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the complete review - memoirs
The Copenhagen Trilogy - III
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- Danish title: Gift
- The third volume in The Copenhagen Trilogy
- Translated by Michael Favala Goldman
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B+ : intriguing and well-written
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The NY Rev. of Books*
|The NY Times*
|The NY Times Book Rev.*
|The New Yorker*
|Wall St. Journal*
[* review of entire The Copenhagen Trilogy]
Very impressed, and this one the most powerful of the three volumes
From the Reviews:
- "As her dependency on Demerol and her supplier deepens, the narrative becomes utterly, agonisingly compulsive. It builds to a wrenching climax made all the more poignant by the fact that after five years of virtual captivity in the realm of addiction, Ditlevsen -- finally clean, but a stranger to her own children -- remains shakily aware that the gift of her third marriage lingers in her blood." - Liz Jensen, The Guardian
- "Dependency turns into a relentless, highly controlled account of the experience of madness. (...) Ditlevsen is a master of slow realization, quick characterization, and concise ironies." - Lauren Oyler, Harper's
- "In Dependency the writing becomes more urgent still, not just from its subject matter but through the richness of sustained set pieces, such as a gruelling pursuit to find a doctor to carry out an abortion for her." - John Self, New Statesman
- "Up until this point, the author's talents have made the fairly banal disorders of her life riveting, but now things take a turn, and no horror movie I've ever seen -- however potent its imagery or metaphor -- has come near the rest of the book for sheer terror. (...) The haste with which The Copenhagen Trilogy concludes -- its declaration of the provisional triumph of love -- leaves one's heart pounding." - Deborah Eisenberg, The New York Review of Books
- "They exert a particular fascination, these books. It's like watching something burn. The language is plain, unadorned, almost masklike -- a provocative composure that settles even more tightly over the narration as we enter Dependency, in which Ditlevsen describes her years of addiction." - Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
- "(N)othing in her memoirs' first two volumes quite prepares you for what's to come. (...) So unsparingly abject is her rendering of addiction -- I frequently found myself having to pause, finger in book, and take a breath -- that an episode involving Evelyn Waugh, whom she charms at a literary party before being dragged off humiliatingly by her lunatic husband, has an almost leavening effect." - Megan O'Grady, The New York Times Book Review
- "As I read the third volume of The Copenhagen Trilogy, Dependency (...), I marvelled, again and again, at Ditlevsen's authority -- and at her shoulder-shrugging. (...) Ditlevsen is constantly performing a dance of the seven veils. Despite her bluntness on the page, no one in her life can know her." - Hilton Als, The New Yorker
- "It's the final book in the trilogy, Dependency, that is the most memorable. (...) Ditlevsen's trilogy is remarkable not only for its honesty and lyricism; these are books that journey deep into the darkest reaches of human experience and return, fatally wounded, but still eloquent." - Alex Preston, The Observer
- "They capture the naivety, terror and rapture of her early life across a fast-changing palette of prose colours." - Boyd Tonkin, The Spectator
- "With every conscious literary device she is depicted as a non-volitional being, drifting half-consciously from one marriage to another, from one pregnancy to another, kept alive and held together only by a desperate passion for putting words together. Which indeed Mrs Ditlevsen can do. (...) The secret of her prose is a power for minute and accurate observation." - Times Literary Supplement
- "Ditlevsen's literary project cannot be dismissed as escapism. She looks the slimy and intolerable in the eye and burnishes it into cut glass. She's a writer who, like Jean Rhys, explores the seamy ambiguities of female abjection -- with a voice whose power blasts through. The subjective truths she tells are about agency and passivity, narcissism and self-destruction, artistic idealism and psychological squalor. Paradoxically, the sense of immediacy and authenticity she projects is achieved through language that often feels uncannily dissociated." - Lucasta Miller, Times Literary Supplement
- "Die Geschichte von Sucht und Heilung bildet den zweiten Teil des Buches. Im ersten erzählt Tove Ditlevsen von ihrem Leben während der Besatzungszeit, Ton Liebesabenteuern und unerwünschten Schwangerschaften, von improvisierten Festen und ersten schriftstellerischen Erfolgen -- alles mit unsentimentaler Offenheit und ohne nachträgliches Aufschönen, wie in ihren autobiographischen Romanen. Auch Ereignisse aus dem literarischen Leben jener Jahre sind gänzlich unverschlüsselt wiedergegeben" - Hadayattdlah Hübsck, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Dependency is the concluding volume of Tove Ditlevsen memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy.
As widely noted, the Danish title, Gift, translates as both 'married' and 'poison'; the memoir is divided into two parts, and indeed the first is dominated by the stories of Ditlevsen's (first) marriages, and the second by her drug-dependency.
Dependency begins with Ditlevsen already enjoying success as a writer -- and settled into domestic life, as the wife of the (considerably -- thirty years) older Viggo F. Møller.
Apparently her need for a sense of security was greater than she had really let on, and, grateful to Møller -- such a helpful facilitator of her first successes --, she readily accepted the stability marriage to him allowed for; indeed, she notes: "I'm so thankful he married me".
(Ditlevsen writes that, at this point, she is still only twenty, but she's shaving a few more years off here; she's twenty-three by this time.)
The marriage does not exactly live up to the ideals or even expectations of this kind of union: "I know something still isn't quite right", Ditlevsen notes (while burying herself in her work, her first novel).
The couple doesn't share a bed -- "Viggo F. has lived alone for so many years that he can't get used to suddenly sleeping with another person" -- and, indeed, don't share pretty much anything approaching physical intimacy.
Møller does expose her to a circle of established artists, but she feels ill at ease with them -- preferring even just the: "sad and uniform" evenings at home when it's just the two of them .....
She does start up a Young Artists Club, which allows her to enjoy the company of others her age; soon enough, she's tempted by one of them, Piet Hein, and ditches Møller -- and of course Piet turns out to be a flighty cad and soon leaves her for another woman.
Soon enough there's the next man in her life, Ebbe, and when he gets her pregnant they marry.
Sex -- which Ditlevsen had finally got the hang of and found she enjoyed -- becomes a problem yet again when she finds that she has lost all desire to sleep with Ebbe after the birth of their daughter.
It wears on the relationship, but things finally get back more to normal -- only for Ditlevsen to find herself pregnant again; she doesn't want to keep the baby and has an abortion.
An excursion with a friend to a party leads to her sleeping with another man -- a scientist, Carl -- and finding herself pregnant again.
Carl is equipped to handle the situation and performs a curettage; he also gives her a shot of Demerol for the procedure .....
Ditlevsen had always seemed in control of her life, but there are a few hints along the way of a certain predisposition.
In Youth she notes: "I don't care for the wine, but I like the effect".
That's nothing compared to that first hit of Demerol, where: "a bliss I have never before felt spreads through my entire body".
And infatuated Carl misreads her completely, giving her the second shot when she asks because he's under the impression: "You don't have the makings of an addict".
Arguably, it's true she doesn't have the makings -- from that first shot she's a full-fledged, do-anything-for-a-fix addict.
She'll do anything to have a handy supply and willing provider at hand, so she readily, essentially overnight, shifts all allegiances from Ebbe to Carl.
She goes so far as to marry him, too, and they even have two kids -- yet from the first, Ditlevsen wonders:
What if I told him the truth ?
What if I told him I was in love with a clear liquid in a syringe and not with the man who had the syringe ?
It takes a while before it dawns on well-meaning and besotted Carl just how dependent his wife is; the mental instability running in his own family ultimately also don't help matters too much.
Admitted to a clinic, she is weened off the drugs, and can eventually return home; here yet another man comes into her life, Victor, who would become her fourth (and final) husband.
The challenge of staying clean proves difficult, but Victor finally manages to create an environment where she can't readily succumb to her desperate impulses; a final summing up has her realizing that that urge will always be there, but also having settled into a family life she feels comfortable with.
(Reasonably comfortable, but apparently not for the duration; this marriage also ended in divorce, and five years after publishing Dependency Ditlevsen committed suicide.)
Just how powerful the appeal of the drugs was is made clear by the fact that they displaced writing for her.
From earliest childhood on, writing has meant everything to her: it is who she is:
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.
The outsize importance of writing is, of course also dangerous, with Ditlevsen complaining: "for me life is only enjoyable when I'm writing".
Though she has warm relationships with many people -- family, friends, husbands -- the human relationship is never quite fulfilling enough; the drugs, on the other hand, offer a release and euphoria that she can find nowhere else, and even writing can't really compete with that.
It takes fairly desperate measures to see the final break through, and it seems unlikely she could have managed without Victor's determination (plus a move out of Copenhagen): ultimately writing won out, but not necessarily because that was her choice.
The Copenhagen Trilogy as a whole is a solid memoir.
Very much focused on the author, there's also a lot of color of the place and times; much of Dependency takes place during the Nazi occupation, and there are times when the matter-of-fact treatment of that as background material can almost be more disturbing than if there was a greater focus on it.
Ditlevsen has nice touch with her observations, keen and quick, and quickly moving on -- she rarely lingers on anything, making for a powerful understated effect.
Ditlevsen still remains something of a mystery -- there's much left unsaid and unexplained -- but The Copenhagen Trilogy is reasonably substantial; of course, given how things played out another volume or two covering the next decades would certainly also have been of interest.
Most importantly, however, Ditlevsen is a very fine writer; obviously her poetry -- of which there is a decent sampling here -- and fiction is of much greater interest; certainly one hopes that this will help bring more of that into English as well.
- M.A.Orthofer, 17 January 2021
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Reviews (* review of entire The Copenhagen Trilogy):
Other books by Tove Ditlevsen under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Danish author Tove Ditlevsen lived 1917 to 1976.
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© 2021 the complete review
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