the family’s cramped apartment. As an account, it’s shot through with a palpable sense of sadness – a melancholy mood that resurfaces now and again in the protagonist’s thoughts several years down the line.

But sometimes – when someone has left me, or I discover inadvertently in the eyes of my children a glimpse of cold observation, of merciless, unsurmountable distance, I take out my brother’s pretty little sewing case and slowly open the mother-of-pearl inlaid lid. Fight for all you hold dear, plays the worn old music maker, and an unnamed sadness swells inside my mind, because they are all dead or disappeared, and my brother and I no longer communicate. (p. 184)

Ditlevsen has an innate ability to convey the devastating effects of loneliness and isolation that women sometimes feel, especially when their marriages break down. In Perpetuation, one of my favourites in the collection, Edith finds that history is repeating itself when her husband, an academic in his mid-forties, has an affair with a much younger woman. Consequently, Edith cannot help but reflect on her father’s earlier desertion of his family under similar circumstances. Will Edith’s children blame her for the collapse of the marriage? How long will it be before their father forgets them?

What if she told her children the truth? The truth about a father whose love for a woman and tenderness for three children was diminished to a little prick in his conscience when once in a while – because it had to happen – on a street, in a trolley, or on a train, he saw a child who resembled one of them? A little pain that diminished with every embrace, every passionate night, and which in the end disappeared completely in the terrible power radiating from the body of a young, beautiful woman. (pp. 168–169)

The danger posed by youth is also a factor in The Little Shoes, another brilliantly-observed piece in this piercing collection of stories. When Helene employs Hanne, a rather self-important, insolent twenty-two-year-old girl, as a housekeeper, she begins to regret her decision, especially when the family’s stability is put at risk. With her air of working-class resentment and self-righteousness, Hanne might just be fooling around with Helene’s fifteen-year-old son, adding to a pattern of behaviour that Helene finds infuriating.

Helene had to fight back the impulse to fire her on the spot. She stood there until the girl slowly got up, wearing a shameless smile that radiated the consciousness of the sexual superior superiority of idiotic youth.

Helene took it as the kind of smile you give to an older, discarded fellow female, and she was infuriated. (p. 144–145)

Ditlevsen spares little in her withering depiction of men in these stories, many of whom are at best absent or neglectful and at worst cruel or deceitful.

In A Fine Business, a young couple, imminently expecting a child, are looking for a new house which they plan to buy with a recent inheritance. After several fruitless viewings, their estate agent alights on an ideal property, armed with the knowledge that the owner – a vulnerable mother – needs to sell quickly following the breakdown of her marriage. It’s a situation the male buyer is all too keen to exploit, working in partnership with the estate agent to secure a reduced price – an action that reveals a mercenary side to the buyer’s character. Only his heavily pregnant wife, Grete, can see the injustice of this scenario, empathising with the downtrodden seller, particularly given her own condition.

There is such a sad, hopeless atmosphere in this house, bereft as it is of much of its former furniture. And yet, this excellent story reveals so much about the characters, particularly through Ditlevsen’s insights into Grete’s private thoughts.

Why has he looked that way at the little stain on the ceiling? It was the same way he looked at the woman and a little girl, almost as if there were two defects in the house that could drive down the price. He probably wasn’t going to buy this house either. And when they got home, he would act as if he had made the most ingenious deal in his life. (p. 128)

Also rather troubling is the father’s behaviour in The Knife, an arresting story in which a mentally disturbed man feels constrained by his wife and son.

They existed like shadows inside him, thought foetuses he couldn’t get rid of, products of a weakness in him which he tried with all his might to overcome. (p. 96)

Other highlights include Anxiety, a terrifying tale of a woman cowed into submission by her intolerant husband – a newspaper copy editor who works nights and hates having his sleep disturbed during the day. Consequently, this woman is afraid to move around in her own home in case she makes a noise. Moreover, any occasional visits to her sister also come with their own problems, especially if she stays out for too long – who knows what her husband might need while she is away…

Two Women is also worthy of a mention – a beautifully observed story of a restless, depressed woman who fails to empathise with her hairdresser, despite experiencing similar anxieties and concerns. In truth, Britta has come to the beauty parlour for an escape from her own troubles, not to be dragged down by those of another.

So, in summary, a superb collection of stories, beautifully expressed in a spare, emotionally truthful style, perfectly capturing the underlying sadness and loneliness therein. Here we have stories of fractured minds, lonely, isolated women, marginalised or abandoned in their marriages by careless or cruel men. Supportive friends or family members seem few and far between, adding to the unhappiness that surrounds these protagonists. But as ever with Ditlevsen, the writing is brilliant, a factor that helps balance some of the heartbreak we find within. Very highly recommended indeed, especially for lovers of interiority in fiction.

21 thoughts on “The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

  1. 1streading

    Another great review, although reading it made me realise just how bleak these stories are. I particularly remember A Fine Business, perhaps because at least the seller has someone to sympathise with her.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly! Funnily enough, I’d read these stories (and had written this piece) back in June, alongside those from the first collection, The Umbrella, but it’s only recently that I realised it was still sitting in my drafts folder! Re-reading it now, I can remember most of the stories pretty well, which speaks volumes for the quality of Ditlevsen’s characterisation and writing. But the overall impressions I’ve been left with are feelings of loneliness, sadness, isolation and marginalisation. The sense of empathy that Grete feels for that vulnerable mother really stands out. It’s one of the few instance where some understanding is forthcoming…

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui and I totally agree with your about Ditlevsen. Her writing is excellent and she captures the emotions of her female characters beautifully; as for her men, the less said about them the better. The stories are harsh in places, and like you I couldn’t help but read these as autofiction. Thank goodness she’s been translated! :D

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, even if these stories are not strictly autofictional as such, you get the sense that Ditlevsen will have drawn on her experiences as a springboard for various scenarios here. She’s certainly tapping into some of the emotions conveyed in the Trilogy, e.g. the loneliness, isolation and lack of agency she must have felt…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, although you might find them too bleak for your tastes, Liz. Not as distressing as Ditlevsen’s autofictional Copenhagen Trilogy, but very powerful and perceptive nonetheless.

  3. gertloveday

    I haven’t read Ditlevson yet and I’m not sure that I will. She suffered a great deal but judging by your review and other writing I have read about her it seems she was completely self-focused. Too bad about her children.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I didn’t think this would be one for you, Gert, as you’ve expressed reservations before. These stories are more approachable than the Copenhagen Trilogy, as there’s a little more distance between them and the devastation in Ditlevsen’s own life; but they’re still very powerful for sure. As you say, it must have been incredibly tough on her children, having to cope with the fallout from their mother’s addictions and subsequent suicide. I cant even begin to imagine what that would have been like for them…

      1. gertloveday

        There is a very interesting essay here from Emerson College entitled Becoming One’s Mother which examines the dynsmics between Ditlevson and her mother which explains a great deal.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Many thanks for this. I just read it.

          A really interesting article with lots of information on Tove’s relationship with her mother in the early years of her life. But I’m not sure I agree with all of Baricz’s reasoning
          e.g. “Tove wants to write, but she also cannot escape the desire to be “normal and regular.” She thinks—as her mother does—that men and money are necessary to accomplish both goals.”

          One of the reasons I find it hard to write about memoirs (and some autofictional works) is my reluctance to impose my own analysis and conclusions on someone else’s reflections, especially when they’re so personal. What right do I have to declare that ‘x and be a symptom of y’ or that the author MUST have felt this way or that way about a particular aspect of their life? If I do write about them, I try to couch my own observations in possibilities rather than certainties, if that makes sense? e.g. “I wonder if…” or “there is a sense of…” or “might suggest”. Sorry for the long comment…it’s just a bit of a bugbear of mine!

  4. heavenali

    I’ve known for a while that I should explore more of Ditlevsen’s work. These stories sound excellent, what a troubled life she clearly led, no wonder her writing reflected that.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’d like these stories, Ali, although they are quite bleak. That said, I found them easier (and less distressing) to read that Ditlevsen’s memoirs because they’re fictional, albeit tapping into some resonant themes. The fact that they’re one step removed from the reality of her life makes them a little less devastating…and the writing is wonderful, of course!

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

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