Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen trilogy, that much is already clear, is one of the great literary events of the year. And not just because little literature currently meets with as much enthusiasm as autobiographical novels, especially by women. Above all, Ditlevsen writes in a unique way. The three volumes in which the poet, who was born in a working-class district in Copenhagen in 1917, tells her life, were published and loved in Denmark in the late sixties and early seventies.
Internationally, they went unnoticed for a long time, an English translation of the first two volumes appeared in 1985, but it was not until 2019 that Penguin publishers in Great Britain took on the publication of all three parts. They were promptly a great success. In Germany it has been published by Aufbau-Verlag since mid-January under the titles “Childhood”, “Youth” and “Dependency”, roughly at the same time as the American edition. There, too, the hymns that the British press had sung will continue to be sung – and so did the participants on a prominent virtual podium at Scandinavia House in New York.
Moderated by Danish writer and critic Morten Hoi Jensen, bestselling author Rachel Kushner, translator Michael Favala Goldman and literary scholar and award-winning writer Ben Lerner met there to talk about the books and Ditlevsen’s poetic technique. First observation of the group: Ditlevsen knows very well how to give the narrated phase of life its own language, her tone of voice changes from book to book.
Ditlevsen eventually replaced the literature with the opioid pethidine
The first part of the trilogy is therefore perhaps the best, because it succeeds in depicting the child’s impartiality without having to forego its greatest enemy – the meta-reflection on childhood. That it works so well is surely due to the fact that little Tove was obviously a very likeable child, but was also repeatedly confronted with the hardships of reality. From these confrontations she sought refuge in literature.
Poetry as a retreat from reality is one of the big themes in Ditlevsen’s life. But just as reality changes as we grow up, so do the possibilities of escape. Ditlevsen finally replaces literature with the opiod pethidine, which her third husband provides, who is a doctor and for whom his wife’s addiction is more than convenient. What Ditlevsen demands of poetry, a release from reality, the opioid drunkenness can provide more reliably.
The discussion participants were also very interested in the similar importance that drugs and literature had for Ditlevsen. Especially the relationship of the two to time and the possibility that the pethidine seems to offer to escape from it. In fact, one would have to add that an addiction naturally leaves a person at the mercy of a time. In any case, Ditlevsen’s body disintegrates through the dependence as if in time lapse. Her life finally ended in 1976 with an overdose of sleeping pills.
Regardless of whether Ditlevsen writes about her relationships with family, friends or men – a certain distance from the person she should be in these relationships is always noticeable. She plays and mimics others to be normal, because that’s what she longs for too. Kushner in particular emphasized this distance, which Ditlevsen expresses through her narrative style. She keeps making fun of herself, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a pleasure to read the books.