“The Trouble With Happiness,” a collection of short stories that makes its first appearance in English, is also set in a time when a woman, no matter how brilliant or successful, is meant first and foremost to be a housewife. The focus of these 1950s and early 1960s stories, translated by Michael Favala Goldman, is decidedly domestic. A new wife dreams of acquiring an umbrella. A pastor’s widow meets the fiancée of his youngest son. A man decides to punish his 5-year-old son for having lost the penknife he himself received when he was a child. A little girl helps her mother dress up for the carnival. A young couple buys their first house. A woman takes her mother to visit her father in a nursing home.
Whether the premise of these stories is a trip to the beauty salon or an abortion on the street, their message is the same. Family life is an inescapable hell. Love is fleeting: whatever infatuation you once felt for the happy party girl or the polished scholar you married, it invariably turns into resentment, misunderstanding or malicious wits, as you you find yourself forced to repeat the tortures your own parents once inflicted on themselves and on you.
In “Perpetuation”, Edith, whose husband leaves her, remembers seeing her own father for the last time. He’s about to abandon his wife and baby girl for a new girlfriend, and his eyes light up with unfamiliar joy. For each man’s ‘liberation’, Edith reflects, there is a ‘little side room’ where ‘a child is kneeling and whispering: My God, please let my daddy come back’.
“She had never seen him again,” Ditlevsen continues. “How old was she?” Six or seven. We get through it, helped by the hatred that ignites in your mind like a high, clear flame, driving away despair. His mother hated the woman, and the child hated the mother, and that was childhood.
The final piece – the title story – ends on an unexpectedly catchy note, with its first-person protagonist opening a musical sewing box from her childhood. “Fight for everything you hold dear,” her tune rings out, and the heroine cherishes the box even though she no longer speaks to the brother who gave it to her.
Ditlevsen’s books come to us like this song from a childhood sewing box. The world portrayed in her fiction is bleak, but her crystal clear, deadpan voice nonetheless insists that art, beauty, and even a working-class girl’s dream of one day owning a silky umbrella “like the wings radiating from a butterfly” are things to fight for. .