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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Tove (Irma Margit) Ditlevsen (1917-1976)


Danish author who published some 30 books: poems, novels, memoirs, essays, and short stories. Tove Ditlevsen became one of the most widely read women writers in Denmark. She was known for her direct style and honest accounts of her private life. Ditlevsen enjoyed popularity from the 1940s until her tragic death in 1976.

"Jag har elsket en mand med et hjerte som dit,
derfor ved jeg lidt mere end du,
og jeg skælver af angst for den kvindes magt,
der ikke er født endnu."

(from Pigesind, 1939)

Tove Ditlevsen was born in Copenhagen. She grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Vesterbro, as the child of constantly arguing and often impoverished parents. Her father, Ditlev N. Ditlevsen, who was 37 when she was born, worked as a fireman. He was class-conscious, voted for the Social Democratic Party, and read Gorky. When he lost his job in 1924 during an economic downturn, the family was forced to turn to the poor relief for a period. The domineering figure of Ditlevsen's childhood was her mother, Alfrida (née Mundus), ten years junior to her husband.

Throughout her career, Ditlevsen viewed herself foremost as a poet. She began writing poems at the age of ten. After finishing school, she worked at an office from 1932. Her first published poem, 'Til mit døde barn,' about a mother speaking to her dead child, appeared in the magazine Vild Hvede. It was included in her first book, Pigesind (1939). Ditlevsen first attracted attention in 1941 with her novel about child molestation, Man  gjorde er barn fortæd (A child was hurt). The central character, who suffers from a sexual neurosis,  forces  herself to unearth her buried, traumatic memories to be able  reveal the identity of the culprit. Noteworthy, Ditlevsen had not read Freud before writing the novel, but basically the story portrays the mechanism underlying psychoanalytic healing.

Family  relationships and her own experiences were the focal point of  Ditlevsen's work. "Girls can't be poets," her father had once said. Among her autobiographical books is the trilogy Barndom, Ungdom,  Gift (1967-71), Vilhelms værelse (1975), and Tove Ditlevsen Om mig selv (1975), completed before her death on March 7, 1976. At the age of 58, Ditlivsen committed  suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

In her writing, Ditlevsen dealt with erotic problems, joy of love, marriage, and motherhood. Another central theme is the effects of childhood experiences on adulthood; in her youth, her friends at that time were mostly interested in sex and stealing. In the poem 'Rain' she wrote: "Drunk men / are not dangerous / said my / girlfriend / child molesters / are always sober." (transl. by Cynthia Norris Graae, Canadian Woman Studies, Vol 8, No 2, 1987) Ditlevsen's background reflected in her formally traditional poems, where the major theme was loneliness in the big city. Some of the poems in Den hemmelige rude (1961) interpreted the Grimms' Brothers Fairy Tales from a new an very personal perspective.  Ditleven had owned a copy of the Brothers Grimm in her childhood. 

Ditlevsen's first three marriages (with Viggo F. Møller, Ebbe Munck, and Carl Theodor Ryberg) in the 1940s did not bring her the happiness she expected. Emotionally exhausted, she was hospitalized after the divorces. Ditlevsen was twenty-two when she married Møller; he was thirty years her senior, editor of the literary magazine Vild Hvede. Ditlevsen, who felt that her husband did not pay enough attention to her, had an affair with the poet Piet Hein. With Victor Andreasen, a businessman and chief editor, whom she married in 1951, Ditlevsen had her most enduring relationship although they separated in 1973.

All of Ditlevsen's novels drew material from her difficult childhood, failed marriages, and her experiences as a female writer and a drug addict. From her third husband, who was a doctor, Ditlevsen received Pethidine injections. She used this addictive, narcotic drug, for years. Ansigterne (1968, The Faces) was a psychological masterpiece, exploring the psychosis of a woman, Lise Mundus, who is torn between her roles as mother, wife, and writer. "We’ve found out what kind of person you are. When you’re going to write a book, you go around looking at all kinds of other books written by people who know their stuff. You steal a sentence from every book and put them together like a puzzle, and then you make people think that you’ve written every sentence yourself." (from The Faces, transl. by Tiina Nunnally) The partly  autobiographical Vilhelms værelse was about a destructive marriage. Blurring the line between fiction and fact, the narrator and the protagonist, the work  tells of events leading to the suiduce of Lise Mundus. Kære Victor, Victor Andreasen's correspondence with Ditlevsen, which was a kind of commentary on the book, came out in 1993.  

Ditlevsen's ruthlessly honest memoirs, Det tidlige forår (1969, Early Spring), depicted her first eight years in a harsh working-class neighborhood in Copenhagen during the depression. The narrator, who is more innocent than other girls of her age, learns about politics and unemployment, drunkenness and prostitution of the adult world around her. "When we reach Gasværksvej, where we usually turn around, Ruth says, 'Let's go down and look at the whores. There are probably some who have started.' A whore is a woman who does it for money, which seems to me much more understandable than to do it for free. Ruth told me about it, and since I think the word is ugly, I've found another in a book: 'Lady-of-the-evening'." (from Early Spring) The work starts with the words "in the morning there was hope" and culminates in the publication of her first book – but at the background of this opening was a writer's block, which shadowed Ditlevsen's last creative years. In a late poem, published in Det runde værelse (1973), Ditlevsen compared herself with her cat, who was too old to catch birds: "Ikke flere fugle at jage / ingen mus at skræmme. / Ingen utvej af erindringens / labyrint. / Sagte rinder livet ud / som dråber langs et nedløbsrør."

For further reading: Om Tove Ditlevsen, ed. by Harald Mogensen (1976); Husmor og skribøse, en brevveksling med Tove Ditlevsen by Ester Nagel and Tove Ditlevsen (1986); A History of Danish Literature, ed. by Sven H. Rossel (1992); 'Tove Ditlevsen and the aesthetics of madness' by Antje C. Petersen, in Scandinavian studies, nr. 2, bd. 64 (1992);  'Minnets labyrint,' in Nordisk kvinnoliteraturhistoria 3: Vida Världen 1900-1960, ed. Elisabeth Møller-Jensen (1996); Tove Ditlevsen: myte og liv by Karen Syberg (1997); Til døden os skiller. Et portræt af Tove Ditlevsen by Jens Andersen (1997); Af Morsingbo slægt: Aksel Sandemose og Tove Ditlevsen by Svend Borg (1999); Tove Ditlevsen som ung by Frank Egholm Andersen (2004)   

Selected works:

  • Pigesind, 1939
  • Slangen i Paradiset, 1939
  • Man gjorde et barn fortræd, 1941 [A child was hurt]
    - Lapselle on tehty pahaa (suom. Yrjö Korhonen, 1950)
  •  De evige tre, 1942
  • Lille Verden. Digte, 1942
  • Barndommens gade, 1943 [The street of childhood]
  • Digte til mor of barn, 1943
  • Den fulde Frihed: noveller, 1944
    - Complete Freedom, and Other Stories (translated from Danish by Jack Brondum, 1982)
  • København, 1945 (privately printed 200 copies)
  • For Barnets Skyld, 1946
  • Blinkende Lygter. Digte, 1947
  • Dommeren: noveller, 1948
  • Kærlighedsdigte, 1949
  • Paraplyen, 1952
  • En flink dreng, 1952
  • Nattens dronning, 1952
  • Vi har kun hinanden, 1954
  • Utvalgde digte, 1954
  • Klaveret. Novelle, 1954 (privately printed)
  • Kvindesind, 1955
  • Jalousi, 1955
  • Der bor en pige, 1955
  • Foraar. Noveller, 1956
  • Annelise - 13 år, 1959
  • Flugten fra opvasken, 1959
  • Hvad nu Annelise?, 1960
  • To som elsker hinanden, 1960
  • Den hemmelige rude, 1961
  • Den onde lykke, 1963
  • Dolken, 1963
  • Der var engang en lille hest, 1963
  • Digte i udvalg, 1964
  • Min yhdlingslæsning, 1964  
  • Barnets træ, 1966-67 (illustrated by Kate Warming)
  • Erindringer: Barndom, 1967 (first part of trilogi) [Childhood]
  • Erindringer: Ungdom, 1967 (second part of trilogy) [Youth]
  • 100 Kærlighedsdigte fra hele verden, 1967 (ed.)
  • Fryght: noveller i udvalg, 1968 
  • Ansigterne, 1968
    - The Faces (transl. by Tiina Nunnally, 1991)
  • Det tidlige forår, 1969
    - Early Spring (transl. by Tiina Nunnally, 1976)
    - film: Barndommens gade, 1986, prod. Danmarks Radio (DR), dir. by Astrid Henning-Jensen, starring Sofie Gråbøl, Carl Quist Møller, Vigga Bro, Torben Jensen, Louise Fribo
  • De voksne: digte, 1969
  • Gift: erindringer, 1971 (third part of trilogi) [Married]
  • Parenteser, 1973
  • Min første kærlighed, 1973
  • Min nekrolog og andre skumle tanker, 1973
  • Det runde værelse, 1973
  • Vilhelms værelse, 1975 [Vilhelm's Room]
  • Tove Ditlevsen om sig selv, 1975 [Tove Ditlevsen about herself]
  • En sibylles bekendelser, 1976
  • Bitre hvedebrødsdage og andre kærlighedshistorier fra hele verden, 1976 (ed.)
  •  Til en lille pige: efterladte digte, 1978 
  • Digte, 1979 (ed. Knud Mogensen)
  • Noveller, 1979 (ed. Inger Christensen)
  • Kære Victor: breve fra Tove Ditlevsen til Victor Andreasen 1972-76, 1993
  • Samlede digte, 1996 
  • Al min lykke: seksten udvalgte digte af Tove Ditlevsen, 2004 (ed. Jørgen Jensen)

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