Whenever I read a memoir that deals with childhood at all, I find it impossible to not think about Tolstoy talking about families. I never quite know if I buy it or not, or if it just works for Anna Karenina, the novel, not the woman. But too much of contemporary memoir is based in the idea that someone has a very specific story to tell, based on a kind of trick or conceit that has fueled their memoir. While I do sometimes want inside stories of particular celebrities or politicians or sports stars (and I know that too often we’re going to mostly be getting a Tracy Austin breaking David Foster Wallace’s heart situation with these kinds of memoirs), I don’t tend to like memoirs where someone was published simply because the story itself was interesting. I much prefer good writers to make a good story out of whatever experiences they’ve happened to have had. Sometimes it’s true that great writers have had amazing experiences, like Nabokov writes about in Speak, Memory, but most of the time you have a good writer figuring out how best to the story they happen to have to tell. Harry Crews’s A Childhood, all of Mary Karr, Jesmyn Ward’s The Men we Reaped, and others like that. I also think more people need to realize, going back to Tolstoy, that being given a glimpse of a family from the inside is such a gift. You need to hear this now: your family is impossibly weird, and it doesn’t take much storytelling talent for a reader to agree with that. Sometimes weird means horrifying, sometimes it means delightful, but what’s normal to you is not normal to any one else.
Luckily for us, Tove Ditlevsen’s family is weird but also she is a premier storyteller. Born in 1912 or so Ditlevsen’s memoir is broken into three parts. Youth begins when she is around five. Her father is a Communist who loves reading, while her mother is religious (kind of, in the way that some mothers become increasingly more religious as they get older, possibly to spite a book-reading Communist husband) and believes that books makes someone weird. Her mother is imminently concerned that no one think any one is weird. She also has an older brother. She positions the beginning of the memoir around the end of the first world war, which allows us to get a solid handle on the time, but also to position the world of Denmark and her father’s politics within the fallout of the Russian revolution. Two amazing central events or series of events punctuate this opening section. One, the discovery of reading, which includes the precociousness of demanding to be allowed to look through the adult books for things to read, while also realizing that the local librarian is delightful, tender, and beloved in equal proportion opposite from her school teacher. Two, becoming a mischievous shoplifter, or at least the button-man and look out for her friend’s shoplifting. As we meander through these early years, we slowly make it to adolescence, mostly unharmed, but with the clear sentiment that something is not normal about her parents (at least according to her) and that their marriage makes no sense.
In the first section Tove begins writing poetry. This poetry is not real poetry so much as mimicking the forms and ideas from poems she’s read. But she is clever, and clearly shows promise. I would of course argue that since we’re reading her book, she definitely showed promise. She extracts a promise from a local publisher that if she gives him poems in two years, he will publish her. This gives her the hope and ambition to keep writing. Now in section two, Youth, he dies, and she is right back where she was. But another old man gives her a similar promise. He seems very creepy, but no problem.
This section also includes Tove beginning to work, first as a housekeeper where she ruins a piano’s surface on her first day, and spends the rest of the day just waiting for the hammer to fall. She also begins dating, and in dating she meets boys she doesn’t like and boys she does. She stays a virgin, which is important to the people around her. She does not feel desire really but understands the mechanics of things. This leads her to some unfortunate and not so great situations. But she ends up engaged to a man who seems great, and she thinks she will marry her, and being engaged, she decides to sleep with him. This or course leads to some important unraveling of their relationship as her kind and funny boy is actually terrible at business.
The final section is called “Dependency” and I was curious about the specific word used in the original Danish title, so I looked into it. The Danish word is “Gift” which means married but also poison, and so we have Michael Favala Goldman shifting the title for us. It’s still an appropriate title and can refer to at least three things in this section: being married, having children, and becoming addicted to methadone and Demerol. All three of these things are at the forefront in this volume. We begin with Tove married to a much older man. She soon grow weary of this marriage and seeks out other young people like her, eventually finding a college student with whom she has an affair. She becomes pregnant and asks for a divorce. Her new husband eventually grows tired of her and the baby and begins pushing her out. He has an affair and then she has an affair and begins a frantic search for an abortion. This drives the final wedge. She also has an affair and eventually marries this man as well. During her abortion, she receives Demerol and she loves it. This turns into an addiction and the book primarily focused on her addiction, which she facilitates by telling her doctor husband about an old ear infection which gives him the pretext to give her pain medication. Eventually as he starts to strain, he insists she gets surgery, which leaves her deaf in the one ear. It’s an irony the book can note but the Tove of the book cannot. The rest is predicated on the slow pain of recovering from the addiction, or not.