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Archive for the ‘Danish Literature’ Category

I discovered Ida Jessen’sA Change of Time‘ sometime back and decided to read it yesterday. I read it for #ReadIndies hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. The English translation of this book is published by Archipelago Books, one of my favourite indie publishers. I’ll tell you why, soon 😊

Ida Jessen’s book is in the format of a diary. The person who writes this diary is a woman who has just lost her husband. As we read her diary entries, we discover how our narrator navigates life, grief and loneliness after this heartbreaking personal loss. In a soft, gentle voice, the narrator shares her thoughts on life, love – both requited and unrequited, loss, grief, loneliness, friendship, the passing of seasons, the beauty of nature, the beautiful relationship between teachers and students, the charming behaviour of people in a small village – how everyone knows everyone, how everyone is curious about other people’s lives and there is no privacy, how people are kind and help each other during difficult times, the way only small-town and village people do. Ida Jessen’s prose is beautiful, gentle and meditative, and is a pleasure to read. There is even a delicate love story woven into the book, which we might miss, if we blink. I nearly did.

I loved ‘A Change of Time‘. Ida Jessen’s book shows why Danish literature is awesome and continues to rock. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I want to explore more of Ida Jessen’s work.

Now, a little bit about Archipelago books, as promised. Archipelago books have a very unique design – they are in the shape of a square, rather than a rectangle, which is how a typical book is. I hope you can see this square shape in the picture. I’ve seen table-top books which are shaped like squares, but have never seen regular books, which are filled with text, in this design. This square design is one of the reasons I love Archipelago books  This design poses interesting creative challenges to booklovers and book collectors in how to shelve their books, because bookshelves are not designed for square books. I love the way Archipelago books have defied convention and designed their books in this unconventional square shape.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from Ida Jessen’s book.

“I was not a frequent churchgoer in those years. I will not say I am a stranger to the church, for I am familiar with it and with what goes on there, as one might be familiar with an aging aunt whom one has not visited in a very long time, and when eventually one does, one recognizes straight away the smells of her kitchen and the way in which the old armchair so snugly accommodates the frame as soon as one obliges the invitation to take a seat: everything is exactly as it was when one was a child.”

“I feel like a person standing in a landscape so empty and open that it matters not a bit in which direction I choose to There would be no difference : north, south, east, or west, would be the same wherever I went.”

“Bitterness is a very soft and comfortable armchair from which it is difficult indeed to extract oneself once one has decided to settle in it.”

“With age comes a certain naivety. Perhaps we no longer can bear the things we know and must smooth them away, leveling ourselves in the process. The differences we even out are evened out by human hand. The very old say so very little, not because they are unable, but because they cannot be bothered.”

“Widows are a community. I have been aware of it ever since I was a child. It can be seen in the way they seek each other’s company, in the pews for instance, where often they will sit in pairs. They do not speak much, for they have no need, and after the service they go their separate ways. In my childhood home, the widows sat together at meals and at work in the workroom. It is a matter of having lived with one person for most of one’s adult life, and to have lost that person. To have been set free. Freedom is not always a good thing. There is a freedom in which one is unseen. Such is the life of the widow. When the days of mourning are gone, and grief has become tire some to one’s surroundings, one ceases to be an interesting person and must accept the fact. Widows possess an expe rience that is not understood by others. They must live with becoming grey in the eyes of the world, and have lost their right of protest, for they are outside the common community. As outcasts they stick together. But this not the only reason. There is a warmth there, and understanding. They are acquainted with things. We have our dead. Our hope is that we too will be someone’s.”

Have you read ‘A Change of Time‘? What do you think about it?

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I read the third and final part of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoir, ‘Dependency‘, today. There are going to be spoilers in the review, and so please be forewarned.

Dependency‘ starts with a surprise – Tove is married! It came as such a surprise to me, as I didn’t see that coming! Starting from there, Tove goes on to describe her married life, her writing experiences, how she falls in love again with another person and breaks up with her husband, how her quest for romantic happiness and marital bliss continues for the rest of her life with unpredictable results, the new friends she makes and how they shape her life – we learn about these and other things in the first part of the book.

There are some interesting things that the book describes which were probably unusual for that time. For example, at one point, Tove becomes a successful writer and her name comes in the papers and she makes lots of money, but her husband is still a student at university. This leads to some complicated situations at home. When Tove describes the troubles in her marriage to her friend, and says that she fears that her husband might leave her, her friend says this – “He is really proud of you; it’s obvious when he talks about you. You just have to understand that it’s so easy for him to feel inferior. You’re famous, you earn money, you love your work. Ebbe’s just a poor student who’s being more or less supported by his wife. He’s studying for a degree he doesn’t fit, and he has to get drunk to cope with life.” There is also a part in which Tove describes how she is romantically attracted to one of her girlfriends. I don’t know whether that led to something more, as Tove is quiet about that.

Tove also describes the time she has an unplanned pregnancy and has to get an illegal abortion, and how when it happens again, it leads to some unintended consequences, which in turn leads to a dark period in her life. In the second part of the book, Tove describes how she got addicted to painkillers, and how this addiction took over her life, and affected her relationships with her family and friends and everyone around her, and how she came out of that harrowing period in her life.

Dependency‘ is very different from the first two parts of the trilogy. Tove’s searing honesty as she describes her life and her struggles with addiction makes for a fascinating and difficult read. The second part of the book, which describes her descent into addiction, is especially hard to read. Tove’s bravery and courage as she lays bare her life is amazing and inspiring. This trilogy was first published in the period 1967-71, and I’m sure it must have created waves when it first came out, shocking and surprising readers with its frankness and honesty. I don’t think there was any memoir of that time which came close to this. I don’t think even Tove’s great French contemporary, Marguerite Duras, wrote a frank memoir like this. The closest I can think of is Erica Jong’sFear of Flying‘, but even that is classified as fiction. As a memoir, Tove’s trilogy is unparalleled and unique, and it was far ahead of its time. The first two volumes of this memoir were translated and published in English in 1985. The publishers and the translator refused to touch the third volume and for many years it was not available in English. It was finally translated 34 years later. After reading it now, I realize why. The third volume is very different from the first two, because it is more frank, more honest, and probably controversial for its time, and it shows the grownup Tove as a complex, beautiful, imperfect, flawed human being. How she mustered up the bravery and courage to put this on paper, I’ll never know. It gives me goosebumps, just thinking about it.

I loved ‘Dependency‘, though it was a challenging read. I loved the whole trilogy. It is a beautiful, insightful and frank depiction of the times as seen through the eyes of one person, the fascinating Tove Ditlevsen.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite passages from the book.

“And I realize more and more that the only thing I’m good for, the only thing that truly captivates me, is forming sentences and word combinations, or writing simple, four-line poetry. And in order to do this I have to be able to observe people in a certain way, almost as if I needed to store them in a file somewhere for later use. And to be able to do this I have to be able to read in a certain way too, so I can absorb through all my pores everything I need, if not for now, then for later use. That’s why I can’t interact with too many people; and I can’t go out too much and drink alcohol, because then I can’t work the next day. And since I’m always forming sentences in my head, I’m often distant and distracted when Ebbe starts talking to me, and that makes him feel dejected.”

“I’ve never been out in the country before, and I’m amazed at the silence, which is like nothing I have ever experienced. I feel something resembling happiness, and I wonder if this is what is meant by enjoying life. In the evening I go for a walk alone while Ester watches Helle. The aromas from the fields and pine forest are stronger than on the day we arrived. The lighted windows in the farmhouse shine like yellow squares in the darkness, and I wonder what the people there do to pass the time. The man probably sits listening to the radio; and the wife probably darns socks which she pulls up out of a woven basket. Soon they’ll yawn and stretch and look out at the weather and say a few words about the work awaiting them in the morning. Then they’ll tiptoe to bed so as not to wake the children. The yellow squares will go dark. Eyes will shut all over the world. The cities go to sleep, and the houses, and the fields.”

Have you read ‘Dependency‘? What do you think about it?

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Today, I finished reading the second part of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, ‘Youth‘. I read it in one breath.

In ‘Youth‘, Tove describes what happens after she goes to work, the different kinds of jobs she has, how her employers and colleagues are, the young men who are attracted towards her, how she can’t wait to turn eighteen and move out of her house and be independent – how she wants a room of her own as Virginia Woolf describes it, and which Tove describes eloquently thus –

“But I want so badly to have a place where I can practice writing real poems. I’d like to have a room with four walls and a closed door. A room with a bed, a table and a chair, with a typewriter, or a pad of paper and a pencil, nothing more. Well, yes – a door I could lock. All of this I can’t have until I’m eighteen and can move away from home.”

The book also describes how her parents resist Tove’s plans to become independent, how Tove becomes friends with literary-inclined older people with whom she has delightful bookish conversations, and her attempts at writing poems and getting them published. The book also touches upon the looming spectre of Nazism in Europe.

When Tove’s first poem gets published in a small literary magazine, she is thrilled. But her reaction to it was also complex and very interesting. It was one of my favourite passages from the book, and it goes like this –

“The next day two copies of Wild Wheat arrive in the mail and my poem is in both of them. I read it many times and get an apprehensive feeling in my stomach. It looks completely different in print than typewritten or in longhand. I can’t correct it anymore and it’s no longer mine alone. It’s in many hundreds or thousands of copies of the journal, and strange people will read it and may think that it’s good. It’s spread out over the whole country, and people I meet on the street may have read it. They may be walking about with a copy of the journal in their inside pocket or purse. If I ride in the streetcar, there may be a man sitting across from me reading it. It’s completely overwhelming and there’s not a person I can share this wonderful experience with.”

I loved ‘Youth‘. It is fascinating to watch how Tove navigates the complicated, messy adult world, and listening to her experiences through her own unique voice. I can’t wait to read the third part now, and find out what Tove’s upto next.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Being young is itself temporary, fragile, and ephemeral. You have to get through it – it has no other meaning.”

“Death is not a gentle falling asleep as I once believed. It’s brutal, hideous, and foul smelling. I wrap my arms around myself and rejoice in my youth and my health. Otherwise my youth is nothing more than a deficiency and a hindrance that I can’t get rid of fast enough.”

“I also like to look at people who in one way or another give expression to their feelings. I like to look at mothers caressing their children, and I willingly go a little out of my way in order to follow a young couple who are walking hand in hand and are openly in love. It gives me a wistful feeling of happiness and an indefinable hope for the future.”

“‘If you don’t stop being so strange,’ my mother says, ‘you’ll never get married.’ ‘I don’t want to anyway,’ I say, even though I’m sitting there considering that desperate alternative. I think about my childhood ghost : the stable skilled worker. I don’t have anything against a skilled worker; it’s the word ‘stable’ that blocks out all bright future dreams. It’s as gray as a rainy sky when no bright ray of sun trickles through.”

Have you read Tove Ditlevsen’sYouth‘? What do you think about it?

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I was inspired to read Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs by one of my friends, who is an artist and a writer, and who is the biggest admirer of Tove Ditlevsen that I know. My friend has been gushing about Tove Ditlevsen for a long time, much before last year, when everyone started reading Ditlevsen after the recent English translation of her memoirs were published.

I read the first part of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, ‘Childhood‘, today. Ditlevsen was born in 1918, when the First World War had just ended, and so it was a very different world then. ‘Childhood‘ describes the first decade and a half of Ditlevsen’s life. It brings that era beautifully alive, and interestingly it doesn’t feel like Ditlevsen is talking about a period which is nearly a century back, but it feels fresh like today. One of my favourite parts of the book is the one which describes how Tove fell in love with books, especially poetry, and how she started writing poetry of her own. I loved that part. Another thing that I loved about the book was when Tove describes how she hides her real thoughts and feelings from people around her, and pretends to be dumb and stupid, because she feels like an outsider as her thoughts are very different and unconventional compared to those around her. Those of us who are or have been outsiders will be able to understand exactly how Tove must have felt and will be able to identify with her. There are interesting characters who come through the book, including Tove and her brother and her parents and her teachers, her neighbours and her friends. Tove’s mother looks like a fascinating, complex person. Some of my favourite characters in the book were the minor ones who make a brief appearance, like the librarian who helps Tove borrow books for grown-ups, and Tove’s neighbour Ketty, who is her mother’s best friend, and who has an unconventional job, and who is kind and affectionate towards Tove. Tove’s friend Ruth is also a very fascinating character and made me think of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. Tove’s grandmother is also a very interesting character. The book ends with Tove graduating out of middle school and getting ready to go to work and looking at the grownups’ strange world with apprehension.

I loved ‘Childhood‘. It is slim at around a hundred pages, but there is so much packed in those pages, including a commentary on the social and political situation of the times seen through a young girl’s eyes. Tove’s narrative voice is beautiful and authentic and unique. The writing is beautiful and there were many beautiful sentences and passages in the book. I’m sharing one of my favourites below.

“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. Facts never light up and they can’t soften hearts like Ditte menneskebarn, which is one of the first books that I read. ‘It’s a social novel,’ says my father pedantically, and that probably is a fact, but it doesn’t tell me anything, and I have no use for it. ‘Nonsense,’ says my mother, who doesn’t care for facts, either, but can more easily ignore them than I can. Whenever my father, on rare occasions, gets really mad at her, he says she’s full of lies, but I know that’s not so. I know every person has their own truth just as every child has their own childhood. My mother’s truth is completely different from my father’s truth, but it’s just as obvious as the fact that he has brown eyes while hers are blue. Fortunately, things are set up so that you can keep quiet about the truths in your heart; but the cruel, gray facts are written in the school records and in the history of the world and in the law and in the church books. No one can change them and no one dares to try, either – not even the Lord, whose image I can’t separate from Prime Minister Stauning’s, even though my father says that I shouldn’t believe in the Lord since the capitalists have always used Him against the poor.”

Have you read ‘Childhood‘? What do you think about it?

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