‘The Trouble With Happiness’, a collection of short stories now appearing in English for the first time, is also set at a time when a woman, however brilliant or successful, is expected to be above all a housewife. The focus of these 1950s and early 1960s stories, translated by Michael Favala Goldman, is unrelentingly domestic. A new woman dreams of buying an umbrella. A vicar’s widow meets her youngest son’s betrothed. A man decides to punish his 5-year-old son for losing the pocket knife he was given as a child. A little girl helps her mother dress up for carnival. A young couple shops for their first home. A woman takes her mother to her father in a nursing home.
Whether the premise of these stories is a trip to the beauty salon or a backstreet abortion, their message is the same. Family life is a hell from which you cannot escape. Love is fleeting: Whatever infatuation you once felt for the merry party girl or sophisticated scholar you married will invariably turn into resentment, misunderstanding, or hateful mind games, as you are forced to repeat the torture your own parents once inflicted on each other. and on you.
In “Perpetuation,” Edith, whose husband is leaving her, remembers seeing her own father for the last time. He is about to leave his wife and daughter for a new girlfriend, and his eyes light up with unknown joy. For the “liberation” of every man, Edith thinks, there is a “little side room” where “a child kneels and whispers: Dear God, please let my father come back.”
“She had never seen him again,” Ditlevsen continues. ‘How old had she been? Six or seven. You save yourself, aided by hatred that flares up in your mind like a high, bright flame, keeping despair at bay. Her mother hated the woman, and the child hated the mother, and that was childhood.”
The final piece – the title story – ends with an unexpectedly rousing note, in which the main character opens in the first person a musical sewing box from her childhood. “Fight for everything you hold dear,” the tune goes, and the heroine cherishes the box, even though she no longer talks to the brother who gave it to her.
Ditlevsen’s books come to us like this song from a childhood sewing box. The world depicted in her fiction is grim, but her clear, deadpan voice nonetheless emphasizes that art, beauty, and even a working-class girl’s dream that she will one day own a silky umbrella “like the radiant wings of a butterfly” are things for which must be fought.