It’s easy to allow one’s world to get smaller, when one is overwhelmed by some of the sadness and struggle in this world; the opposite is also true, that it’s easy to expand your world under the same set of circumstances.
A random spark, like this desk calendar by a Toronto artist (each month with a quotation from the work of an author associated with this city and printed on 100% recycled paper with VOC-free inks), coupled with access to a public library, can open my world just a little wider.
This month I turned to Tove Ditlevsen’s Childhood (1967; Trans. Tiina Nunnally, 2019), the first volume in the Copenhagen trilogy. And to Mark Raso’s film Copenhagen (2014) starring Gethin Anthony and Frederikke Dahl Hansen. So I travel to Denmark through the window of a printed page.
Ditlevsen’s book sounds like something that should be the size of a Proust volume, but she has squeezed her childhood into fewer than one hundred pages. And she never leaves Copenhagen. Indeed, much of the story (too much, she might argue, as she feels increasingly confined) unfolds in her family’s two-room apartment in Vesterbro in Copenhagen at Hedebygade 30A.
Her parents met when her mother was sixteen, a salesgirl in a bakery on Tordenskjoldsgade, and her father was twenty-six and visited the bakery. Her father had been in the city for ten years prior, but nothing was said about these years. This sense of unknowing suits the story: “I know every person has their own truth just as every child has their own childhood.”
Tove doesn’t fit. “I know it’s terrible not to be normal, and I have my own troubles trying to pretend that I am.” She is a poet, driven to write without encouragement at this stage in her life.
When she discovers the public library, she discovers a world that she hadn’t known existed: “My mother thinks that I’ll get even stranger from reading books that are written for adults; and my father, who doesn’t agree, doesn’t say anything since I come under my mother’s authority and in crucial matters he doesn’t dare go against the world order. So for the first time I set foot in a library, and I’m speechless with confusion at seeing so many books collected in one place.”
This kind of existence isn’t unique to Copenhagen, of course, but Tove’s explorations are more psychological than geographical at this point in her life (at least, at this point in her reflection on these earlier years of her life). She is more concerned with navigating the territory of relationships, in moving towards independence, than in the route she might take in the wider world.
She has so many questions and although the language is spare and sharp there is a lot of confusion simmering beneath, the ordinary confusion which surrounds one’s quest to find one’s place in the world. She wonders: “It’s so strange that my mother has never discovered when I’m lying. On the other hand, she almost never believes the truth. I think that much of my childhood is spent trying to figure out her personality, and yet she continues to be just as mysterious and disturbing.”
Quite a jump to Mark Raso’s film Copenhagen (2014) in some ways, with its contemporary setting. The illustration on the Ditlevsen/Nunnally volume is a black and white photograph, whereas the movie poster is full colour, but the film, too, is also about the ways in which we mature (and do not), about how we face not knowing (and cope with knowing things we would rather not).
Neither Gethin Anthony nor Frederikke Dahl Hansen is a fully developed character at the beginning of the film. He – because he has come to Denmark in the wake of his father’s death, to search for his grandfather (who was largely absent from his son’s life and totally absent from his grandson’s life). And she is younger than she appears to be.
The city, however, is on full display, past and present. The mermaid statue at the harbour is there and Tivoli (which was built in 1843 – perhaps a later volume of Tove’s story will include a visit!) and there are so many bicycles. Very early in the film there is a shot which seems to mimic the page in my calendar which inspired this pair of stories.
Because William is visiting Denmark and does not speak the language, he simply goes where he is told to go (and says what he is told to say, which often leads to complications, because his language coach has a twisted sense of humour). But there is a great deal of contemporary life as well (e.g. office spaces, apartments, public buildings, houses, courtyards, nightclubs, cafes).
As with Tove Ditlevsen’s autobiographical fiction, Mark Raso’s film is also about finding oneself inside one’s heart rather than finding oneself on a map. It wasn’t hard to spot aspects of my own self in these stories – the importance of books and stories, the questions which surround absent family members – and it made me eager to see which city I’ll be exploring in February.