This is one of the set of books that have been cluttering my desk for months, as I got sidetracked from the #EU27Project. The Danish entry is a book I randomly found at the Senate House library, by an author who seems to have been very popular in her home country but who hasn’t been much translated: Tove Ditlevsen.
This book Early Spring (translated by Tiina Nunnally) is about her first eighteen years growing up in Copenhagen, dreaming of becoming a poet, how she persisted against all odds, her working class childhood and complete lack of interest and support of her parents.
Tove was born in 1918 in a small apartment in Copenhagen, the year the war ended and the 8 hour working day was introduced. Her older brother Edvin had been born the year the war started and the working day was still 12 hours long. Her mother was severe, distant and cold; little Tove lived in fear of her, her hopes of being loved or appreciated systematically and repeatedly crushed. Her father reads the occasional book despite the fact that his wife says: ‘People turn strange from reading. Everything written in books is a lie.’ He is the only one who understands her love of reading, but he is weak, especially when he is fired from his job at the age of 45 and struggles to find any steady employment. The banks go under and Tove’s grandmother loses all her savings. Her brother teases her mercilessly about her attempts at poetry, although it later emerges that he was secretly rather proud of her.
This is not a memoir full of charm and funny anecdotes. It depicts all the harshness, the ‘sharp corners’ of Tove’s life, the hardship of a particular time and place.
Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own… Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about like an illness you’ve survived.
However, there are lighter moments, and that is because Tove herself, in spite of all that life throws at her, has an indomitable spirit. She pursues her literary ambitions with single-minded focus, even when the editor who had promised to take a look at her work dies, even when she has to leave school and start working in hotel kitchens at the age of 15. She is candid, observant, idealistic, always eager to learn, curious about the world and ever so slightly mischievous. She makes fun of her early, entirely derivative poetic efforts, in which she talks about love and loss and other experiences that she has never had personally. For example, at the age of twelve:
… all of my poems were still ‘full of lies’, as Edvin said. Most of them dealt with love, and if you were to believe them, I was living a wanton life filled with interesting conquests.
You can read Ali’s review of this book here.