1. ‘People turn strange from reading. Everything written in books is a lie.’ Welcome to February. Our Book of the Month is Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen. Her life, as these memoirs attest, contained much in the way of genius and pain. She was described as ‘the Billie Holiday of poetry’. That quote is from her mother.
2. Childhood, Youth, Dependency is the title of the combined English edition of Ditlevsen’s memoirs. They also often go by The Copenhagen Trilogy but there’s something unsettlingly dry, yet compelling, about the three-word version; like the title of a brochure at the doctor’s surgery. The original Danish title of the third book is Gift, which adds a whole other layer of revelation, meaning both ‘marriage’ and ‘poison’.
3. ‘There are hardly ever lights in any of the windows because those are the bedrooms, and decent people don’t sleep with the light on. Between the walls I can see a little square scrap of sky, where a single star sometimes shines. I call it the evening star and think about it with all my might when my mother has been in to turn off the light, and I lie in my bed watching the pile of clothes behind the door change into long crooked arms trying to twist around my throat.’ Despite being written years after the events described (the backdrop is Copenhagen from the early 1920s to the late 1940s), the books have a lot in common with the delirious detail and unflinching directness of a diary. Megan O’Grady’s review in the New York Times puts it best: ‘The trilogy arrives like something found deep in an ancestor’s bureau drawer, a secret stashed away amid the socks and sachets and photos of dead lovers.’
4. It’s like a novel too, in the sense that it’s hard to put down, but also in the way the protagonist has a dream for which she must overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Ditlevsen grows up yearning to become a poet, in a poor working-class household where that is certainly not seen as a realistic life goal. She leaves school aged fourteen and works in various menial jobs before finding success in her chosen art, already world-weary and in her early twenties, after being published in a journal called Wild Wheat. The deceptively sparse prose is punctuated with occasional samples of verse such as: In my life there are two men who cross my path incessantly – the one man is the man I love, and the other man loves only me. She is indeed married a few times, including to the editor of Wild Wheat, but she never seems particularly in love with the men in question. The ‘dependency’ of the final book is not romantic at all.
5. You finish reading and, although she’s told you so much, you want to know more. Did it all really happen like that? What did Tove Ditlevsen look like at the time? An official Facebook group collects photographs of the writer at various moments in her life: typing, happily smoking, engaged in an interview, and playing with the children whose own not especially ideal infancies we learn about in Childhood, Youth, Dependency.
6. ‘I rent a typewriter from a shop in Bagsværd, and with it I write a poem.’ Ditlevsen is often renting typewriters, which cause almost everyone she lives with to complain about the noise, such as the landlady who prefers listening to Hitler’s ‘manly, firm, resonant’ speeches. Strangely, it is still possible to rent typewriters, at least in Paris, where, to pick just one example, a restored Art Deco Remington 5, such as that used by Agatha Christie and Aldous Huxley, will set you back €30 per week. Hard to say if that’s expensive or cheap.