A year ago, as part of Annabel’s inagural Nordic FINDS challenge, I read the first volume in Tove Ditlevsen’s acclaimed ‘Copenhagen’ trilogy, “Childhood. I haven’t neglected this author, rating very highly her short story collection “The Trouble with Happiness” which I reviewed for SNB last April; but it has taken me until the second year of Annabel’s challenge to pick up book two of the trilogy and I’m very glad I did!

“Youth” (translated again by Tiina Nunnally) follows on from the first book with young Tove still struggling to forge her own identity. She’s in those difficult teenage years, having been forced to leave school and go out to work as the family is impoverished; and the narrative sees her moving from one awful job to another, struggling to cope with the unwanted attentions of all kinds of men, having a first boyfriend but feeling no real passion for any male, and, most importantly of all, trying to make it as a serious poet – a perhaps surprising ambition for a young girl of the time.

Throughout her quest to write, she is constantly seeking a mentor, and after the loss of the first editor who encouraged her in book 1, she encounters Mr. Krogh. An antiquarian bookseller, he seems to be unhealthily interested in Tove’s friend; however, when it comes to Tove herself he recognises something different and their friendship is an intellectual one. When he suddenly and dramatically disappears she is bereft, but after a diversion into amateur dramatics, she perseveres in her search for a mentor and by the end of the book is finally on her way to being a published author. Whether this will bring her happiness is another matter, I guess, and one which will become clearer in the final book of the trilogy, “Dependance”.

… I look around at my family, at these faces that have surrounded me my whole childhood, and I find them tired and aged, as if the years that I’ve used to grow up have exhausted them completely. Even my cousins, who are not much older than me, look worn out and used up.

As with “Childhood” this is a short book, yet within its pages a *lot* happens. We witness Tove’s complex relationship with parents which changes as she moves out of the family home into a series of awful rented rooms, existing just above the poverty line but desperate to be independent. There are marriages and deaths in the family, with brother Edvin marrying against his mother’s wishes; and it’s amusing to see Tove churning out song lyrics for those who need them during her various employments.

Death is not a gentle falling asleep as I once believed. It’s brutal, hideous, and foul-smelling. I wrap my arms around myself and rejoice in my youth and my health. Otherwise my youth is nothing more than a deficiency and a hindrance that I can’t get rid of fast enough.

The narrative tone of “Youth”, in the first person and seemingly remarkably straightforward, gives the book an immediacy; however, as I mentioned in my post on “Childhood”, this tone is deceptive and she conveys much in her crisp prose. There are layers in the story often only hinted at, and while reading the book I was totally immersed in Tove’s life and world. In the first book, I sensed a person craving affection that wasn’t there; however, in “Youth”, although she expresses a wish for husband and children, it’s her writing plus intellectual stimulation and understanding which seem the most important to her. It will be interesting to see here balancing those needs as her story continues.

I doubt if I’ll get to book three of Ditlevsen’s great work for Annabel’s event, but I’m so glad it gave me the push to pick up “Youth” right now (and I really will try to get to “Dependancy” a bit quicker…) Ditlevsen was obviously a remarkable and distinctive author, and I’m so glad her work has been rediscovered.