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“The living room is practically wallpapered with books…” #ToveDitlevsen #CopenhagenTrilogy #NordicFINDS

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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.

“… long mysterious words began to crawl across my soul…” #ToveDitlevsen #CoperhagenTrilogy #NordicFINDS

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Although I’ve had to drop out of some reading commitments this month, I *am* continuing to stick with Annabel’s lovely #NordicFINDS event; and actually it’s been a useful nudge to pick up an author I’ve been intending to read for a couple of years, ever since her books arrived as a Christmas gift from Middle Child. The author is Tove Ditlevsen, the series ‘The Copenhagen Trilogy’, and the book I read was the first of the sequence, “Childhood”, translated by Tiina Nunnally.

Ditlevsen (1917-1976) was a prolific Danish poet and author from a working-class background, and the Trilogy has been described as an autobiographical one. Certain, the young girl who is the narrator and protagonist shares the name of the author; born at the end of the First World War, Tove lives in a working class neighbourhood with her mother, father and older brother Edvin. It’s clear from the start that she feels she doesn’t fit in, and her relationship with her mother in particular is difficult. The child is constantly the subject of physical punishment by her mother, and despite Tove’s determination to be a poet she has to hide her ambitions.

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 it like an illness you’ve survived.

So the novella follows Tove as she negotiates school, friendship with red-headed Ruth who is younger but wilder and more knowing, seeks her mother’s love and approval, and watches her father struggle with unemployment. The relationship between Tove’s parents seems something of a mismatch; Ditlev, as Tove’s mother calls him, is a left-winger who supports workers’ causes whereas his wife is more superficial, concerned about appearances and you sense underneath the surface she’s a fun-loving girl who had her wings clipped a little.

As the story develops, Tove develops a growing closeness with Edvin, who like her can’t wait to move out of the parental home and strike out on his own. He manages to do this, but the work he’s doing is a strain and I did worry about his health going forward. Despite Tove’s continuing attempts to write, and even hints she might be able to get poems published, her future seems bleak: no chance of further education and the prospect of demeaning and soul-destroying work to bring home money for the family. I’m keen to see how her life develops in the next book.

I thought my poems covered the bare places in my childhood like the fine, new skin under a scab that hasn’t yet fallen off completely. Would my adult form be shaped by my poems? I wondered. During that time I was almost always depressed. The wind in the street blew so cold through my tall, thin body that the world regarded with disapproving looks.

The story told in “Childhood” is an absorbing one, but much of the strength comes in the telling. It’s a window, of course, into another country and another world, but added to that Ditlevsen’s writing. I find it hard to pin down quite why it’s so good; certainly she’s one of those authors who’s brilliant at conveying a lot in a few words. Her prose is crisp and beautiful, full of stunning imagery, and she paints really vivid pictures of her neighbourhood and the characters who inhabit it. Much is told obliquely or almost by omission; for example, mention of the fact Tove shares her parents’ room reveals not only the fact that she has an early awareness of the facts of life, but also makes the reader wonder about the state of the marriage. Despite this, she still has a naivety and as you read through the novella, you watch her gradually come to understand the realities of the young woman neighbour who goes out every night to earn a living, the group of girls hanging about on the corner, and that the dates of her parents’ marriage and her birth reveal much.

… as usual, I’m afraid of being found out. I feel like I’m a foreigner in this world and I can’t talk to anyone about the overwhelming problems that fill me at the thought of the future.

Tove is a a misfit; her harsh surroundings and the narrow aspirations of those she knows contrast with her intense longing for something more, expressed in her poetry. The harshness of her environment is encapsulated in the coldness and distance between the members of her family, and you sense that she is girl desperate for love and approval, which just isn’t there. The eventual development of a closeness with her brother is a spark of hope, but as I mentioned above I fear for his future.

“Childhood” was a mesmerising read, particularly because of the quality of Ditlevsen’s prose, and she certainly deserves the acclaim she’s been getting recently; I just wish I’d discovered her sooner! Fortunately I have the rest of the trilogy waiting and other work by her has been released by Penguin. So despite the fact that #NordicFINDS will end soon, I’m definitely going to continue with the sequence – whch will also have effect of dimishing the TBR! 😀

 

“… we make mistakes. What of it?” #tovejansson @SortofBooks

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It’s been a little while since the wonderful writer and artist Tove Jansson made an appearance on the Ramblings, although a quick search will definitely find you a good number of posts about her! During the lifetime of this blog, I think I’ve read all of the Moomin novels and most of her adult novels; and I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition of her work with my BFF J. back in 2017. There are still a few volumes in English which I haven’t read, and I’ve been intending to pick up one in recent months but other lovely books got in the way. However, like all Tove fans I was very excited to hear about the 2021 release of “Notes from an Island” by Tove and her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietila (translated by the redoubtable Thomas Teal and published by Sort of Books – both are responsible for the wonderful array of translated adult writings of Tove!) The book went straight on my Christmas wishlist, then came straight off again when a Very Kind Friend passed along a duplicate copy they had – thank you so much! And the book turned out to be perfect December escapist reading!

Tove and Tooti (as her partner was known) spent twenty-six of their summers on a remote, almost barren island called Klovharun, located in the Gulf of Finland. Rather radically, Jansson was in her late forties when the cabin on the island was first built, and the women had help from a maverick seaman called Brunstrom. Each summer, the two women would eacape to their island to paint and write, living their life in solitude, surrounded by the sea. “Notes…” is a book that tells the story of their lives on the island, and it’s a wonderful, evocative read.

The written narrative is drawn from two sources: notes and diary entries by Tove, and extracts from a logbook kept by Brunstrom. These elements are enhanced by twenty four beautiful illustrations by Tooti, in the form of copperplate etchings and wash drawings; and the writing and images together make up a wonderful portrait of life lived in extreme conditions. Because make no mistake about it, living on a tiny rock in the middle of the sea was not easy…

So the book follows the initial explorations of the island, the building of the structures, the constant fight against violent weather conditions, the strength of the sea, plus Tove and Tooti’s deep love for the island. These are practical women, used to living independently, and it’s inspiring to watch them construct and build and provide for themselves. It’s worth remembering, also, that Jansson had previously spent time with her family on the nearby island of Bredskar (which features in her wonderful work, “The Summer Book”) so she was no stranger to island living. However, compared with the latter island, on which vegetation grew and which was easily accessible by boat, Klovarhun was an austere setting. Nevertheless, the women lived there until they were in their seventies and felt it was no longer safe to do so. The closing pages, where they leave their island, are quite heartbreaking.

So, I would never again fish. Never again throw dishwater in the sea and be sparing with the rainwater. Never again suffer agonies for “Victoria”, and no one, no one, would ever again worry about me!

“Notes from an Island” is quite a quick read, but it’s an absolutely beautiful one. The prose and the illustrations evoke the solitude, the extremity of the conditions and above all the power and majesty of the sea. I’ve always been drawn to the ocean, perhaps because my maternal grandfather was a merchant sailor, and I can understand its deep appeal. I’ve also shared that longing for solitude and quiet, away from the constant buzz of humanity, and so I empathised deeply with the book; in fact, I ended it feeling as if I needed to rush to the nearest piece of coastline!

So a wonderful, wonderful book. If you’re a fan of Jansson’s writing you will, of course, need to read this (if you haven’t already!) If you’re new to her, I do urge you to read her work – maybe starting with “The Summer Book” (which is where I began). After that, you could certainly do no worse than to move onto “Notes from an Island”, which gives a marvellous insight into her life and work, as well as allowing a look at Tooti’s lovely artwork. Highly recommended!

*****

I’m counting this as my first read for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS challenge!

 

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