I apologise for this post being so late. Part of the reason has actually been that I’ve been wanting to post something else – something to show my sympathy for what has been happening in Japan lately. But I could come up with absolutely nothing. So let me just say this: I am so unbelievably sorry for all the victims of this catastrophe. There is little we can do to prevent disasters like these and all I can say is that I hope that we, the human race, will continue to get better to at least be there for each other and help each other when tragedy strikes. And to promise that I will do whatever I can in this respect.
About part II of my post, well, better late than never, I hope: Here’s part II of my Calendary Literature/Women’s Day entry on Tove Ditlevsen’s Street of Your Childhood (“Barndommens gade”). Part I is here.
In this post I’d like to quote a paragraph from the childhood chapters (translated by yours truly). Ester and her beloved, shrewd friend Lisa have gone out doing a version of “trick-or-treating” that Danish children do for Shrove-tide.
Still from the movie adaptation of the novel. A young Sofie "The Killing" Gråbøl and Louise Fribo as Ester and Lisa.
“The baker woman laughs and throws buns to the festive kids who barge into the store. It doesn’t matter that some of them have already been there once, it’s only when they go to collect treat there for the fifth og sixth time that they are told off. Now, you, the little one with the nose, I think you’ve had enough now!
The little one with the nose, that’s Lisa of course. She is wearing her father’s overcoat, put up with safety pins and a huge cardboard nose with a moustache under it, bopping up and down when she talks. Hot on her heals follows Ester, wearing one of mother’s old carnival outfits, a kind of crinoline sewn out of checkered crêpe paper. Over her face she is wearing a grinning clown mask, the top of which is stuffed up under her red beret. It is nice to be hidden underneath the warm cardboard mask. It helps to guard her against the sharp february wind and it leaves her fo once shielded against the kind of looks that seem to undress her and force their way into her innermost secrets. No one can tell if she is blushing behind her mask and nobody looks at Ester more than they look at the other kids. The poor face cannot insult anyone today. What is the matter with that face anyway? The street disapproves of it, its features are too vulnerable and yet there is something in its look that make people want to hit it. And then even the vaguest shadow of an evil thought instantly puts its startled, guilty mark on it, like a quiet lake quivering every time the smallest of bugs stirs in its depths. How good it feels to be hiding behind a grinning cardboard mask. Laugh a little, cry a little, get hurt, feel a little bad – no one knows, no one can tell. The mash grins its stiff grin perpetually, as it has been made to do. And quickly and dizzyingly, as if drunk, the inhibitions disappear. The usual, unblissful tendency towards acquiescence vanishes…
Ester drags Lisa with her down Istedgade, up Saxogade, and suddeny wildly towards Vesterbrogade. Aww, whaddarewe going here for, says Lisa sullenly, you’re a crank, they ain’t gonna give us nothing here anyway. She shrinks a little and seems insignificantly small here in the wide, bright street. The magnificient, perky Lisa vanishes, she who is always running through the narrow streets, smart, quick and always capable of taking care of herself – a little poor kid is left in her place, dressed up like poor people’s children usually do for shrovetide, with a collecting box squeezed into one of her dirty fists. (…)
But hidden behind her mask, Ester enjoys everything as if she were a spectator at the movie theatre. She doesn’t care whether people are staring at them and laughing. Behold, here are the rich people, she thinks and opens up all her senses. Here they are, those who smell nice and wear nice fur coats so that their faces are always warm, no red noses and cold-ridden open polypus mouths. An unspeakable longing captures her, gentle and full of hope. It must be possible to become rich one day, to be pretty and to smell nice and be good. For Ester really does want to be good. But first a great, loving hand must stroke her over the strained features and take away their coldness and their shame. And it would be best if it could enter even further into her and brush away the mean words and the sorrows from the mind like the good teacher erasing the incorrect arithmetical problem from the blackboard. A sudden, intense euphoria fills her. Now she has the courage to do anything, now the impossible must be able to happen. She will lift herself out of the framework of her being and apprach new suns. -”
Driven by this sudden prowess, Ester takes a reluctant Lisa into a posh flat complex, excited at the prospect of actually getting to meet some of the rich people among whom she wants so desperately to belong. Things look up as a lady greets them heartily at one of the doors. She is amused by their appearance and decides that the two girls should come in and sing to her husband, who is asleep in their bedroom. (It is a custom that Danish children sing songs in order to receive their shrovetide treats).
“What the – uh – phew – the sleeping man wakes up startled and sits up in his bed. He stares as if he were seeing ghosts. What on earth kind of a pair are you two? he says with a comical desperation, are you out of your minds, barging in to wake up an honest citizen at this time of the morning? Helga, he yells, who are these creatures? Can you please come in here and release me from this little morning prank of yours?
The little lady pokes her head into the room, laughingly. Oh, they woke you up, she says, what a pity. Then she sits on the edge of the beds and looks merrily at Ester and Lisa who are staring back thunderstruck from behind their masks. Lisa sniffles because she is getting warm and she pulls up her cardboard nose while she wipes the real one underneath it with the back of her hand. The man laughs: Why, what a pair, he says, do you know any other songs? Sure , Lisa is almost herself again now that she no longer suspects the man to be a police officer. Police officers are her eternal and only fear, she is certain that they have supernatural powers that allow them to see straight through people. We know lots of songs. They whisper to each other to decide which one to sing, and then they start, fast and completely out of tune.
The song has six long stanzas and they lady and the gentleman are almost suffocating from surpressed laughter at hearing the ballad of the poor Inger who is abandoned and later dies, all in the slowest fashion possible.
When they are finally through, the lady says: That was certainly a nice song, now come with me and I will give you a little something for your collecting boxes. But Ester, who has been brought into just the right mood by the song, does not want to leave, not at all. We know even more songs, she shouts and puts forth one foot and starts by herself [on another ballad].
Yes, yes, that’s very nice, says the man and now he has suddenly stopped laughing, but get out of here now. The little lady touches Esters arm with a soft little hand with red polished nails. Ester blushes, because the lady touches her reluctantly, as if touching a rat. And now it is completely impossible for her to leave because she wants to shake off the emerging stunned feeling. It was all so nice for a moment there, wasn’t it? She is wrapped in the warm coat of welfare and outside the February cold and the fear of darkness awaits her. Now Lisa is pulling at her checkered crêpe sleeve, saying: Come on, Ester, we have to get home. Ester pushes her away. I know more songs, she repeats stubbornly, with a scared, beating heart and unable to understand why she can’t leave. But she needs to know a little about these people, she wants to explain something to them, bare her little soul to them. To know how it is possible to be like them. With their eyes full of ease and laughter. She wants to tell them: But I am not a rat – behind my socks full of holes and my miserable mask, behind my terribly guilty conscience and behind this frayed crêpe paper that was once my mother’s carnival costume, there has to be something, a material that might be shaped, that might make it possible – but instead she repeats, very quietly and startledly: I know lots of other songs. But the man’s gaze turns hard and the little lady looks perplexed. I have to leave now, says everything within her that is still connected to reason. But she doesn’t leave. Instead she assumes once again a pose, one foot in front of the other and sings with a shrill, trembling voice [another ballad] – Get out of here now, shouts the man and retrieves one striped leg from the bed. Lisa runs off quickly, but Ester stands still, pale as death. And then the mask falls off of her and she looks straight into the man’s face with confused, glassy eyes. He takes her roughly by the arm and leads her through the long hall. Out you go, you, he says and brings her up short outside the door, alone in front of the closed door. Before she has come to her senses, the door is opened again and the little lady puts a quarter of a krone into her collecting box. You should have just left when we told you to, she whispers, now my husband is angry.
Lisa is long gone. Ester descends the stairs slowly, and she is mortified and devastated, lonely and bitter in her dawning realisation of the world’s utter indifference with her destiny.”
It is a central chapter in the novel, in that the conflict of it reverberates in the critical situations that Ester finds herself in throughout the book: The longing to be rid of everything that defines her and to escape into a world of beauty, the arbitrary guilty conscience, the masculine figure who is angry or amused with Ester rather than truly loving and accepting, and the heartbreaking awkwardness of Ester. There is much of the unreasonable poverty of the working class in this chapter, and I’m sure Tove Ditlevsen, having endured a working class childhood of her own, wanted it that way.
But I’m always left wondering whether she knew how universal the conflict is at the same time: The highly sensitive individual that strives to find itself deserving of something great and beautiful that will make everything cruel and harsh in its past seem like a reasonable backstory rather than meaningless humiliation or suffering. Certainly that’s what I keep returning to the novel for, as much as for the description of an early 20th-century Denmark that I thankfully never experienced first-hand. I highly recommend the book.