Childhood, Youth, Dependency

Tiny books with pastel covers that pack a punch. I wish I had found these sooner, and that the author could still write more.

I discovered the Danish Tove – Ditlevsen – through a rave review of Katriina Huttunen’s new translation into Finnish. As usual, I rushed from the Sunday literary supplement of Hesari to the library app on my phone. Volume two of Ditlevsen’s memoir, the Copenhagen trilogy had a loooong waiting list. But volume one, Barndom/Childhood/Lapsuus, was available right away. That shortened the interval until I got my hands on Ungdom/Youth/Nuoruus. Then tragedy struck – Huttnen’s Finnish translation of Gift/Dependency/??? didn’t even have a title yet. I could NOT wait.

Thank God for the English translation. I discovered that readers also had to wait a long time for volume three. Tiina Nunally had translated the first two parts into English in the mid-eighties, but Michael Favala Goldman only translated the third in the 2010s. When I read it, I could understand the delay.

Ditlevsen is keenly observant of her younger self and the rapid social change around her. In her childhood and youth, she is on the up. Soon I felt I knew her friends and neighbours in her tenement, and all the characters on her street. I roared with laughter at her description of her first job as a maid – and with anger that she couldn’t finish school and go to university. In adulthood, she seems assured a bright future as an independent writer with a room of her own – no small thing in the 1940s, or now. But drugs drag her down.

About that title for volume three. Gift in Danish means both poison (which I recognized from knowing German) and married (which I learned reading about the book). Dependency is a neat solution in English, capturing both meanings and continuing the format of the previous two titles. Before I read it, I thought it was about Ditlevsen’s old age, but she never had one. What will Huttunen choose for the Finnish?

I was nervous about losing the voice that Huttunen captured so well. Of course, English would have been closer to Danish all along, but I’d preferred to read from the other end of the Nordics. Switching to Goldman’s translation, I heard the same woman through it loud and clear. I laughed a lot less, and flinched a lot more – volume three is heart-wrenching. Ditlevsen is searing in her account of her darkest years. Anyone who knows anyone ever gripped by addiction would do well to read it.

Beam the lot to your e-reader in English from Penguin. I’m holding out for volume three from S&S in Finnish. Then I’ll buy the full set of those pastel-coloured little hardbacks with a kick.

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