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mde

Translated by Tina Nunnally

I have to admit to not having heard of Tove Ditlevsen until this book came into my life, which happened quite by chance. I was putting together a prize for the bookcrossing event I have just attended. It was a prize of translated works, and a friend passed on a copy of this book which had already been registered on bookcrossing. I decided I wanted to read it myself, and as I wasn’t sure I would finish it in time, I went in search of another copy. I was fortunate to find one, so my original edition went into the prize bundle as intended.

“In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.”

Tove Ditlevsen was a prolific Danish poet and author, writing poetry, novels, short stories and works of memoir. Born in 1917, she grew up in a working-class neighbourhood of Copenhagen and her childhood became very important throughout her work. Early Spring is a memoir of her childhood, and in it we can see the touch of a poet. This volume contains the first two of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, Childhood and Youth, both published in 1967, the third volume Gift (not included here) came out in 1971.

“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own. It’s there all the time and everyone can see it just as clearly as you can see Pretty Ludvig’s harelip.”

Written in a straight forward, no nonsense style, shot through with beautiful descriptive passages and humour – Early Spring faithfully recreates the sights and sounds of Tove Ditlevsen’s 1930s childhood environment. Her community is a tough, conventional working class one where childhood ends with the confirmation ceremony. After which the adult world beckons, with many girls engaged or married in their late teens. The subject of childhood is a recurring one, Tove thinks about that thing that is her childhood constantly, speaking as if she were still in the midst of those turbulent years – it is easy to forget that she was writing from a distance of some years. Young Tove is confounded by her childhood years but she also treasures her childhood, knowing it to be a privilege and fearing the end of it, and the world which may lay beyond. Tove makes friends with the girl from downstairs, two years younger and with a nicer family, she is a little bit of relief in Tove’s loneliness. Life and death surround her – she witnesses the death of her aunt, begins to see the differences between her family and those of the other children at school. As we all do, Tove begins to understand the world around her.

“I always think that when I’m grown up my mother will finally like me the way she likes Edvin now. Because my childhood irritates her just as much as it irritates me, and we are only happy together whenever she suddenly forgets about its existence.”

Tove grew up in a home where she was a lonely, clumsy child. She had an elder brother – who was the more favoured of the two siblings. The family were poor, and there was little in the way of joy or excitement in Tove’s life. Yet, she had the soul of a poet, a rich imagination, and an unflagging determination to be who she knew she could be and achieve the things she wanted to. In the privacy of her room, young Tove began to write her poetry, scribbling them down in her private poetry album and hiding it away. For Tove, the idea of writing was her one chance to escape the narrow confines of her family and community.

Few of the people in Tove’s life appreciate or understand what she is trying to do, they dismiss or ridicule her poetry writing, but Tove is never swayed. In time, boyfriends begin to rear their heads, and Tove must face the traditional end of childhood. Her mother arranges for her to start work as a mother’s help straight away – but she only lasts a day. All the time she writes, showing her poems to just a trusted few, and hanging on to every word of their praise – clinging to each last bit of hope of future publication.

We watch Tove grow and develop into a young woman who never loses the hope that has slowly built up in her over her first eighteen years of life.

“Istedgade is my childhood street – it’s rhythm will always pound in my blood and its voice will always reach me and be the same as in those distant times when we swore to be true to each other. It’s always warm and light, festive and exciting, and it envelops me completely, as if it were created to satisfy my personal need for self-expression.”

Early Spring is a delightful little memoir full of hope and courage it is poignant and compelling at the same time. We know of course, that Tove Ditlevsen survived the poverty and isolation of her childhood and became the writer she dreamed of. To see where and how it began is quite lovely.

 

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Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

August is Women in translation month, and so when not reading books for All Virago/All August or book group reads I like to try and fit two or three #WITmonth books in as well. August is all about juggling books it seems.

witmonth2017My first read for this year’s women in translation month was A World Gone Mad – the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945, which I remember buying in the London review bookshop on my last London shopping expedition in November. Astrid Lindgren, of course the author of the children’s classic Pippi Longstocking books, stories which at the time these diaries were begun has not even been thought of. The title attracted me – how often in the last year or so have people declared ‘dear heavens, the world has gone mad’ – I have certainly said it and the week I picked up this book, there were further world events over which to shake our heads. I was made to think, more than once, how stupid an apparently intelligent species must be – if they fail to learn from their own history.

“Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it.
Yesterday afternoon, Elsa Gullander and I were in Vasa Park with the children running and playing around us and we sat there giving Hitler a nice, cosy telling-off and agreed that there definitely was not going to be a war – and now today!”

Diaries are rather difficult to review, but this a very readable book and its author is very relatable to. Astrid Lindgren stares forlornly from the cover, pulling the reader in and one can’t help but wonder her thoughts. Karin Nyman, Astrid Lindgren’s daughter in her foreword explains how her mother had been determined to document the war from which Sweden remained neutral, but which raged around them on all sides. She remembers seeing her mother scribbling in her notebooks cutting out things from the newspapers, for the five-year-old Karin it was perfectly normal. The diaries were discovered in a wicker laundry basket in the Dalagatan home where Astrid Lindgren had lived from the 1940s until her death in 2002. Her daughter acknowledges how extraordinary it was, for a thirty-two-year-old wife and mother with some secretarial training but no previous experience of political thinking to have produced what she did. For almost six years, recording her thoughts, painstakingly cutting out newspaper articles to stick alongside her entries (these articles are not reproduced in the book).

“Today’s huge sensation – Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, flew to the British Isles in a Messerschmitt plane and parachuted safely to the ground, where a Scottish farm-worker looked after him and took him to hospital in Glasgow. Now we’ve seen everything.”

Throughout the war, Astrid Lindgren documented the war as she saw it, felt about it and feared it, as well as what she read about it in the newspapers. Sweden had elected to remain neutral from the war – and given their precarious geographical position that probably saved a great many Swedes. However, their neutral position was one Astrid sometimes felt uncomfortable about – as she read about devastating occupations, war crimes and food shortages. As she continues to document the war, the shifting political alliances and how they impacted upon the war, she often considers the nature of evil, and the individual’s responsibility at such times to stand against it.

All around Sweden, other nations were suffering terribly, Norway and Denmark occupied by the Germans, Finland by the Russians, resulting in them losing a sizable amount of their territory in uneasy peace negotiations. Sweden was in a vulnerable position, and there were times when Astrid was practically holding her breath, anxious lest her country find themselves invaded, drawn into hostilities against their will.

“It was Karin’s seventh birthday yesterday. I wrote in my diary on this day last year ‘God grant that the world will look different by Karin’s next birthday!’ And it certainly does look different, but there’s no sign of any changes for the better. Possibly Sweden and the other Nordic countries are in slightly less danger, the main focus now seems to be on the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Yesterday the Germans launched an air invasion on Crete, or was it the day before? What’s left of Greek resistance is concentrated there, with British assistance.”

Alongside her entries which document the war so well, we get frequent glimpses of ordinary family life. The children’s birthdays, the gifts they received the food that was cooked and eaten in celebration. We also get some moving descriptions of her marriage – hints of some difficulties in the last year of the war, which she doesn’t dwell on or go into any detail about, in what for her was obviously meant as a chronicle of war. As a mother to a teenage boy as well as a young daughter – Astrid felt especially for the mothers of soldiers killed and maimed, realising, as she considered her own dear son, that the pain of just imagining him in their place was more than she could bear.

As the war years advanced Astrid began working as a censor in the postal control division, the letters that passed through her hands, providing Astrid with another more personal perspective on the war that was destroying Europe. An aspiring writer, Astrid won a competition in 1944 with a story about Britt-Marie, the Pippi Longstocking stories were originally invented to entertain her daughter while she was ill.

These diaries were a great way for to celebrate Women in Translation month. I found I really liked Astrid, and on finishing the book looked up her Wikipedia page – she really was a fascinating woman who was obviously very well loved by the people of Sweden.

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