The Trouble with Happiness and Other Stories by Tove Ditlevsen

Translated by Michael Favala Goldman

Review by Karen Langley

The last few years have seen Danish author Tove Ditlevsen’s star in the ascendant following the translation of her autofictional Copenhagen Trilogy. The three books in that sequence, Childhood, Youth and Dependency, were translated into English for the first time in 2019 and published by Penguin to great acclaim. Now, the publisher has issued a collection of her shorter works entitled The Trouble with Happiness and Other Stories, and it looks set to repeat the success of the Trilogy.

Ditlevsen was born in 1917 into a working-class family in a suburb of Copenhagen. She began publishing poetry in her early twenties and went on to have a prolific career as an author; her personal life was more problematic though, with four marriages, struggles with alcohol and drug abuse and then finally suicide in 1978. Quite why it’s taken so long for her to be translated is a mystery, but we can be thankful that at last her work is available in English.

Trouble… collects together twenty-one stories, grouped together in two sections, entitled Book One: The Umbrella and Book Two: The Trouble with Happiness. From the look of the credits page, these were two individual collections, originally published in 1952 and 1963 respectively. And it’s a real treat to have the two collections brought together into one volume, as each story is a wonderful gem.

“It was her fault, and the most innocent of all people would pay for it. Here in this room, with the child beside her, she felt completely alone. Even the furniture seemed to shrink from her. Everything she knew was receding into a fog. If only it could all go back to how it was before! But nothing is ever the way it was. Life is change: passion, indifference, death.”

So a newly-married woman has an irrational longing for a silk umbrella; a child attempts to make sense of its family splitting up; a young wife realises she has no agency at all while her husband negotiates the purchase of a new house; a prospective romance is destroyed by a domineering mother; and a wife tries to deal with the anxiety caused by her husband’s hypersensitivity to noise. 

These are just a few of the themes here, but looking at the collection as a whole, there’s a thread running through each tale of domestic tyranny of all kinds. The stories are rooted in everyday life – the search for love, the complexities of relationships, the restricting roles of marriage and the conflict between love and duty. Ditlevsen’s women are negotiating a complex world where they often feel they don’t understand their husbands and are victim to all of their mood swings. One of the stories is titled Anxiety, and that word could be applied to many of the characters dealing with the stress of an unpredictable partner or parent – there’s always a simmering sense of tension underneath the everyday which makes it hard for the mainly female protagonists to know what will happen next.

“Helene woke early in the morning, feeling that her entire life was one big failure. She had lost control over it. She attributed this paralyzing and depressing state to a variety of totally different causes, like when an animal gets caught in a trap and searches for a way out first in one corner, then in another. But every day ended with one convincing reason – the only convincing reason she had – namely, that she had absolutely no control over her surroundings, and that it wasn’t in her power to change anything about her life, or to change the people who had made it a failure.”

The stories vary in length and there are some more experimental, short impressionistic pieces scattered through the book which take a more oblique look at the relationships between men and women (which are, in fact, at the root of most of these stories). Ditlevsen captures brilliantly that domestic tension underlying the relationships; and her child narrators, often faced with negotiating adult behaviour they really don’t comprehend, are wonderfully written and realised. 

“Why is money comforting? A substitute for something else? Men who leave their homes guiltily fling a sack of money over their shoulder to the family, without looking back. They pay for their liberation, but in the little side room a child is kneeling, whispering: Dear God, Please let my daddy come back.”

Ditlevsen’s writing is always economic, almost dispassionate, yet she’s certainly one of those authors who’s brilliant at conveying much in a few words. Her prose is crisp and taut, and she paints really vivid pictures of her settings and characters. There is, of course, a feeling that many of these stories could be autofiction, and the final one in the collection (The Trouble with Happiness) does draw on similar territory to Ditlevsen’s Childhood. She’s a powerful author whose stories are often bleak (which has led to comparisons with Jean Rhys); and it’s usually her female characters who are suffering at the hands of the men in their lives. Despite the darkness, however, these are compelling and unforgettable tales from an incredibly talented author; let’s hope that more of her work follows these translations in making it into English! 

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks domestic lives can be quite terrifying! (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)

Tove Ditlevsen, The Trouble with Happiness and Other Stories (Penguin Classics, 2022). ISBN 9780241545317. 184pp, paperback.

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