In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports about the Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles. My father had left for work and my brother was in school. So my mother was alone, even though I was there and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.
I can’t help thinking of our old mate Knausgaard as I copy this passage, the opening lines of Childhood. How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable would be his version of this, every minute detail down to the movement of the spoon detailed but conveying so much less. Here you know straightaway that you’re in the presence of a remarkable writer. Immediately we understand the mother’s detachment and dissatisfaction, and we understand the delicate balance of the relationship between mother and child, the child enthralled by this ‘inscrutable’ figure but afraid to do anything that might attract her attention. The three books of Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy – Childhood, Youth and Dependency – all have this extraordinary sharpness of recall and the same economy in conveying the subtleties of character.
Ditlevsen was a celebrated Danish writer who grew up in poverty but had early success as a poet and novelist. She’s a changeling who fits in nowhere in ‘ordinary’ life, obsessed by poetry even as a young child, happy only when she’s writing. She’s at once strangely passive, as in her relationships with men, and utterly single-minded about her need to write and her desire for recognition. There’s the same combination of combination of passivity and drive in the way she allows her story to unfold without censoring, excusing herself or second-guessing, even as in Dependency she tells the harrowing story of her long addiction to opioids.
Each of the books is wonderful in its own way: Childhood for the “I am a camera” picture of family life in the poor suburbs of Copenhagen in the 1920s and 30s, Youth for its humour and the combined optimism and despair of a teenager, Dependency for its unflinching focus on what she became as an addict. And always that lucid, unadorned prose tracking the shifts in the way the world seemed to her at the time and the paths her choices, or abnegation of choice, have led her down. I loved her unassuming bravery.
I’m often impatient with the self-absorption of memoirs. Of course a memoir has to have an element of that, but everything turns on the way the narrative balances the writer and the world around her. I think Ditlevsen has that balance exactly right.