Book Bag: ‘Dependency’ by Tove Ditlevsen; translated by Michael Favala Goldman

Published: 3/20/2020 9:10:01 AM
Modified: 3/20/2020 9:09:48 AM

By Steve Pfarrer


By Tove Ditlevsen

Translated by Michael Favala Goldman

Penguin Classics

Tove Ditlevsen may not be a household name in the U.S. But from the mid 1940s to the mid 1970s, she was one of Demark’s most celebrated and prolific writers, penning poetry, novels, short fiction and memoirs. She also lived a tumultuous life that included four marriages, unplanned pregnancies, depression and drug addiction.

“Dependency” is the first English translation of the third part of “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” Ditlevsen’s celebrated memoir of her life beginning with childhood. The original volume, published in 1971, has been translated by Michael Goldman of Florence, who over the last several years has translated numerous works by modern and contemporary Danish writers; he learned to speak and read and write Danish after first spending time in the country as a high school student in the 1980s.

“Dependency” chronicles Ditlevsen’s life as an adult, during which she overcame a very poor upbringing to become a published poet at age 20. Following that came a successful string of poetry collections, novels and short stories, published partly during the German occupation of Denmark during World War II, that made her a rising literary star by the late 1940s when she turned 30.

But along the way, Ditlevsen battled with conflicting desires and impulses and a string of bad relationships with men. She wanted to live as a writer and an independent woman at a time when society and her own mother believed a woman could only find fulfillment though marriage. Yet she also craved a sense of normalcy in her life, especially after being forced to leave school at age 14 to work as a maid.

In one early scene in “Dependency,” after she has her first child, a daughter, with Ebbe, her second husband, Ditlevsen says she’s happy to be part of a “normal, regular family.” But Ebbe counters, “Why do you want to be normal and regular? Everyone knows you’re not.” Writes Ditlevsen: “I don’t know how to answer him, but I have wanted that as far back as I can remember.”

In straightforward prose, “Dependency” also describes how Ditlevsen’s third husband, a doctor, gives her shots of Demerol as an alternative to foreplay, which produces “a bliss I have never felt before [that] expands to a radiant hall, and I feel completely relaxed, lazy and happy as never before.”

Addiction to Demerol would take over Ditlevsen’s life for a spell, crushing her interest in writing, her children and everything else, in turn leading to profound depression and spells in hospitals.

The book, which The Guardian newspaper says is “fluidly translated” by Goldman, owes its strength to what the newspaper calls Ditlevsen’s “militant refusal to present her choices and their consequences — be they love affairs, backstreet abortions or chronic drug addiction — through the filters of hindsight or amour-propre.”

In a phone interview, Goldman said he initially received a grant from a Danish cultural organization to translate a short section of Ditlevsen’s memoir, as a precursor for judging publisher interest in a translation of the whole book. He says he was so taken with the memoir that he eventually translated all of it, then pitched it unsuccessfully to about 20 publishers. But eventually two English publishers became interested in the title, sparking a “bidding war,” Goldman says, that brought it to Penguin Classics.

In other book-related news: The Book Bag column will run some periodic first-person essays from area writers on what motivates them to take up a pen (or keyboard). Below is an essay from Becky Jones, a member of the Straw Dog Writers Guild.

Over 30 years ago a spark was kindled in me when I saw a poster advertising a writing group for women in a low-income Chicopee housing complex. I remember thinking, “That would great to lead such a group,” but also, “This will sadly never be me since I’m not a writer.” A year later, at the softball field, my yet-to-be-friend Marcia mentioned she was going to her writing group that evening. When she asked if I wanted to join. I said yes, and I’ve been in her group ever since.

When I joined Marcia’s writing group, I was working as a hospital chaplain and found that writing, held in the confidentiality of the writing group, helped me process internally that intense work. By writing down others’ distressing events in as much detail as I could recall, their experiences moved from being a weight inside me to finding life on the page. I was able take the stones of another’s struggle and make flower-filled rock gardens out of them, rather than lugging them around in my own backpack.

After being trained to lead the same kind of writing groups that the Chicopee women’s groups used, I began offering bereavement writing groups. As a chaplain, in my many one-on-one meetings with people in grief, sometimes we both felt caught in the quicksand of their sadness. But in the writing groups, there was movement and life, despite the grief. It’s not that grief went away, but rather how people who carried it seemed to shift.

The bereavement writing groups allow us to go beneath the surface to find forgotten memories and to listen inwardly for the right words and metaphors for grief because there’s no message that people have to “get over” their loved-one’s death. There’s room, instead, to savor memories, come to understand the relationship, and establish new connections to the person despite their death. Listening to others’ stories also changes all of us. If my metaphor for grief is of broken, jagged-edged glass, then I will want to bury it. If I learn from another that grief is beach glass that I can hold in my hand, its edges worn down by exposure to the action of sand and waves, I can aim toward a different kind of relationship with grief.

Writing has been a builder of community, both in the groups I lead and in the groups I write with as a peer. We share our stories and our lives. We enter into the fabric of each other’s lives. The fabric of my life, thanks to all my writing companions, has a finer weave and far more golden threads than I ever could have imagined 30 years ago.

Visit for more information about the group and the events it hosts (online for the moment).

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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