Book Bag: ‘The Trouble with Happiness’ by Tove Ditlevsen, translated by Michael Favala Goldman; ‘Small Sovereign: Poems’ by Michael Favala Goldman

  • Florence poet and translator Michael Favalo Goldman has two new books out, including an award-winner from the 2022 Los Angeles Book Festival. CONTRIBUTED/MICHAEL GOLDMAN

  • Goldman’s newest work of Danish-to-English translation is a collection of stories from the revered 20th-century Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen.

  • Michael Favala Goldman’s “Small Sovereign” won first place for poetry in the 2022 Los Angeles Book Festival.

Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2022 8:32:47 AM

The Trouble with Happiness
by Tove Ditlevsen, translated by Michael Favala Goldman; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

“Jack of all trades” is a bit of a cliche, but in the case of Michael Favala Goldman, it might be a fitting handle — or perhaps it could be modified to “Jack of many trades.”

Goldman, of Florence, is a jazz clarinetist and has also worked as a carpenter. But over the past several years, he’s carved out a career as a busy translator of modern Danish literature and poetry, with 17 books to his credit. He also has published three of his own poetry collections and teaches poetry workshops in the Valley (more on that below).

Last year, Goldman received widespread praise for his translation of “Dependency,” the third volume of the three-part memoir “The Copenhagen Trilogy” by Tove Ditlevsen, a celebrated 20th-century Danish writer who lived a tumultuous life that included drug addiction, failed marriages, abortions and depression; her work has now begun to find a wider audience in the English-speaking world.

Among a number of honors, “The Copenhagen Trilogy” was named one of the 10 best books of 2021 by the New York Times, while The Paris Review called it “an absolute tour de force, the final volume in particular.… Ditlevsen’s writing ... is crystal clear and vividly, painfully raw.”

Goldman has now translated a collection of stories, “The Trouble with Happiness,” that Ditlevsen wrote in the 1950s and 1960s. These 21 stories, divided into two chapters, might better be called vignettes, as most run about six to 10 pages. They showcase, as “The Copenhagen Trilogy” did, Ditlevsen’s sharp, spare and unsentimental writing, with profiles of people, mostly women, for whom happiness is elusive — as it was for the author, who committed suicide in 1976.

Portraits of stale marriages and family dysfunction abound, and unspoken thoughts and tensions hum disturbingly behind bland conversations and daily routines. Physical closeness is rare, money is usually tight, and children are an afterthought or simply a mistake.

A woman in a drab abortion clinic, waiting to be seen by a doctor, considers life with her partner and finds it wanting: “There was something clearly laughable about the thought of having a child with him, and not the least heroic in hiding it from him.”

In “The Umbrella,” a housewife, Helga, not long into a marriage that had seemed to start well enough but is now foundering under her isolation and her husband’s drinking and nasty remarks, takes refuge in a recurring image from her childhood: a pretty woman in a yellow dress, carrying a mysterious umbrella. Helga buys herself an umbrella and briefly feels happy — until her husband angrily breaks it in half.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance,” a married woman with a leg damaged by childhood illness, who always felt ridiculed when she was young, believes her husband has accepted her for her mind and heart. Then she overhears him on a telephone call saying, “Thank you very much, that’s very kind of you, but my wife doesn’t dance.”

Now she’s stricken anew with self-doubt, yet can’t bring herself to ask her husband who he spoke to or why he said what he did, even as a “cold hate” begins to wash over her: “Now someone had opened the door, and an invisible and icy cold wind blew around her.” Suddenly she perceives her husband “as a complete stranger, a person she just happened coincidentally to be in the room with.”

Some of this is not very subtle. “The Little Shoes” begins with this line: “Helene awoke early in the morning, feeling that her entire life was one big failure.” “Anxiety” is the title of another story, while “Depression” opens with “Lulu stacked the dirty dishes on top of one another in the nearly scalding water, so parsley sprigs, wilted lettuce leaves, and radish tops released and floated on top in a sad, greasy stew.”

But Ditlevsen’s stories, if not exactly uplifting, still engage because of the author’s precisely observed characters and their taut emotions and thoughts, bubbling just beneath the surface of their lives.

As Publishers Weekly puts it, “Ditlevsen is acutely sensitive to the way normal life can wear at [people’s] hearts. Readers will recognize the themes of anger, disappointment, and frustration that recur within the author’s universe. Alongside this discomfort, though, is the opportunity for deep transformation.”

 

Small Sovereign by Michael Favala Goldman; Homestead Lighthouse Press

 

Goldman’s third poetry collection, “Small Sovereign,” recently won first place for poetry at the Los Angeles Book Festival. The author writes on his website that he was dumbfounded when he learned of the award: “Was this real? How could this be? I am still in partial disbelief, but acceptance and gratitude are gradually replacing my sense of shock.”

If translating Tove Ditlevsen’s work brings him face to face with that author’s bleak tableaus, Goldman plumbs a wider range of emotion in his poetry. In “Small Sovereign,” divided into three sections, the mostly short, free-verse poems have their moments of despair, whether considering the state of the world or personal relationships, but they also find moments of joy, brightness and humor.

“A high time” recalls the narrator’s parents, young people wearing “suede with fringes” in the late 1960s and early 1970s who at 22 had two kids and a cheap mortgage in “an attempt to crush the staidness of their parents, / into the tumult of bare feat, assassinations, / their friend returning from Vietnam / with a tracheotomy then dead.”

The poem suggests the marriage didn’t last, though not for a lack of feeling: “but look again / how much they were doing, / under what circumstances / events rolled on / and love never went out, / not completely.”

The collection considers the ups and downs, or perhaps the push-pull, of other relationships. In “Light,” the narrator supposes that when he comes over his partner’s horizon “like a giant balloon,” he might need “a touch / of my mooring. And guess what — / you tether me, I buoy you, / we hover between / the grittiness and the clouds.”

And Goldman says love is the most important bond in a troubled world; mediating for hours for world peace, he writes in “On the other hand,” is more about disengaging from life.

“But don’t try to convince me / that barricading yourself in the room / of your thoughts is better / than holding my hand before breakfast / watching the pale moon/ as it blends with the sky / through the bare trees.”

More about Goldman’s writing and translation can be found at michaelfavalagoldman.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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