Posts Tagged ‘Tove Ditlevsen’

Books of the Year 2021 Part 2

December 28, 2021

For the second part of my ‘Books of the Year’, here are some older books I discovered for the first time:

The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe

I have always had a soft spot for novels which take the crime genre as a starting point but soon divert to somewhere similar but different – an uncanny valley, if you like, of genre expectations. No surprise, then, that Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (translated by E Dale Saunders) was one of my favourite novels of the year. It begins like a traditional noir with our narrator hired to find a missing husband; however even his client is an unreliable informant in a novel where every character is difficult to pin down and so-called ‘clues’ only introduce further ambiguity. That our detective is undergoing his own existential crisis adds to the uncertainty, and the unreliability of the maps suggests a more profound difficulty in fixing reality. Highly recommended.

The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen

Another Penguin Modern Classic reissue, Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces (translated by Tiina Nunnally) was originally published in 1968 (only a year after The Ruined Map). Presumably at least partly autobiographical, it tells the story of a writer, Lise, whose success leads to a breakdown where she comes to distrust all those around her. Ditlevsen’s skill lies in the initial plausibility of Lise’s fears, and the convincing perspective she presents throughout, particularly when she is eventually hospitalised. Rather than the fragmentation or incoherence sometimes adopted by writers to show madness, Ditlevsen presents a frighteningly rational irrationality.

Garden by The Sea by Merces Rodereda

Like Ditlevesen, Merce Rodoreda is a writer who really should have had more recognition in English. Garden by the Sea (originally published in 1967) is gentler than some of her other novels thanks, in part, to the character of its narrator, a gardener at a summer villa belonging to a wealthy couple. Rather than search for a story to tell he allows the story to come to him, and in this way Rodoreda explores the lives of the rich. From this distance we see that the ways in which they indulge themselves – including the drunken parties which damage the garden – are often a distraction from unhappiness and compare poorly to the joy the narrator finds in his garden.

Forty Lost Years by Rosa Maria Aquimbau

A second Catalan novel which impressed me this year was Rosa Maria Aquimbau’s Forty Lost Years (translated by Peter Bush), originally published in 1971 but beginning with the declaration of the Catalan Republic in 1931. The central character is Laura Vidal, a seamstress from a poor family, who is fourteen years old at this point. In the course of the novel, she becomes a successful businesswoman, the novel’s title suggesting (or at least asking the question) whether she has lost out on love in order to achieve this. The skill with which Aquimbau covers forty years of history as well as Laura’s own personal journey, in only 140 pages is remarkable.

Pigeons on the Grass by Wolfgang Koeppen

Although I had already read Wolfgang Koeppen’s first novel, A Sad Affair, I wasn’t prepared for the brilliance of his third (the second has never been translated into English) published 17 years later, Pigeons on the Grass (which benefitted from a new translation from Michael Hofmann in 2020). In the tradition of Ulysses or Berlin Alexanderplatz (but shorter) it provides us with a portrait of Munich shortly after the end of the Second World War. What makes it particularly daring is the lack of any central character for the reader to identify with, but the complexities of its structure are over-ridden by the vibrancy of its prose.

The Faces

March 8, 2021

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.

Almost Lost in Translation Part 3

June 25, 2020

The Truce by Mario Benedetti (1960, translated by Harry Morales 2015)

The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti is generally regarded as one of Latin America’s most important authors, yet, up until recently, was virtually unknown in English, with only some poetry and short stories translated. This changed in 2015 with Harry Morales’ translation of his 1960 novel The Truce, published in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic. The Truce is written in the form of a diary of an ordinary man, Santome, who is described as “a sad person with a calling for happiness.” Form is clearly important to Benedetti as the two novels to appear since, Springtime in a Broken Mirror (translated by Nick Caistor in 2018) and Who Among Us? (Morales again in 2019) both feature a number of different narrative viewpoints – in the latter this includes the viewpoint of a writer told via the mechanism of a short story he has written. You can read my review of The Truce here.

The Evenings by Gerard Reve (1947, translated by Sam Garnett in 2016)

Gerard Reve (alongside Harry Mulisch and the already mentioned W F Hermans) was one of the three great Dutch writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Like Hermans, he was still largely unavailable in English by the twenty-first century, despite at one point moving to England and writing only in English. A later novel, Parents Worry, had been translated by Richard Huijing in 1990, but that was as far as it went. Then, in 2016, Sam Garret translated his first novel, The Evenings, a Dutch Catcher in the Rye, described by Philip Huff in the New York Review of Books as “either a deeply cynical or a very funny description of the last ten days of 1946, as seen through the eyes of the young office clerk Frits van Egters.” This was followed by the translation of two early novellas under the title Childhood in 2018. You can read Philip Huff’s review of The Evenings and Childhood here.

Hill by Jean Giono (1929, translated by Paul Eprile in 2016)

Of all the writers included here, Jean Giono probably least deserves his place. Giono has been regularly translated into English, at times only a year or two after the original publication, translations kept available by publishers such as Peter Owen and the Harvill Press. (His novella The Man Who Planted Trees seems to be permanently in print). Yet, despite this, Giono has not always seemed particularly recognised or respected. In 2016 the New York Review of Books published a new translation by Paul Eprile of his first novel, Hill, a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, with its vivid description of landscape and rural life. This was followed by a translation of his Herman Melville novel (Melville – also by Eprile), and A King Alone (translated by Alyson Waters), which reads like a detective story. The three together show Giono’s versatility and range, and they have recently been joined by his Occupation Diary from Archipelago Books. You can read my review of Hill here.

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980, translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot in 2017)

Like Gerard Reve, Romain Gary also wrote in English at times but this does not mean his work is easily available. Born in Lithuania, he immigrated with his mother to France as a teenager, and wrote mainly in French. He remains the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (technically it can only be awarded to a writer once), the second time under his pseudonym Emile Ajar. In 2017 his previously untranslated final novel, The Kites, was translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot and published by New Directions in the US and Penguin Classics in the UK. The Kites tells the story of a small village in Normandy during the German occupation. In 2018 Penguin brought Gary’s wonderful autobiography, Promise at Dawn, back into print, and the same year Verba Mundi reissued The Roots of Heaven with a new introduction by David Bellos. The rest of his work remains out of print but there is, at least, now hope. You can read a review of The Kites by Adam Gopnik here.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1979-78, translated by Geraldine Harcourt 2017)

Yuko Tsishima was a Japanese writer who had won numerous prizes in her own country but had only sporadically appeared in English (in the UK her only appearances had come thanks to the Women’s Press in the late 1980s). In 2017 Penguin Classics published Territory of Light translated by Geraldine Harcourt, who had long translated and advocated Tsishima’s work. A deceptively simple novel, it’s the story of a single mother and her young child. It was followed by a reprinting of Child of Fortune (this seems an admirable tactic of Penguin) and the inclusion of Of Dogs and Walls among the fifty mini-books which celebrated Penguin Modern Classics in 2018. Sadly Geraldine Harcourt died in 2019 and we can only hope someone else will take up the baton for Tsishima’s work. You can read my review of Territory of Light here.


The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevson (1967-1971, translated by translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman in 1985 / 2019)

Tove Ditlevson was a Danish writer whose troubled life included four marriages, struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and several stays in a psychiatric hospital. The first two volumes of her autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy were translated in 1985 by Tiina Nunnally and published as Early Spring, but only in 2019 was the project completed. Originally published by Penguin Classics in three volumes (Childhood, Youth and Dependency – though in Danish the title of the final volume, Gift, apparently means both marriage and poison), a one volume edition is due in September. Penguin are also reissuing her novel The Faces next year. You can read a review of the Copenhagen Trilogy by Liz Jensen here.