Tove Ditlevsen

Tove Ditlevsen: Why it’s time to discover Denmark’s most famous literary outsider

‘The Billie Holliday of poetry’ was ignored by the male establishment, but her pioneering autofiction is finally being recognised around the world

“I talk about my book which has been returned from Gyldendal with a strange response, insinuating that I have been reading too much Freud,” Tove Ditlevsen writes of a publisher rejection. “I don’t even know who Freud is.”

Bleak, honest, wryly funny: the Danish author’s three-part memoir, Childhood, Youth, Dependency charts Tove Ditlevsen’s emergence from a working-class corner of Copenhagen to becoming one of its best-known literary stars. By the time of her death at 58 in 1976, she had published 29 books, having published her first poetry collection while barely out of her teens. Ditlevsen’s work has been adapted for the stage, screen and even the pop charts; her long-running agony aunt column has recently been released as a door-stopping compendium. The Scandinavian answer to Salinger, she is taught to Danish schoolchildren. Why, then, has it taken the UK a century to publish her work – and why should we read her now?

First, though, the books. While Ditlevsen may have broken out as a poet – her debut collection, Pigesind, was published in 1939, when she was 22 – it is the memoirs and novels of the late Sixties for which she is now being recognised beyond Denmark. Translated into Childhood, Youth, Dependency, and otherwise known as The Copenhagen Trilogy, Ditlevsen’s retelling of her life has been variously compared to Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet and the writing of Jean Rhys and dubbed “a manifesto for art”.

Dependency is the swirling and compulsive story of Ditlevsen’s Demerol addiction that she reports on, as if from above, even while going under

Ditlevsen’s first-person narrator shifts subtly over the three books, from the naïve frankness of Childhood (“Time passed and my childhood grew thin and flat, paperlike. It was tired and threadbare, and in low moments it didn’t look like it would last until I was grown up”) to the winking satire of Youth. Dependency, translated from the title Gift – which in Danish means both “married” and “poison” – is the swirling and compulsive story of Ditlevsen’s adulthood and the four marriages and Demerol addiction she manages to report on, as if from above, even while going under.

Much as the trilogy is memoir, it can’t entirely be trusted as Ditlevsen’s biography. “She was constantly playing with this line between biography and fiction,” says Sherilyn Hellberg, an academic who is writing a book about the author. Even basics, such as her date of birth (according to history, December 1917; according to her books, a year later) are subject to such massaging. As she writes in Childhood, “There exist certain facts. They are stiff and immovable, like the lampposts in the street, but at least they change in the evening when the lamplighter has touched them with his magic wand.” While her novel The Faces is told from the perspective of a character, a woman named Lise, the narrator is nevertheless an author for whom “fame had brutally ripped away the veil that has always separated from reality”. As Hellberg points out: “You can see there’s a lot of the same material and subjects being dealt with.”

It’s hardly surprising, then, that a campaign to re-appraise Ditlevsen in her centenary year of 2017 saw her posited as the 'original master of autofiction' – a term meaning fictionalised autobiography – just as authors such as Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Linn Ullmann were taking the genre mainstream.

A flatlay Tove Ditlevsen's books Childhood, Youth and Dependency
Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

But why did Ditlevsen, an author so well-known in Denmark, need a re-appraisal? “Just talking about reading her seems to inspire all these really strong emotional reactions,” says Hellberg, who encountered Ditlevsen while working towards a PhD, "There were all these debates about should Ditlevsen actually be read and was she worthy of being an object of literary criticism. It was really bizarre but also fascinating.”

In Ditlevsen's novel The Faces, Lise’s children’s books “had been nicely reviewed in the women’s pages, had sold well, and had been reassuringly overlooked by the world that was preoccuped with literature for adults”. And so it was with the author herself and what Hellberg refers to as “this very male, very European tradition of modernism”. The men in Denmark’s mid-century literary circles – not unlike those who frequent the dizzying parties of Dependency – “don’t really want to accept Tove Ditlevsen into their ranks”. She was snubbed for literary prizes. Even recently, in a documentary celebrating Ditlevsen’s life, did a male contemporary dismiss her rhyming structure.

“She is loved by generations of women and put down by generations of men,” wrote Danish writer Dorthe Nors in an email to literary critic Lucy Scholes, in 2018 – around the time feminist academics were trying to re-frame Ditlevsen’s work. “LOVED by women readers. I mean: LOVED!” Nors described Ditlevsen as “the Billie Holiday of poetry… her prose turned the dreams and disappointments of life as a woman inside out".

The beauty of Ditlevsen arriving as a relative unknown on our shores is that 'you can present her in a clean slate'

Gender expectations filter throughout The Faces and The Copenhagen Trilogy – Lise considers herself endlessly in competition, both as a mother and a lover, to her live-in nanny; the young Tove defies her father’s belief that “a girl can’t be a poet”, submitting work to literary journals while her contemporaries are experiencing teenage pregnancy – and at times Ditlevsen’s work still seems defined by them. A recent issue of Harper’s Bazaar grouped Ditlevsen in the genre “sad girls in Europe”. “Tove Fever”, the name given to the rush of new interest in Ditlevsen in her native country, has been experienced “especially among a new generation of young women who have embraced her authorship with great women”, according to Lise Broen Rosenberg Dahm, Ditlevsen’s literary agent.

But, says Hellberg, the beauty of Ditlevsen arriving as a relative unknown on other shores – The Copenhagen Trilogy is currently undergoing translation in 16 territories – is that “you can present her on a clean slate".

There’s a biography of Ditlevsen nestled inside the cover of The Copenhagen Trilogy that boils her life story down to select facts (“her personal life was troubled. She struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and was admitted to psychiatric hospitals several times”). But while such personal tragedy can often overshadow women writers’ work – Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf are two such examples – in translation, Ditlevsen is freed from the reputation that dogged her in Denmark, and is able to stand on the merit of her work alone.

A century on, and Ditlevsen is finally being allowed new ground. No longer a much-discussed outlier of the male establishment, nor a public figure known as much for her problems as her poetry. Instead, she stands on her own literary merit – exactly as she wanted as a girl. 

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Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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