Posted on January 22, 2016
In this part of the world it’s supposed to be summer, but the weather lately has been a mish-mash of all four seasons.
Last weekend was early spring. Not literally, but literarily.
After last year’s discovery of a new (to me) writer and a copy of The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton, I found another writer and book I’d previously been unaware of.
It was a quotation on the back cover of the book that leapt out at me …
“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.”
What I’d stumbled upon was a $2 copy of Early Spring – an English translation of the first two volumes of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs Barndom (Childhood) and Ungdom (Youth) originally published in 1967.
“Tove Ditlevsen is one of Denmark’s best loved writers, and the author of over thirty books of poetry and prose. Yet she grew up in lonliness and poverty, a clumsy and ungainly child in a working-class area of Copenhagen in the 1930s. Despite this Tove never lost sight of her dream and one aim in life – to become a poet. Early Spring is her own account of those first 18 years, poignant, funny and unforgettable. It is a story of immense courage and hope.”
The book gets off to an impressive start, as Tove introduces us to her mother …
“… on the flowered wallpaper hung a picture of a woman staring out of a window. On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child. Below the picture it said, “Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.” Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad. But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once. My heart pounded with anguish because the silence in the world was now broken, but I laughed with her because my mother expected me to, and because I was filled by the same cruel mirth as she was.”
The more I read this book the more my admiration for Ditlevsen – and the writer tasked with translating her words into English – grew.
Tina Nunnally, recipient of the 1984 American-Scandinavian translation prize for her work on Tove Ditlevsen, is a freelance translator and interpreter, she has also published critical articles on Danish women writers.
In her introduction to Early Spring, Tina writes:
“Translating is rather like taking a house apart, brick by brick, and then rebuilding it. You must examine every sentence, turn over each word. But the translated version will never be exactly the same as the original. It is a reconstruction. The translator hopes that it will be as sturdy and well-built as the original.
The translating process reveals a great deal about the writing skill and talent of the author. I learned to appreciate Ditlevsen’s careful choice of words and her keen sense of irony. Her writing style is natural, fluid, colloquial, and deceptively simple. It was a difficult task to transform her lyricism, her wit, and the easy flow of her words into English.”
Tove Ditlevsen grew up in the working-class neighbourhood of Vesterbro, Copenhagen. Her childhood experiences and her marriages (she was married and divorced four times) were the focal points of her work.
Tove published 29 books including short stories, novels, poetry and memoirs. She also wrote an advice column (reputedly sometimes in a less than sober state) for a Copenhagen newspaper.
“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. Every time Aunt Agnete visited us, she said, “Goodness gracious, how you’re growing!” “Yes,” said my mother and looked at me pityingly, “if only she’d fill out a bit.” She was right. I was as flat as a paper doll and clothes hung from my shoulders like from a hanger.” – Early Spring, page 62.
A third volume of Ditlevsen’s memoirs, Gift (Married) was published in 1971. It details the personal tragedies that were to shadow her later life.
In an article published in 1972 in the Danish newspaper Politken, Ditlevsen told the story behind the memoirs. They were written during a period of great depression; she had been unable to write for three years. Suddenly one evening …
“Six little words rose up from the depths of my soul like the first feeble beginnings of something – what it was I didn’t know. Or why they appeared when I was close to death. The words were: “In the morning there was hope!” Burning with desire to continue, I rushed for my typewriter and for the first time in three cursed years I wrote something that was good.”
Tove Ditlevsen’s 1958 Erika “skrivemaskinen”
Images (above and below) from a collection of Tove Ditlevsen’s poems and prose. ‘ I would be a widow , I would be a poet ‘ edited by Olga Raven and published by Gyldendal in 2015.
Photo collages were created by the photographer Sophie Amalie Klougart.
A stage production Tove, Tove, Tove by the all-female Art Collective Black Conscience ...
Readings and dramatizations based on Ditlevsen’s poetry and her memoirs …
With members of the collective all dressed alike in ‘Tove Ditlevsen’ wigs and glittery eye makeup …
In real-life, Tove didn’t see the need for make-up, except perhaps to make a point about the expectations that were put upon her by men. She took her own life in 1976 after a long battle with alcoholism and depression.
It’s not hard to understand why she’s one of Denmark’s best loved writers.