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.