Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - memoirs

The Copenhagen Trilogy - II

Tove Ditlevsen

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Youth

Title: Youth
Author: Tove Ditlevsen
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: 1967 (Eng. 1985)
Length: 122 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: Youth - US
In: The Copenhagen Trilogy - US
Youth - UK
in: Childhood, Youth, Dependency - UK
Youth - Canada
in: The Copenhagen Trilogy - Canada
in: Printemps précoce - France
Jugend - Deutschland
  • Danish title: Ungdom
  • The second volume in The Copenhagen Trilogy
  • Translated by Tiina Nunnally
  • Originally published in English, together with Childhood, as Early Spring (1985)

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : fine depiction of growing into adulthood, and 1930s Denmark

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian* . 16/10/2020 Liz Jensen
Harper's* . 1/2021 Lauren Oyler
New Statesman* A+ 21/8/2019 John Self
The NY Rev. of Books* . 23/3/2021 Deborah Eisenberg
The NY Times* A 20/1/2021 Parul Sehgal
The NY Times Book Rev.* A 31/1/2021 Megan O'Grady
The New Yorker* . 15-22/2/2021 Hilton Als
The Observer* A 24/11/2019 Alex Preston
The Spectator* . 28/9/2019 Boyd Tonkin
The Telegraph* . 1/9/2019 Lucy Scholes
TLS* . 20/3/2020 Lucasta Miller
Wall St. Journal* . 22/1/2021 Sam Sacks
[* review of entire The Copenhagen Trilogy]

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "In reconstructing her own gaucheness, lack of education and shameless opportunism, Ditlevsen's strength as a writer lies in her militant refusal to present her choices and their consequences -- be they love affairs, backstreet abortions or chronic drug addiction -- through the filters of hindsight or amour-propre." - Liz Jensen, The Guardian

  • "Throughout the memoirs, normalcy and reality are tense, tortured concepts" - Lauren Oyler, Harper's

  • "(T)he tone of the second book, Youth, is brighter, even comic at times. (...) Youth is playful, even when delivering great thumps of pain. The focus is close and wider events are mentioned in a way that acknowledges teenage solipsism." - John Self, New Statesman

  • "Ditlevsen describes with disdain the allure of authoritarianism among people she runs into and their misplaced identification as its beneficiaries. And yet she has a counterbalancing aversion to political engagement" - Deborah Eisenberg, The New York Review of Books

  • "There is a quality of trance, of autohypnosis, in her style. It's as if the writing replaced the mother and became the place to analyze and obsess." - Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

  • "Ditlevsen's voice, diffident and funny, dead-on about her own mistakes, is a welcome addition to that canon of women who showed us their secret faces so that we might wear our own." - Megan O'Grady, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Part of the fascination of Youth is its tone; Ditlevsen's offhanded speech and beautifully rendered sentences, her passivity and her will, make one feel in the presence of an alert sleepwalker -- a dreamer who wants to be claimed, told what to do, possessed, or, more precisely, mothered." - Hilton Als, The New Yorker

  • "The affectless prose is interrupted by glorious poetical flourishes, and these bursts of lyricism are more than merely ornamental. The books handle time by stepping between the present tense and the past so that, as in the work of Knausgaard, we move kaleidoscopically from minutely observed particularities to the broad sweep of a life." - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "Ditlevsen can pivot from hilarity to heartbreak in a trice." - Boyd Tonkin, The Spectator

  • "There's no overt feminist analysis, but it's hard not to conclude that gender plays a role in Ditlevsen's sense of dislocation and compromised agency, as indeed does class. (...) Discomfitingly, it's her very lack of self-empowerment that empowers her work." - Lucasta Miller, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       In Youth Tove Ditlevsen begins the next stage of her life, after Childhood. She is fourteen, has been confirmed and finished middle school; now it's time to get a job and contribute to the household. The next four years are expected to be one of apprenticeship: she's expected to continue to live at home, but now pay her parents for room and board (and have a curfew); she'll work as a trainee. Understandably, she looks ahead, more eager to leave this in-between stage of her life:

When I turn eighteen, I'll apply for a real office job and no longer work as a trainee. Then I can get a much higher salary. When I turn eighteen the world will be different in every way
       The frustrations are different than in childhood, but it's also just a phase:
Being young is itself temporary, fragile, and ephemeral. You have to get through it -- it has no other meaning.
       Young Ditlevsen did have hopes -- and one is quickly dashed: in Childhood she recounted how an editor she showed her poetry to told her to look him up in a couple of years; now she comes across his obituary before the elapsed time is up. Having so little to pin her hopes on, she takes it hard: "I feel like he's deserted me and left me behind in the world without the slightest hope for the future". But she soon finds another possible guide to help bring her into the literary world she's convinced she's destined for -- led to him, surprisingly enough, by little minx Ruth, her more audacious friend from childhood --, a bookseller named Mr Krogh, who lets her borrow books to read and who also recognizes some talent in her when he reads her poems: she may not be there yet, but he tells her that: "it looks like you're going to be a poet someday".
       Mr Krogh and his world disappear from hers even more abruptly and devastatingly than the editor had; indeed, the way she wipes him from the story is one of the few scenes in The Copenhagen Trilogy that feels like (necessary) invention, the only way she could explain it (to herself). (She doesn't actually ask anyone whether they know what happened to him -- beyond an indifferent Ruth -- and, beyond checking the obituaries, seems to make no real effort to determine his fate; surely there were some neighbors she could have turned to who could have provided some information about what exactly happened ?)
       Young Ditlevsen goes through a number of largely unsatisfactory jobs, but it's one way of biding her time, albeit a mostly frustrating one. Her poetic talents are also recognized on the job: in one office she becomes a veritable song-producing machine -- "orders come in every day" -- for colleagues and workers who need a ditty for some special occasion, something she can apparently do to order very well. Eventually, she also enjoys first literary recognition, as she is pointed to the editor Viggo F. Møller and his literary magazine, Vild Hvede ('Wild Wheat') and he helps launch her career by publishing one of her poems. (It makes an impression, the reviewer in Politiken gushing: "A single poem, 'To My Dead Child', by Tove Ditlevsen is justification enough for the little journal's existence".) Møller encourages her to publish a collection, and while it ultimately only appears thanks to a subsidy from him, Pigesind is published in 1939. This volume of her memoirs closes with her receiving the first copies of her book, her dreams finally coming true; typically, too she wants to bask in the joy alone, the closing sentences of Youth:
I will wait to show the book to Viggo F. until tomorrow. Tonight I want to be alone with it, because there's no one who really understands what a miracle it is for me.
       Already in Childhood, Ditlevsen had expressed bafflement about sex -- understanding the mechanics but unable to really imagine herself engaging in them -- and this carries over some into Youth. She's pressed by friends, who can't believe she still is a virgin, but she's in no rush. She often goes out evenings with friend Nina, and finds a young man who is interested in her, Aksel. In the interests of decorum, she puts off sleeping with him until they are engaged -- but they quickly settle on that. As to sex, they both seem a bit leery of actually going through with it, but eventually do -- with Tove left rather underwhelmed by the whole thing. The engagement itself goes well enough for a while -- Aksel is a decent fellow -- but his parents warn her off, worried that their son is too flighty (he's: "run away from eleven apprenticeships"). They worry that he wouldn't be able to support a wife and family -- but Ditlevsen doesn't see that as a problem:
I don't need to be supported. I can make a living writing poetry.
       As ridiculous as this (now) sounds, Ditlevsen's confidence is not entirely misplaced; as it turns out, she soon (as described in Dependency) does earn quite good money from her writing.
       The relationship to money of those in Ditlevsen's orbit is striking: it is a time of considerable want and uncertainty, with joblessness repeatedly cropping up (Ditlevsen's father also repeatedly loses his job), but no real sense of terrifying economic insecurity. The union provides a very strong support net, and even otherwise, people find ways to get by, with everyone doing some kind of odd jobs but at least able to find some source of income (and with family or friends to fall back upon in the direst times). The privation never really worries anyone too much -- and like the others her age, Ditlevsen finds: "Poverty is temporary and bearable. It's not any real problem". (That it's not quite that easy to handle, and is, for the whole time Ditlevsen grows up, part of what her family and every one around her struggle with, is made clear in Dependency, in an aside when someone challenges her about her having seemingly compromised herself for material comfort and stability: "I don't think Piet Hein knows what it's like to have been poor and to have had to use nearly every second of your life just to survive".)
       Youth is set in the mid- to late-1930s, concluding in 1939, and the growing specter of Hitler in nearby Germany casts a shadow over much of the action. It weighs heavily on the bookseller Krogh (and then also Viggo F. Møller), and while she is not political, Ditlevsen is exposed too closely to this ideology when she rents a room from a woman who is a member of the Danish Nazi Party and enthuses over Hitler -- "Someday he'll rule the entire world", she explains approvingly. (Ditlevsen told herself: "The main thing is that the room is cheap", but she only lasts so long there.)
       Youth also has a few scenes of peculiar but very funny comedy, notably in how she finds herself getting fired from her position in the State Grain Office, after her first poem gets published -- the coïncidence that is her undoing so far-fetched that it would hardly pass muster in a novel. There's also her first job, the opening line of Youth noting that she only lasted one day at it, as, unsupervised and not knowing any better, she took the instructions she was given too literally. (But, while her mother is generally not particularly warm and helpful, and expects Ditlevsen to contribute financially to the household, here and elsewhere she is willing to take it upon herself to sort things out on Tove's behalf with her employers; Ditlevsen never presses her for the details on how she dealt with this particular fiasco.).
       Youth is a fine memoir of that in-between time on the way to adulthood, while also offering, in all the background, a fascinating glimpse of life in 1930s Denmark. Ditlevsen clearly yearns for more, but many of the steps are still tentative (as in the engagement, which unsurprisingly is short-lived) or merely the first small ones (to becoming a published author, specifically). There's that typical youthful restlessness -- even as Ditlevsen notes how much she dislikes change --, and the desire to be taken adult-seriously; mostly: "my youth is nothing more than a deficiency and a hindrance that I can't get rid of fast enough".
       Youth is a solid continuation of her memoir, concluding here with the stirrings of great change, for her and for Denmark (it is 1939, after all ...), leaving her wondering: "Will Viggo F. marry me when the whole world is burning ?" but, more importantly, her first book getting published.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 January 2021

- Return to top of the page -


Youth: Reviews (* review of entire The Copenhagen Trilogy; ** review of Early Spring): Tove Ditlevsen: Other books by Tove Ditlevsen under review: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Danish author Tove Ditlevsen lived 1917 to 1976.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2021 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links