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‘The Copenhagen Trilogy,’ a Sublime Set of Memoirs About Growing Up, Writing and Addiction

How does great literature — the Grade A, top-shelf stuff — announce itself to the reader?

Nabokov spoke of the shiver between the shoulder blades. Emily Dickinson required more persuasion. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” she wrote in a letter, “I know that is poetry.”

I’m sorry to say that I occasionally experience it as the dishonorable and squirrelly impulse to hoard the book in question, to keep it my secret. This can prove difficult, as you might imagine, given my line. All of which is to say, I bring news of Tove Ditlevsen’s suite of memoirs with the kind of thrill and reluctance that tells me this must be a masterpiece.

The books first appeared in Denmark between 1967 and 1971 under the titles “Childhood” (“Barndom”), “Youth” (“Ungdom”) and “Dependency” (“Gift” — the Danish word for both the adjective “married” and the noun “poison”). The first two volumes were translated by Tiina Nunnally, the final one — the most sublime and harrowing — by Michael Favala Goldman. Now published together in one handsome volume as “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” they are a portrait of an artist and a portrait of an addict — and the product of a terrifying talent.

Ditlevsen, who died in 1976, is beloved in her native Denmark; today her work is taught in schools and her life is the subject of reverent plays. Danish editions of her work often feature her photograph on the cover — her head cocked, a cigarette between her fingers, looking amused and conspiratorial. “Loved by generations of women and put down by generations of men,” the Danish writer Dorthe Nors has described her.

They exert a particular fascination, these books. It’s like watching something burn. The language is plain, unadorned, almost masklike — a provocative composure that settles even more tightly over the narration as we enter “Dependency,” in which Ditlevsen describes her years of addiction.

It’s this composure that gives the trilogy its suspense — and it’s a kind of composure that is much misunderstood. For all the expected reasons, no quality is praised more strenuously in women’s writing than “control.” See also “restraint” and “lack of sentimentality.” But control is just one effect, and in some ways the canniest — nothing else so efficiently earns the reader’s trust and can lull her into sleepy credulity. “Clarity” is no different; is there better camouflage than absolute candor? Ditlevsen confesses and confesses, but it is what she does not say, what she shows us and does not acknowledge — the murk in the book — that gives the memoirs that rippling quality of something alive, something still unfurling.

“In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places,” Alice Munro once wrote.

For Ditlevsen, the one place was Istedgade Street, where the book begins. “My childhood street — its rhythm will always pound in my blood and its voice will always reach me and be the same.” Do not misunderstand this as nostalgia. That street was “rancid” with the “stench of beer and urine.” Its rhythms were nightly brawls. In “Childhood,” Ditlevsen takes the reader on a tour, and points out the spots where women and girls were murdered.

This was the place where it happened, and the person on whom everything hinged was her mother — beautiful, capricious, cruel. Ditlevsen was a bright girl and a good student, and her mother’s moods were her earliest training; she had to learn to decipher them, learn to read her mother’s face.

Poetry was an early consolation. “Long, mysterious words began to crawl across my soul like a protective membrane,” she writes. “When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me.”

Tove DitlevsenCredit…Gyldendals Billedbibliotek

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. “My poems covered the bare places in my childhood like the fine, new skin under a scab,” she writes.

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. It was a clandestine joy, “something secret and prohibited” — the very vocabulary of concealment and private ecstasy that we encounter when she discovers Demerol.

She married the first available man — the publisher of her first poems. The attraction, in no small part, was his working shower. But from the start she was restless. She left him, married again.

At a party, she met Carl, a doctor. They slept together, and when she discovered herself pregnant, she went to him for an abortion (how’s that for a second date). He injected her with Demerol — “a bliss I have never before felt spreads through my entire body,” she writes. Carl confessed to her that he had suffered bouts of mental illness in the past, but she couldn’t hear him. She was already in love, with the colorless liquid inside the syringe.

The world contracted and became very simple. She needed more Demerol. It wasn’t enough to leave her husband and marry Carl — as she did, swiftly — she must have his child immediately; a child would fasten him to her. She must adopt one of the children Carl already had, binding him even closer. She feigned ear pain for extra doses. Carl introduced her to methadone.

He was beginning to play a game of his own. He liked to have sex with her when she was under the effect of the drug — “I love passive women,” he said — and was often violent. Afterward she would lie “limp and blissful.” She kept using the ear pain as an excuse, and Carl finally suggested she have surgery to fix it. She assented when she learned she could have as much Demerol as she wanted.

The operation left her deaf in one ear. “It was worth it,” she says. “No price was too high to be able to keep away intolerable real life.”

As Ditlevsen’s work is introduced in the Anglophone world, she is often described as a Danish Jean Rhys — chaotic, passive, benighted, capable of rousing herself out of stupor only to gouge out of herself a few of those indelible sentences with their simple syntax and terrifying logic. It’s an impression that Ditlevsen herself courts — there is a strong vein of self-pity in the memoirs. She bemoans her plain face and narrow figure; she laments that men are always leaving her. And yet the reader notices something quite different: This supposedly plain woman is never without a companion, and furthermore, she is the one who does the leaving. These books — so vaunted for their bravery, their abjection — are also, indisputably, an account of getting one’s own way.

Ditlevsen wanted to leave home, to live by her pen — this she accomplished at a young age. She wanted to escape her mother and marry — done. She wanted a younger, sexier man — he arrived, on time. She desperately wanted a child and ended up mothering four. When she desperately did not want a child, an underground network of women aided her in getting an abortion. When she wanted Demerol, she found enablers everywhere.

“In the morning there was hope” — these are the first lines of the book. Young Tove sits at the breakfast table watching her lovely, frightening mother. Does she ever truly leave that table? “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin,” she wrote. “You can’t get out of it on your own.”

Perhaps not. But when she committed suicide in 1976, news reports estimated that a thousand people followed her coffin in the streets.

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