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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoirs

The Copenhagen Trilogy - I

Tove Ditlevsen

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To purchase Childhood

Title: Childhood
Author: Tove Ditlevsen
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: 1967 (Eng. 1985)
Length: 99 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: Childhood - US
In: The Copenhagen Trilogy - US
Childhood - UK
in: Childhood, Youth, Dependency - UK
Childhood - Canada
in: The Copenhagen Trilogy - Canada
in: Printemps précoce - France
Kindheit - Deutschland
  • Danish title: Barndom
  • The first volume in The Copenhagen Trilogy
  • Translated by Tiina Nunnally
  • Originally published in English, together with Youth, as Early Spring (1985)

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Our Assessment:

A- : neatly crafted, nicely done

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:
  • "Though written years after the events they describe, the pages -- fluidly translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman -- have the immediacy of diary entries so fresh that the ink has barely dried." - Liz Jensen, The Guardian

  • "Soon, her aversion to being a child transforms into dread of what faces her as an adult. She leaves school at fourteen, to the understanding regret of her teachers, in order to work." - Lauren Oyler, Harper's

  • "To get it out of the way: they are the best books I have read this year. These very slim volumes slip in like a stiletto and do their work once inside. (...) Childhood has the simple declarative sentences of Natalia Ginzburg and the pervasive horror of a good fairy story." - John Self, New Statesman

  • "The spell is so intense, the hand so light, that you hardly know how you came to find yourself enclosed in this snow globe with a terrifyingly volatile mother; a possibly self-deluding father; an economic and historical setting; a tiny, incipient author who can already conceal and fortify herself within a protective bower of words; and raging storms of love, fear, resentment, isolation, desire, shame, delight, grief, and pity." - Deborah Eisenberg, The New York Review of Books

  • "Few writers have written so rapturously of the joy, the necessity, of writing. It became a compulsion for Ditlevsen. Language dulled her pain and papered over the past." - Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

  • "Read together, they form a particular kind of masterpiece, one that helps fill a particular kind of void. The trilogy arrives like something found deep in an ancestor's bureau drawer, a secret stashed away amid the socks and sachets and photos of dead lovers. The surprise isn't just its ink-damp immediacy and vitality" - Megan O'Grady, The New York Times Book Review

  • "One's heart sinks at the close of Childhood, which sets the tone for what's to come." - Hilton Als, The New Yorker

  • "One of the many semi-miraculous elements of Ditlevsen's prose, which appears at first glance breezily artless, is the way she'll settle on an object and rub her characters up against it, grounding them in the physicality of her world." - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "The force of her writing is not to be found in her superior endurance skills or moral strength, but in the precision with which she uses words and unexpected images." - 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.

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The complete review's Review:

       Tove Ditlevsen was born in 1917, the second of two children in a working class Danish family. Her The Copenhagen Trilogy chronicles three stages of her life: childhood, in this volume, covering the time until her confirmation, when she is fourteen and can leave school and get a job; youth, covering the years of first independence -- jobs; moving out of the family apartment; and then, in Dependency, early adulthood. Fundamental to all three stages -- to her entire life -- is her compulsion to write (especially poetry): from early on she is passionate about language and expression, driven by a clear ambition: "Someday I'll write down all of the words that flow through me". (Her ambition is also one of affirmation and recognition: it is not just about the writing, but also about being seen as a writer: "Someday other people will read them in a book and marvel that a girl could be a poet, after all".)
       Ditlevsen lies about the year of her birth -- "I was born on December 14, 1918", she claims in Childhood --, casting, early on, a shadow of doubt about how reliable a narrator she might be (though of course it's not clear how clear it would have been to her original readers that this is, in fact, a lie). (Amusingly enough, she later points out that her mother consistently lied about her own age, too -- "even to us, who know very well how old she is".) But overall the impressionistic account of childhood certainly convinces, vividly capturing growing up in a Denmark with limited opportunities and yet a certain sense of security.
       The young Ditlevsen is fairly self-confident in many ways, but also knows she stands apart -- that she's: "odd because I read books, like my father, and because I don't understand how to play". She goes along, with a great deal, seemingly trying to fit in, but she never really can. By the time she's fourteen, it still frustrates her, but she recognizes it clearly:

It bothers me a lot that I don't seem to own any real feelings anymore, but always have to pretend that I do by copying other people's reactions.
       As she explains towards the end of Childhood, getting at the root of perhaps her defining quality:
I'm moved by poetry and lyrical prose, now as always -- but the things that are described leave me completely cold. I don't think very much of reality.
       Her parents are a bit gruff, with her father unable to establish a deeper rapport with his daughter, despite a shared interest in literature, and her mother favoring older brother Edvin. Even though she's never good enough for her mother, Tove's connection to her is stronger than to her father, and she readily admits: "I have fun with her and I admire her Copenhagen boldness and quick-wittedness".
       Ditlevsen presents herself as more of a follower and hanger-on, pulled along by others, whether her mother or Ruth -- another person bolder than her --, the friend she makes when she is nine, and whom she then spends most of her free time with. But she also has a will very much of her, especially when it comes to literature -- writing and reading. Ruth helps her explore the neighborhood -- the world -- around her -- "Let's go down and look at the whores", Ruth leads the way, despite being two years Tove's junior -- but Tove also has a world of her own that she determinedly explores on her own. She understands the importance and possibilities of education -- "I've started middle school and with that the world has begun to widen" (though obviously not in personal ways, as she barely connects with her fellow students). And she understand what worlds open to her when: "I've finally gotten permission to use the public library".
       Tove fondly remembers the librarian there -- for one, "she doesn't seem to suffer from an insurmountable aversion to children" -- though she balks at the first, well-meaning suggestions this Miss Mollerup makes: just how deeply-felt her literary sensibility already was is made clear from this passage, the experience and impression lingering on to the writer's present-day, four decades on:
Page after page. I don't have it in me to read it. It fills me with sadness and unbearable boredom. I can't understand how language -- that delicate and sensitive instrument -- can be so terribly mistreated, or how such monstrous sentences can find their way into a book that gets into the library where a clever and attractive woman like Miss Mollerup actually recommends it to defenseless children to read. For now, however, I can't express these thoughts, so I have to be content with saying that the books are boring
       Much of the power of Childhood comes from this precise, mature expression of the childish experience, so easily conveying the feeling (as well as acknowledging the childish inability to express it in any way clearly then -- an inability-to-make-oneself-understood so common to that time in life). So also in descriptions such as what seems to be the most-quoted sentence from this volume -- "Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can't get out of it on your own" -- or the sense, at that age, that:
You can't get out of childhood, and it clings to you like a bad smell. You notice it in other children -- each childhood has its own smell. You don't recognize your own and sometimes you're afraid that it's worse than others'.
       Poetry albums are a thing at the time -- once in middle school all her classmates have one -- and, "after I've nagged my mother long enough", Tove gets one too. It becomes a prized possession, one that she clings to and hides, so that prying eyes can't read it, and an outlet for her poetry -- the one almost always driving force behind her:
Even though no one else cares for my poems, I have to write them because it dulls the sorrow and longing in my heart.
       In one remarkable section -- showing again just how much Ditlevsen squeezes into her account, yet without it feeling cursory -- she writes about a difficult period which even saw her sawing at her wrists with a bread knife:
All that happened was that I got some cuts; I still have faint marks from them. My only consolation in this uncertain, trembling world was writing poetry like this:
Once I was young and all aglow,
full of laughter and fun.
I was like a blushing rose.
Now I am old and forgotten
     I was twelve years old then.
       If serious, she nevertheless does not present herself as preternaturally adult: this is a chronicle of childhood, with the inexperience and incomprehension of childhood -- notably also about sex, which she understands, from what it involves, but remains completely baffled by.
       The young Ditlevsen is well-aware that childhood is a specific and circumscribed stage in life, one that she wants to escape, even as she also wants to live the moment, and yet finds it failing her:
     Time passed and my childhood grew thin and flat, paperlike. It was tired and threadbare, and in low moments it didn't look like it would last until I was grown up. [...] My childhood was supposed to last until I as fourteen, but what was I going to do if it gave out beforehand ?
       The times and the circumstances make childhood difficult to hold onto. The real world comes fast: Tove's parents expect her to contribute to the family once she turns fourteen and finishes middle school and starts earning money. She would like to go to high school, but it's a pipe dream; only a single girl from her class is able to continue her education; Tove's teacher expresses regret -- "it's a shame though that you couldn't go to high school" -- but understands that that in these times -- it's the early 1930s -- and this milieu it's simply not possible.
       An editor she shows some poems to sees some promise in them, but tells her: "Come back in a couple of years". It's a small bit of hope to cling to -- Tove is desperate for someone's validation; she believes in her talents, but that alone isn't quite enough -- but the future, the next phase, the loss of childhood looms terrifyingly ahead; she fears:
The future is a monstruous, powerful colossus that will soon fall on me and crush me.
       It's not only the uncertainty, of what the future might hold, but also the sense of loss, of this stage of life. Ditlevsen by no means romanticizes childhood, and the one she describes is hardly a very happy one -- but she doesn't so much concern herself with whether it is happy or not; she accepts things as they are, while also remaining cognizant that the next stages of her life will be fundamentally different, that with leaving childhood itself behind something is lost. Not necessarily something to mourn, but nevertheless a different way of being.
       Childhood is very rich for such a slim memoir, as Ditlevsen's economy of style is nevertheless very -- cautiously -- revealing. It's a very fine exploration of the poet as a child, and a lovely read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 January 2021

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Childhood: 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:

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About the Author:

       Danish author Tove Ditlevsen lived 1917 to 1976.

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© 2021 the complete review

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