Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning

Dear Tove,


In Childhood (2019, tr. Tiina Nunnally. Original: Barndom, 1967), your portrait of the artist as a working-class girl is no rosy picture. Born in an impoverished family at the tail end of WWI, your Tove grew up in a small apartment in Copenhagen. Her older brother, Edvin, sleeps on the sofa in the living room, while she shares a bedroom with her parents. The apartment’s window opens to a view to the tenement’s back court: “Between the walls I can see a little square scrap of sky, where a single star sometimes shines”.

Her father lost his job when she was seven, and the family started to live on welfare: “We never starved (…) but I got to know the half-starvation you feel at the smell of dinner coming from the doors of the more well-to-do, when for days you’ve been living on coffee and stale pastry.”

For her family, the best Tove can expect from life is marriage to a “stable skilled worker” who doesn’t drink. By fourteen, the girl is expected to leave school to earn money and pay for her board and her expenses. Her confirmation party will mark the end of her childhood – or the end of what should have been a childhood.

And this is precisely what made the book interesting to me: it reads as though you were writing two stories at once – one about a childhood that was lived, and one about a childhood that was forever robbed. The two live off each other and cannot be separated. By the end of this first volume, when your Tove is mourning the end of her childhood, she is in fact mourning the end of something that should have been but would never really be. And the childhood that actually was seems to remain with her forever, like some sort of phantom pain from a severed limb.

The passage where Tove goes to school for the first time is very illuminating of the way you build point of view as a two-way road in this volume. In this scene, the school principal rebukes Tove’s mother for the fact that the girl already knows how to read: “My mother moves a little bit away from me and says faintly, ‘She learned it by herself, it’s not our fault’. I look up at her and understand many things at once. She is smaller than other adult women, younger than other mothers, and there’s a world outside my street that she fears. And whenever we both fear it together, she will stab me in the back.” Here, you manage to stay true to what your Tove felt as a child, while, at the same time, reframing it with the hindsight of the woman Tove would later become.

Childhood, in your book, is a claustrophobic place: “a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten”; something that “comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold”; “an illness you’ve survived”; it’slong and narrow like a coffin”; a “moth-eaten rug”; something that “clings to you like a bad smell”. At once, something that you cannot escape and something you are doomed to lose forever.

Meanwhile, your Tove goes to middle school, gains access to the local library, and befriends a girl in the neighbourhood, Ruth, whom she follows on shoplifting errands. “I make myself into her echo because I love her and because she’s the strongest, but deep inside I am still me. I have my dreams about a future beyond the street, but Ruth is immediately tied to it and will never be torn away from it.”

At ten, your Tove announces to her family that she wants to be a poet, and is immediately rebuked by her father: “Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet.” Later, her brother Edvin will find her secret notebook and mock her juvenilia: “You’re really full of lies.” At twelve, she will start to dream with death and will make a first suicide attempt, sawing at her wrists with a bread knife. “I always dream about meeting some mysterious person who will listen to me and understand me.”

Her mother will beat her regularly and without reason, and, from an early age, your Tove will strive in vain for a crumb of her affection: “I always think that when I’m grown up my mother will finally like me the way she likes Edvin now. Because my childhood irritates her just as much as it irritates me, and we are only happy together whenever she suddenly forgets about its existence.”

This first volume in your Copenhagen trilogy reminded me of To the Is-land (1982) the first volume of Janet Frame’s memoir An Angel at My Table; Alberta and Jacob (1984, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan. Original: Alberte og Jacob, 1926), the first volume of Cora Sandel’s Alberta Trilogy; Tillie Olsen’s short stories; Violette Leduc’s Asphyxia (2020, tr. Derek Coltman. Original: L’Asphyxie, 1946); and the first volume in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.

Your Tove will nurture in secret the dream of becoming a poet. She will read voraciously and will write her own poems, testing her ground. “Someday I’ll write down all of the words that flow through me. Someday other people will read them in a book and marvel that a girl could be a poet, after all“. (They will)

Literature will be her lifeline: “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”; “I thought my poems covered the bare places in my childhood like the fine, new skin under a scab that hasn’t yet fallen off completely”.

Your Tove has no room of her own, no room with a view, no prospects beyond what can fit inside a childhood that is “long and narrow like a coffin“. But she will grab the “little square scrap of sky” in her view, and will fiercely follow the “single star” shining outside: her gift for words.

Yours truly,

J.


Anna Ancher, Little girl with flower, 1885

“Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived (…)Wherever you turn, you run up against your childhood and hurt yourself because it’s sharp-edged and hard, and stops only when it has torn you completely apart. It seems that everyone has their own and each is totally different.” – Tove Ditlevsen, Copenhagen Trilogy – Childhood, tr. Tiina Nunnally

*

“In the meantime, there exist certain facts. They are stiff and immovable, like the lampposts in the street, but at least they change in the evening when the lamplighter has touched them with his magic wand. Then they light up like big soft sunflowers in the narrow borderland between night and day, when all the people move so quietly and slowly, as if they were walking on the bottom of the green ocean.” – Tove Ditlevsen, Copenhagen Trilogy – Childhood, tr. Tiina Nunnally

*

“On the sly, you observe the adults whose childhood lies inside them, torn and full of holes like a used and moth-eaten rug no one thinks about anymore or has any use for. You can’t tell by looking at them that they’ve had a childhood, and you don’t dare ask how they managed to make it through without their faces getting deeply scarred and marked by it. You suspect that they’ve used some secret shortcut and donned their adult form many years ahead of time.” – Tove Ditlevsen, Copenhagen Trilogy – Childhood, tr. Tiina Nunnally


About the book

  • Penguin Classics, 2019, tr. Tiina Nunnally, 99 p. Goodreads
  • First volume in “The Copenhagen Trilogy”
  • Original: Barndom, 1967
  • Nunnally’s translation of Childhood was originally published in English by the feminist publisher Seal Press, together with the second volume Youth, under the title Early Spring (1985).
  • My rating: 5 stars
  • Projects: European Reading Challenge, hosted by Gilion; my Winter TBR.

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