You translated one volume of Tove Ditlevsen’s three-book memoir, “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” which was published in English in 2019, and you have now translated a collection of her stories, “The Trouble with Happiness,” which will come out in March, 2022. How did you first get involved in the Ditlevsen project?
In the fall of 2016, I was browsing the bookstore in Billund Airport, in Denmark, to see what I could add to my reading material, and I came across Ditlevsen’s memoir “Gift,” a word in Danish that means both “married” and “poison.” A number of her books were being reissued in Denmark around the time of the centennial of her birth. I had read one of her novels years before and I decided to buy “Gift,” knowing nothing about it. I distinctly remember saying to myself, after I had read the final pages and laid the book down, “I think I just read a masterpiece.” My research showed that the book had not been translated into English, even though it was nearly half a century old. I applied for a grant to do a sample translation, which I received. But, when I’d finished the first fifteen pages or so, I decided to keep going. I was captivated by the book and I believed in its value, so I translated the rest on spec, hoping to find a publisher for it.
What was it that drew you to her work?
For me, the strength of her work lies in her voice and her subject matter. Tove Ditlevsen was a poet first, and she published ten poetry collections. She has a poet’s ear: her prose is concise and precise; there’s no fat on her pages. She also speaks with authority, as if she were telling the reader, her confidant, the whole truth, with nothing left out or added. “Gift,” which was titled “Dependency” in “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” is a memoir of her life from the age of about twenty-three to thirty-five, years during which she became a high-profile, best-selling author, had four marriages, two back-alley abortions, and a five-year, near-fatal addiction to opioids. All this in just over a hundred pages. Despite the dramatic events, she maintains a sense of humor, a drive for self-determination, and a vulnerability that drew me in, and taught me that dependent behavior is a universal element of the human experience, and not an individual fault to judge and dismiss.
Ditlevsen, who died in 1976, has long been considered an important figure in Denmark. Why do you think she wasn’t prominently translated into English sooner?
Actually, about thirty years ago, the first two volumes of “The Copenhagen Trilogy”—“Childhood” and “Youth”—were published by Seal Press, and the Ditlevsen novel “The Faces” was published by Fjord Press, all to great reviews, after being translated by Tiina Nunnally. But these were small presses, and the books went out of print. I think it was a stroke of genius on the part of Penguin Classics to publish Ditlevsen’s three memoirs together, which had never been done before. Given the opioid epidemic in the U.S., “Dependency” was a clincher in the series, and the relevance and skill of Ditlevsen’s writing cannot be ignored. It boggles my mind that no translator or publisher made this happen before now.
Do you think that this story, “The Umbrella,” is representative of Ditlevsen’s fiction?
Tove Ditlevsen knows how to read a room. I feel she is so precise about revealing the masks that we adults wear—pride, powerlessness, for example—to cover up our immaturity. Ditlevsen’s fiction tends to be realistic and heavy, with no happy endings. So, yes, “The Umbrella” fits this description.
To me, the voice of the story seems quite similar to that of her memoir. Do you feel that there’s overlap between the autobiography and the fiction?
There is a ton of overlap. Several of the stories in the collection “The Trouble with Happiness” appear to be extrapolations of scenes that are mentioned only briefly in her memoirs. The woman with the umbrella appears as an early memory of Ditlevsen’s in Chapter 5 of “Childhood.” There is no doubt that Ditlevsen mined her life for material. She was adored for this during her lifetime, especially by female Danish readers, but also looked down upon by the male Danish writing establishment. I think she was ahead of her time.
Helga, the protagonist of “The Umbrella,” leads a life that seems emotionally stunted. She feels very little, even for her husband. The only thing that makes her truly come alive is a memory from childhood, involving an umbrella. Why do you think she invests so much in the image of that umbrella?
The ideas of conforming and belonging have a strong influence in Danish society. When Tove Ditlevsen was a girl, she was told that a “girl can’t be a poet.” Her family was working-class, and she was not able to go to high school, because she had to work. She followed her parents’ desire for her to marry up. I feel that Egon’s crushing Helga’s umbrella is not unlike Tove’s brother finding her poetry journal and making fun of her (as he does, in the memoir). To me, Helga’s thwarted longing for an umbrella symbolizes the desire to share one’s unique expression being crushed by the need to conform.
Helga is the hero of the story, but she seems to exist in a kind of solipsistic fugue state. She has never tried to put herself in another person’s shoes; her entire character consists of “a pile of memories.” Egon, meanwhile, is the villain of the story. And yet he has been somehow duped. He thought he was marrying a woman who would love him. Instead, his wife has no real interest in him, and her desires are unfathomable. Do you think that Ditlevsen wants us to feel for him as well as for Helga?