Tove Ditlevsen (1917 – 1976) was a Danish poet and author. The Copenhagen Trilogy is a three part memoir Ditlevsen wrote at a time of great personal crisis.
Part one, Childhood, covers the poet’s early teen years. Ditlevsen’s family – parents and brother, Edvin – are shamefully poor, often embarrassed by their reduced circumstances and live in a slum-like area of Copenhagen. Young Tove hangs out with the local kids, especially her friend Ruth, gossiping and exchanging lurid stories.
Tove is a sensitive girl, imaginative and introspective. She only feels truly alive and happy when she writes. Her true passion is poetry, compositions she enters in a private journal. Misunderstood by her parents and teachers, Tove plays dumb and hides her feelings. As a young poet she knows she will be ridiculed should her secret writing life be found out. When Edvin discovers her journal, he laughs out loud while reading her poems. Despite this, Tove will extend some forgiveness to her brother, who works as an apprentice printer, a job he hates.
All in all it’s a lonely and alienating existence for young Tove. She feels no love from her parents, who can only see a traditional and unremarkable career for her as a nanny, minding other people’s children. The mean, gossipy world of her friends is limiting as well. Despite this, Tove dares to dream of one day being published as a poet. She continues to write, no matter how bleak her prospects seem.
At one hundred pages, Childhood is a seductive, intimate self-portrait that ends too soon. How the reader longs for more! (Luckily, there are two more volumes, Youth and Dependency). Ditlevsen captures the essence of a troubled childhood – anxieties over belonging, grim expectations for the future and the indifferent adults who are more absorbed by their own worries. All this contributes to make Childhood a subtle work of existential brilliance. Ditlevsen shows the self stripped back to its vulnerable essence. Some of it is so private and revealing it's possible to feel like a trespasser, having almost stumbled onto a private journal.
A moving self-portrait of the poet as young, damaged soul.
Translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
Childhood, by Tove Ditlevsen. Penguin $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books