Tove Ditlevsen, ahead of the curve

Artistic individualism versus prescriptive social modernism


Photo: Nordfoto / NTB
A portrait of Danish author Tove Ditlevsen from 1975.

Mogens “Mo” Pedersen
Assens, Denmark

In her time, she was loved in her own country of Denmark. Today, almost half a century after her death in 1976, her work has seen an upsurge of interest, at home and abroad. Internationally her Copenhagen Trilogy (her memoirs) emerged last year in a new edition and crisp translation by two preeminent translators, Tiina Nunnally (Childhood and Youth) and Michael Favala Goldman (Dependency). The New York Times praised it for its “stunning clarity, humor, and candidness.” Ditlevsen herself pointed to her memoirs as her best work. They have now been translated into 30 different languages. This is true for a few other works of hers. Her poetry, however, so beloved in Denmark, has not yet achieved the same attention as her prose, but that may come in time.

Ditlevsen’s autofiction was way ahead of the curve. She was published during the period from 1939 to 1975, long before #MeToo and similar movements. I was reminded of that fact, when a hefty debate in Norway ensued after the publication of Hilde-Rød Larsen’s book Diamantkvelder (Diamond Nights) last year. In an interview with the Danish daily Information, the author revealed that much of the book was based on her personal experience of a relationship with a sexually abusive doctor. Ditlevsen had in several of her novels dealt with similar issues based on her personal experiences.

In her work she also deals with such sensitive issues as mental illness, addiction, infidelity, and marital failures, all of which she was intimately familiar with from her own chaotic life. The third part of her Copenhagen Trilogy, Dependency, deals with her drug addiction that was helped along by her third husband, Dr. Carl Ryberg, who supplied her generously with the drugs that she so desperately craved. It very nearly killed her. The Danish title of that book, Gift, carries a double meaning of both “married” and “poison.” It could not be more apt.

Her life was full of contradictions that she never managed to reconcile. She was extremely individualistic but yearned to fit in and conform. In matters of love and marriage, she dreamed of the traditional ideal of the happy family with parents and a couple of children in a neat suburban villa. None of that ever happened, or when she caught a glimpse of it, she soon found it sliding away from her. She failed to combine love and marriage for any period. In an interview on Danish television, she once characterized marriage as being such a challenge that it takes three to overcome it. Yes, infidelity was part of all her four marriages. Maybe the most important contradiction was between life and art.

She used her life indiscriminately in her art and vice versa. Toward the end, she could not distinguish one from the other.

It may seem surprising that a writer like Ditlevsen, who wrote so extensively about the shadow sides of our lives, would be able to gain such a huge following and become so loved, as she did. The reason for this can be found in her humor, irony, and ability to find the common human denominator in her work. After her death by suicide in March 1976, her funeral drew crowds so huge that we would have to go back to Hans Christian Andersen to find anything like it.

Personal life

Ditlevsen was born in 1917 in Vesterbro, a rough working-class neighborhood in Copenhagen. Later, and throughout her life, she would claim 1918 as her birth year. Actually, this was initially a mistake made by a journalist, who had simply gotten it wrong. Ditlevsen found that it sounded better to be known as the young 19-year-old star poet, whose first poem, “to my dead child,” was published in the magazine Vild Hvede (Wild Wheat) in 1937. As opposed to the 20-year-old poet …

She did not shy away from lying, when it suited her purpose. Nor from repeating a bald-faced lie over and over. Her view was that everybody carries their own version of the truth with them. And everybody carries their own reality with them. Her reality throughout her childhood was a small and cramped apartment with her parents and beloved older brother, Edvin. Her mother was a narcissistic and careless character, who did not have a clue about the upbringing of children. She was temperamental and would slap Tove or push her against the wood stove for no apparent reason. Her dad, on the other hand, was a more thoughtful type, well-read, and socially and politically aware. He held the typical working-class opinions of his time, and so he told Tove that girls could never be poets or writers. No wonder that Tove would seek refuge in her own dream world, in reading, and in writing poetry.

Desperate as she was to break free of her claustrophobic environment, she seized every opportunity to seek out people who could help her do that. Thus as a preteen, she took some of her poems to the literary editor at the socialist daily, which her dad subscribed to. Having read them, the editor told Tove that he found them promising, but that she needed more life experience. He also told her that he found many of her poems sexy. Tove replied that there were many others, to which the editor replied: “But the sexy ones are the best.” Finally he told her to come back in a couple of years with some more samples of her work. Now, at last, she had found a source of hope. Sadly, her hopes were dashed one day at the dinner table, which was covered by newspaper pages, one of which featured obituaries. One of those was for the very editor, to whom Tove had pinned her hopes for the future.

As was common in working-class families at the time, Tove was not allowed to continue school beyond middle school. After her nonfirmation (social democratic substitute for confirmation), she was sent out to work as a housemaid, and she later found low-grade jobs like typist, stock clerk, and receptionist. She used every free moment of her time to write and to look for mentors, who could help her to get published. Viggo F. Moeller was such a mentor, a white middle-class man, editor of the literary magazine Vild Hvede. Tove eyed her opportunity and agreed to marry the 52-year-old man.

Both ludicrous and cynical, the marriage lasted only a little over a year. However, Viggo did publish her first poem in his magazine, helped her find a publisher for her first novel (A Child Was Abused, 1941), and introduced her to Copenhagen’s literary circles. Here she met some of the big names on the literary scene, among them Piet Hein, who helped her get out of her marriage in 1942.

That year in the fall she met Ebbe Munk, they fell in love, got married, and the following year daughter Helle was born. Ebbe was a student of national economics, and the plan was that Tove would work and write to support the family until Ebbe could graduate. However, the couple was not well matched, and three years later they were divorced.

In 1945, Ditlevsen entered into her third marriage, with the medical doctor Carl Ryberg. Those two had nothing in common, but in some way this marriage resembled her first, in that both husbands could provide her with something that she badly needed. Viggo had gotten her published, and Carl provided her with the drugs that she by now craved so badly. In 1971, the third volume of her memoirs, Dependency—or Gift in Danish—was published.

It described in shocking detail episodes from her first three marriages, not least the one with Carl. He had brought his daughter, Trine, into the marriage. In 1946, they had a child of their own, Michael. Although the family moved into a big villa in the well-to-do neighborhood of Gentofte, it was not a happy relationship. Tove went into the worst downward spiral of her life and nearly died from her dependency.

The man who became her saving angel and eventually her fourth husband, was Victor Andreasen. They would come to live more than 20 years together. He was one of the top officials of the social-democratic government at the time. Later, he left government work and became editor-in-chief of one of the leading newspapers, Ekstrabladet and then of popular weekly magazines. They met in the summer of 1950, fell in love, moved in together, and finally married the following year. The marriage gave Ditlevsen some of the happiest periods of her life—and some of the unhappiest. Her first two memoir books, Childhood and Youth, were published in 1967. In 1968–1975, Ditlevsen published several novels that mainly described her marriage to Victor: Faces, The Grown-Ups, Dependency, The Round Room, and Vilhelm’ s Room.

Ditlevsen wrote her life into her books, and as time progressed, life and art fused to such an extent, that there was nothing more to write about. Her conclusion about marriage and love ended in disillusionment, paranoia and, finally, a complete mental breakdown. She began to focus her thoughts on her own death to the point, where she penned her own obituary and had it published. At this point she nonchalantly compared suicide to someone leaving their place of employment before retirement age. She often stated that she did not fear death. There was far more reason to fear life. That fear, or better yet, angst, had probably lived inside her all her life.

Recognition and rejection

All human beings need to be noticed, accepted, and recognized. This is also true of Ditlevsen, who received plenty of recognition from her huge readership. She was also awarded prizes and honorary stipends. It was not enough. She felt rejected by the literary establishment, not least the Danish Academy, which failed to offer her membership or its annual award. This begs the question of why she would care about this small group of self-important academics and their opinions. She was not an academic, and she never wanted to become one. Nevertheless, she did care. If I were to hazard a guess as to why, it would be the insecurity that she felt as a working-class girl with only a middle-school education. Never mind that her books outsold their combined output many times over.

She started her writing career with poetry, but early on she branched out into other genres: novels, short stories, essays, articles, and last—but not least—her long-lasting side occupation as editor of a “Dear Abby” column in the popular weekly magazine Familie Journalen. Regardless of her chosen genre, Ditlevsen was able to communicate splendidly with all sorts of people. Perhaps the explanation for this can be found in the fact that she wrote in a traditional way. Her poetry was in classical verse and rhymes.

Her prose dealt with commonplace and down-to-earth themes that people can relate to without a doctorate in literature or a heavy tome of interpretive notes. Herein lies the likely reason for the condescending or downright negative attitude toward her by her more academic colleagues, of which many did not have her flair for communicating in their art. In all fairness, it must be said that many of them overcame their aversion, and ended up giving her due credit. In some cases, friendship ensued. Over time, her work also evolved and her later production was very different from her early work.

A heated debate on the Oslo boat

In the 1960s, the “modernists” led by the prolific Klaus Rifbjerg, who dominated the literary debate to an extent that you would think that they were unopposed by any on the “traditionalist” side. This was not so, although Rifbjerg and his like-minded colleagues had such a flair for public relations that they seemed to have won the battle. However, Ditlevsen was able to single-handedly put up such a fight that people realized that the academic “modernists” did not have a monopoly on what and how to write prose and poetry.

This was demonstrated during a famous reading tour by Ditlevsen, Thorkild Bjørnvig, Halfdan Rasmussen, and Rifbjerg. The tour started on the Oslo boat, a ferry route between Copenhagen and Oslo with daily departures and arrivals. It is a popular route for short getaways, as it starts out with an overnight ferry ride to Oslo, where you can spend the following day before taking the ferry back to Copenhagen.

Well, our group had a longer stay in mind, as they had mapped out a reading tour in Norway. Besides, they wanted to celebrate Bjørnvig’ s birthday on the ferry, which they did with plenty of booze and loud discussions of “modernists” versus “traditionalists,” with Tove and Klaus as the main combatants. All four were badly hungover, when they arrived in Oslo and were met by the Norwegian press, which had gotten wind of the debate on board. The next day, Norwegians could read an article in Dagbladet under the headline “Traditionalist and modernist debacle on the Denmark boat.”

Ditlevsen argued that the dividing line is not between modernist and traditional but between good and bad. She polemicized against the modernist clique of writers who were also critics and therefore held a stranglehold on their colleagues. Behind her views lay an anti-elitist and individualistic view of literature. She was the foremost proponent of simple and understandable poetry as opposed to the incomprehensible modernism that for decades had alienated people from poetry.

Last years: life and art

The last years of her life, roughly from 1968 to 1976, were a slow decline, both as an artist and as a human being. Although full of conflict and misery, her marriage to Victor Andreasen had helped her to keep going, but in 1971, it was over. They still kept in touch with each other up to her suicide. They had lived together for more than 20 years, and he had always been a source of inspiration for her, at some point her great hope for love.

With Victor irrevocably gone, Ditlevsen withdrew more and more from the threatening reality surrounding her. She sought loneliness in order to live through her art, now that her life was in ruins. She would try to escape from her claustrophobic life by diving into her own world of words and poetic creation. She had always used her own life and the people in it as the raw materials for her books. Now that life had dwindled into something so narrow and isolated that it could not be used in the creative process. With very little to live for, she now began thinking of her death. She could still treat that with humor and irony, as is obvious in the following excerpts from her “fake” obituary published a few years before her death (“My Obituary,” 1973):

“The death is a great loss to Danish literature, and one cannot but wonder, why this brilliant woman never was awarded the Academy Prize or became a member of this exalted group. . .

“It is spring, but a veil of melancholy is draped over all the ready-to-burst buds, as the greatest Nordic writer after Elsa Gress did not get to see them burst.”


Tove Ditlevsen: The Copenhagen Trilogy (2021)

Jens Andersen: Til doeden os skiller (1998)

Karen Syberg: Tove Ditlevsen. Myte og Liv (1997)

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mogens "Mo" Pedersen

Danish historian Mogens ”Mo” Pedersen is a student of Scandinavian history and literature with a special focus on Norway. He has lectured and written articles on such writers as Knut Hamsun, Sigrid Undset. and Selma Lagerlöf. He and his wife divide their time between rural Denmark and Oregon state in the United States.