The Faces

Tove Ditlevesen’s The Faces, written in 1968, translated by Tiina Nunnally in 1991, and now published in Penguin Modern Classics, is a novel of mental breakdown. Lise, a writer who has recently found success with the publication of her novel, The Deviant, lives with her husband Gert, her three children, Soren, Mogens and Hanne, and Gitte, who we might call her ‘personal assistant’, though Lise now has a troubled relationship with her, suspecting her of working against her (“Gitte required more alertness than the others”), as she increasingly does with everyone in her life. Her husband, she feels, “had taken her fame as a personal affront” and is unfaithful to her. In the novel’s opening pages, he tells her that his mistress has committed suicide by taking an overdose:

“What were you supposed to feel or say when your husband’s lover has taken her own life?”

A reasonable question, but Lise’s reaction is unusually detached, and she soon interprets the suicide as a plot against her, believing that Gert and Gitte plan for her to overdose on the sleeping tablets she takes, a suspicion confirmed when she overhears them talking through the pipes in the bathroom:

“We’ll manage to break her if we’re patient. Leave the pills on your dresser.”

Ditlevsen skilfully involves us in Lise’s perception of the world as a constant threat:

“The danger was approaching from many directions at once.”

Partly this is the reader’s unconscious association with the character’s viewpoint, but also because we see her as the victim of Gert’s infidelity and Gitte’s bossiness. She is particularly afraid of Gitte (“Fear filled the room like a liquid”) and when she does take the overdose that she believes they have planned for her (while also phoning her psychiatrist, Dr Jorgensen) she sees it an escape:

“She longed for peace and tried to imagine what the word meant.”

Most of the novel is thereafter set in the psychiatric institution where Lise is taken (Ditlevsen herself was institutionalised on a number of occasions). There we realise the full extent of her illness, throwing into doubt the dependability of the previous narrative. She believes one of the nurses is Gitte, and she hears voices:

“The voice was coming from her pillow, and she proceeded to examine it and wasn’t surprised when she found a speaker there too, inside the pillowcase.”

She also hears voices coming from the pipes, just as at home, frequently the voices of Gert and Gitte. She even begins to doubt Dr Jorgensen after the voices tell her he is in debt and has been bribed:

“Had he really allied himself with all the others against her?”

If we are to believe the voices, her distress originates in guilt she feels at a lack of political engagement and empathy for wider suffering throughout the world – perhaps more a concern of the sixties than of the present. When she donates money to striking mine workers in Spain the voices tell her, “You didn’t feel anything at all for the people you were helping.” She is accused of quoting Hemingway:

“Let those who want to save the world do so… if only I can be left in peace to comprehend it clearly and directly in its entirety.”

Gitte’s voice threatens to torture Soren, saying “Since you won’t bear your share of the world’s suffering, he’ll have to do it.” Lise’s guilt most likely lies in the choice between her art and the world. At the beginning we are told:

“Only when she wrote did she express her own self and she had ho other talent.”

And Gert’s voice tells her that “everything else takes second place to your perverse obsession.” Ditlevesen demonstrates that accusations she has become detached from those around her are not entirely unfounded. She describes Gitte as “a ventriloquist’s dummy who has taken control from her owner”, and her friend Nadia as being like “the china doll from her childhood.” In the hospital a nurse’s face is like “a childish sketch absent-mindedly scribbled in the margin of a composition book.” People have become inanimate objects to her, hence her obsession with faces which she often describes as if they were masks. In the opening pages she talks about how, when sleeping, faces are “blank and peaceful”:

“Maybe they had even taken off their faces and had placed them prudently on top of their clothes, to give them a rest.”

The Faces may be a book of madness but it does not take the approach of textual incoherence – in fact, from within, Lise’s madness is nothing if not coherent. It is also more about the journey out of madness than the descent into it, a journey characterised by fear rather than hope:

“Lise felt helpless and forsaken and she realised, filled with horror, that the sickness was on its way out of her mind.”

The Faces is a personal story of breakdown and recovery but it also raises wider questions concerning the relationship of art to life, particularly for women; questions which remain to this day. It also demonstrates once again what a wonderful writer Ditlevsen is despite the doubts which plague Lise in this powerful novel.

Tags: ,

6 Responses to “The Faces”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds marvellous Grant – very much an unreliable narrator, and perhaps a particularly female type of narrative (thinking back to books like The Yellow Wallpaper).

  2. winstonsdad Says:

    on my list of writers to read Grant this one sound good

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Just skimming your review for now as it’s a book I’d like to read without too much prior knowledge (if that makes sense). Slightly off-topic, but I couldn’t help thinking of another writer in the context of this…Have you read much of Ann Kavan’s work (I have a feeling I may have sent you Guilty at some point)? If not, I think you’d find it interesting…

    • 1streading Says:

      YES< I do that too! I've only ever read Anna Kavan's Ice. I only have one other of her books, A Scarcity of Love, but your comment makes me want to get to it sooner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: