From listening to Tove Ditlevsen’s short story collection, translated by Michael Favala Goldman and narrated by Stine Wintlev, I can safely conclude the trouble with happiness is it’s elusive and unlikely. Certainly, the characters in these stories make conventional choices about achieving happiness, marriage, children, a modest income, simple, easy, no? No, says Ditlevsen, and she’s right, these choices aren’t simple, aren’t likely to offer bliss and satisfaction; except Ditlevsen, it’s not “unlikely” she’d attach to the likelihood, it’s that they lead to disappointment, a sense of uneasy drift through life, a constant feeling of listless depression, which permeates her world and the people in it.
I wouldn’t claim that my last two reads were a barrel of witty laughs, au contraire, HHhH and The Tortoise and the Hare were serious, difficult considerations of history and married life, of the public and the domestic. BUT they were elevated by style, by the wit and depth of Binet’s voice, by the elegance of Jenkins’s prose. Ditlevsen, translated at least, lacked both.
The stories fell flat, as flat as her characters were and I couldn’t seem to penetrate any sense of their tragedy, only an immense sadness. There were moments of whimsical ennui, especially in the first story, “The Umbrella,” about a woman who makes a typically bad marriage, yearning for a silk umbrella. I thought those were Ditlevsen’s strongest stories, the ones centred on an object, which takes on significance beyond its mundane “common-placeness,” an umbrella, a house-cat, a knife, for a character. Concentrated on this object is a world of emotion, complex and nuanced, which defines something in the character they cannot define themselves: a yearning, an anger, a need for control, respectively. Overall, however, the narrator’s flat delivery, about flat characters living in a flat world were not for me. I recognize Ditlevsen’s “genius” in evoking ordinary unhappiness, but I was happy to leave her world behind. I have her Copenhagen trilogy in the summer TBR and hope it’ll prove to be a better reading experience.
Thank you to Macmillan Audio for a review file of this audiobook, via Netgalley, and the opportunity to listen to and review it.