The Copenhagen Trilogy
I had never heard of Tove Ditlevsen until I watched a stream of The 10 Best Books of 2021 from the New York Times, naming The Copenhagen Trilogy as one of the best books of the year. Ditlevsen was a Danish poet and author, and one of Denmark’s best-known authors. She was born in 1917 into a working-class family and during her lifetime, she published twenty-nine books of short stories, novels and poetry. Ditlevsen received numerous awards for her writing, but despite her success, she struggled with drug and alcohol abuse and died of an overdose in 1976 at age fifty-eight.
This sounds like a depressing book to read, but I thought it was beautifully written and it was obvious to me that Ditlevsen had a great talent for understanding and expressing complex feelings and conditions well beyond her youth. The poetry excerpts she includes are testament to her talent.
As a child and teenager, Ditlevsen lived with her parents in a tiny apartment in Copenhagen. Her father was a laborer and was frequently unemployed. Ditlevsen’s formal education was cut short at age fourteen when she began working in various office jobs and at eighteen, she moved out and supported herself. During that time, she published her first poem in a literary journal, then a collection of poetry and began writing novels and more poetry. As a teenager on her own, which was the norm in Denmark, she felt, “There’s something painful and fragile about being a young girl who makes her own living. You can’t see any light ahead on that road. And I want so badly to own my own time instead of always having to sell it.”
Ditlevsen’s memoir is divided into three sections: Childhood, Youth and Dependency and is largely personal. Themes of marriage, family relationships, alcoholism and suicide figure prominently. Although she mentions the socialist movement, the Depression, Hitler and the German occupation during World War II, these historical references serve only as a backdrop to her life story.
I was most shocked by the third section in which she lives recklessly, falls into addiction and in and out of marriages. Ditlevsen married and divorced four times and, during her marriage to Carl Theodor Ryberg, she became addicted to Demerol and other drugs (willingly supplied by her doctor husband) and was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Despite her personal ups and downs, Ditlevsen remains serious about writing, if nothing else. She writes, “And I realize more and more that the only thing I’m good for, the only thing that truly captivates me, is forming sentences and word combinations or writing simple, four-line poetry.”
I was completely drawn into the author’s story and touched by many of her descriptions. Special recognition should go to the book’s translators, Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman, who manage to preserve the beauty of her writing.
I highly recommend The Copenhagen Trilogy to readers who enjoy memoirs and poetry. I found the cover to be a little jarring, but don’t let that turn you away.
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