Born in a working-class neighborhood in Copenhagen in 1917, Tove Ditlevsen’s life story is one of both existential turbulence and unique artistic expression. She achieved initial fame for her poetry while still a teenager and progressed to novels, stories and memoirs before committing suicide in 1976. Nevertheless, her success was frequently diminished during her lifetime by a critical establishment who dismissed her as “a working-class, female writer.”
Today, however, Ditlevsen is having the rebirth that she has long deserved and is being championed as one of Denmark’s most important modern authors of the twentieth-century. On January 26th, Ditlevsen’s masterpiece The Copenhagen Trilogy will be released in the United States by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and celebrated with a virtual book launch at New York’s Scandinavia House featuring a conversation between American authors Ben Lerner and Rachel Kushner, and moderated by Danish author and critic Morten Høi Jensen.
But who was Tove Ditlevsen? And why does her work today matter more than ever, more than 40 years after her death? Denmark in New York caught up with Eric Chinski, Senior Vice President and Editor-in-Chief with Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) and editor of The Copenhagen Trilogy, to discuss the meaning of Tove Ditlevsen in today’s world.
Denmark In New York: Can you tell us a little bit about The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen and your upcoming publication?
Eric Chinski: I was introduced to the trilogy by a British publishing friend, who gave me the galleys for the Penguin UK edition of Childhood while we were in Frankfurt (Frankfurt Book Fair) in 2019. From the first pages, I was struck by the beauty and mastery of the writing. I found myself reading certain passages over and over, awed by the power of one image to convey so much about not only Ditlevsen’s interior life but also the world of post-World War I Copenhagen.
I quickly got copies of the other two volumes of the trilogy, Youth and Dependency, and was rapt as I read them. Ditlevsen’s voice, as captured by the very agile translators, Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman, is singular. There’s a harrowing immediacy and boldness to Ditlevsen’s account of her ambition to be a writer, and the ways this dream meets the terrible reality of her circumstances, both personal and historical. And there’s an everydayness to the most grotesque events — whether it’s the casual cruelty of a romantic relationship or the behavior of a neighbor during the Nazi occupation of Copenhagen or the vicious cycle of addiction and the ways it breaks time. It’s this quality, this uncanny sense of scale, that makes for so much of the power of the writing, I think.
My copies of the UK galleys became much sought-after in the FSG office (this was before the pandemic lockdown). Different colleagues were reading different books in the trilogy and trading and cycling through them. I never knew where the copies had disappeared to. My and my colleagues’ sense of discovery was thrilling. We knew we had to publish these special books. (I should note that the translations of Childhood and Youth were originally published by small independent publisher in the U.S. in the 1980s, but have long been out of print. This will be the first publication of Dependency in English translation in the U.S.)
For the FSG publication on January 26, we decided to do something unusual: we’re simultaneously releasing a one-volume hardcover edition of the trilogy and three separate paperback original editions. The very talented designer, and FSG art director, Na Kim, has created four gorgeous covers for the different volumes. There’s a lot of excitement and energy in-house around the publication.
What are your expectations for the January 2021 book release?
Eric Chinski: We are seeing a very enthusiastic early response to the trilogy from book editors and reviewers and writers. In my exchanges with some of them, I sense that they are responding to the books as a kind of revelation, in the way that my colleagues and I did. I think this bodes well for the publication.
How do you see the works of Tove Ditlevsen as relevant to American readers today?
Eric Chinski: Many smart critics have noted the so-called auto-fiction trend of the past ten or so years. Whether any of the writers would in fact identify with this label, I’m thinking of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti, among others. No one would mistake any of these writers for the others, but it’s probably fair to say that they broadly share a renewed interest in the ways that the world is always revealed through a particular consciousness. Stories about the world are necessarily stories about the self.
The Copenhagen Trilogy certainly has a kind of family resemblance to these current writers’ work. The Trilogy is harrowingly confessional, but the writing is not solipsistic — in excavating the self, Ditlevsen makes the world shine differently. And the world she reveals, even though the setting is working-class Copenhagen in the aftermath of the World Wars, will, I think, feel very contemporary to American readers: it’s the world of a young woman artist struggling against the norms and institutions of her day, and against herself, in order to fully inhabit her extraordinary talent.
Is there any current trends in translated literature, perhaps specifically in regards to Scandinavian literature, here in the US?
Eric Chinski: I’m leery of making any big claims about literary trends, and honestly I haven’t read enough to say with any confidence whether there are intelligent generalizations to be made. I’ve just been very pleased to see so many wonderful books in translation receive such wide recognition, and also sales, in the U.S, in recent years. There’s the evergreen fascination with Scandinavian noir, of course, and the blockbuster sales of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Knausgaard’s My Struggle, but there are also recent books by Sayaka Murata, Jonas Khemiri, Yoko Tawada, Emmanuel Carrere, Hanna Orstavik, and Olga Tokarczuk. In 2018, he National Book Awards added a new category for translated literature, which has helped greatly to bring even more visibility to works in translation. I couldn’t really say what these writers’ works have in common — what kind of trend they might constitute — but what they clearly do share is that they are a vital force for American readers.
Mona Raben Eisby is the Culture and Public Diplomacy Intern at Denmark In New York.