Book Review: Tove Ditlevsen’s ‘The Faces’ and ‘The Trouble With Happiness’

And Other Stories
By Tove Ditlevsen
Translated by Michael Favala Goldman
184 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

By Tove Ditlevsen
Translated by Tiina Nunnally
130 pages. Picador. $16.

Tove Ditlevsen’s “The Copenhagen Trilogy” was one of last year’s major books. It’s a set of three slim memoirs — “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency” — originally published in her native Denmark between 1967 and 1971. They’re told simply but are brutal and lonely, lonely, lonely. It’s as if Ditlevsen were probing a series of aching tooth cavities.

Two more of her books are out now in translation from the Danish: “The Trouble With Happiness,” a collection of stories, and “The Faces,” a novel. These consolidate but don’t greatly extend her reputation; neither quite makes the claims on you that the memoirs do.

Ditlevsen (1917-76) wrote the stories in “The Trouble With Happiness” in the 1950s and ’60s, and readers of the trilogy will recognize much of the physical and mental furniture: distant parents; lumpen apartments; faithless men who lie around all day, as if couches were symbolic mothers they must reject.

Love’s never a merry, four-move chess design in Ditlevsen’s work; it is one move, and a blunder. “Behind each of these women was the shadow of a man,” a woman in an unlicensed abortion clinic thinks, “a tired husband who toiled for a throng of children, and whose income couldn’t bear the strain of another child; a disloyal chap with pomaded hair who was already a thing of the past, an ephemeral, hasty tryst that had little to do with love.”

These stories are about what people settle for as opposed to what they want. Even when Ditlevsen’s women have found a measure of artistic success, there’s a quality of meltdown, of wall-to-wall apprehension. Most are indefatigably antisocial. None of them are going to get a nice call from a trust and estate lawyer; they’re more likely to inherit something like a used catheter.

It’s easy to make these stories sound even bleaker than they are. One begins: “Hanne was only 7, but she already possessed a great deal of formless anxiety.” Another first sentence: “Helene woke early in the morning, feeling that her entire life was one big failure.”

Yet as Martin Amis said, “Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits.” You sense, in these stories about miscarriages, cheating men, dinner parties gone wrong and frightened children, a writer pulling from a deep well, returning to familiar themes out of a deep compulsion, and that compulsion squeezes us too, in a kind of claustrophobic bliss-out, as if we’ve been inserted into one of Temple Grandin’s deep-pressure hug machines.

The stories aren’t microfiction but, translated by Michael Favala Goldman, they’re really short — five or six pages each, somehow an ideal length.

“The Faces” was originally published in Denmark in 1968. It’s appeared in English before, in an edition from Fjord Press in 1991. That translation, by Tiina Nunnally, is reprised here. This is a lurid crackup novel, too heavy-handed for my tastes, but I suspect a lot of readers will respond to it.

Lise is a well-known children’s book author. She feels she’s been rebuked by life, and her mind is unraveling, like yarn screaming from the bottom of a sweater. She’s been unable to write for two years. She feels cast aside, like yesterday’s literary woman, a flower pressed too long in a book. She freaks herself out with worry over a minor act of plagiarism committed long ago, and senses she’s about to be unmasked.

Her first husband, a diplomat, left her because, at an important dinner, her fingernails were dirty from handling typewriter ribbon. Her new husband, jealous of her fame, is openly cheating on her. There have been other blows, some dealt so far in the past she cannot remember them.

Credit…Gyldendals Billedbibliotek

She thinks her young housekeeper is trying to kill her. She seems to have no agency, no will; her nerves are peeled; all news is taken darkly to heart; the walls are closing in. She begins to hear disembodied voices; after a suicide attempt, she ends up in an asylum.

This is a promising setup, thematically; you want to soak in the brine as if it were a Marianne Faithfull album. But a sense of overkill emerges. Right from the start, cupboards are “disturbing cavities,” the sky smells “like the breath of people who don’t eat” and voices sound like “pus from a sore.”

This is a book about faces, and they are not meant to be pleasant. No one is seen in a buttery light, especially not the narrator; you sense you’re always looking up someone’s nostrils, as in one of the photographer Irving Penn’s portraits.

The constant return to the idea of faces — we all have more than one, they can appall, those of our friends turn strange — is heavy, too, but it does lead to a starkly comic moment, in the asylum, when a doctor asks Lise why she tried to kill herself.

“I had such a terrible need to see some new faces,” she replies. The doctor doesn’t realize she’s entirely in earnest. He barks, “This is no time for jokes.”

Important characters in “The Faces” are named Gitte, Gert and Grete. It’s sometimes hard to remember which is which. There are love triangles here but, as in life, none are equilateral.