Here is a book whose time has come, first, because it fits the openness of conversations about mental health today, but also because there’s an appetite for more work by Tove Ditlevsen, following the publication of her exceptional trilogy of memoirs in 2019. The Faces, which was published in Danish in 1968 and now has its first UK publication, translated by Tiina Nunnally, was written in the same period as Ditlevsen’s trilogy and is inspired by her life, but transforms the material alchemically into art.
The central character, Lise Mundus, is a writer of children’s books, struggling with arbitrary success; she has won an award for a book she “considered no better or worse than her other books” and is phoned up by newspapers seeking the views of “prominent women” on trivial issues (“are miniskirts destroying marriage?”). Fame has “brutally ripped away the veil that always separated her from reality” and now she “clings to that fragile sense of security which was nothing more than the absence of change”.
Despite the horror it depicts, Ditlevsen’s writing is deeply humane and understanding
You can tell from the number of quotations in that paragraph that Ditlevsen’s writing is at all points the perfect expression of its ideas, impossible to improve upon. This precision is important because The Faces seeks to portray “madness” from within, with all the unreliability that entails. Lise, for example, believes her husband, Gert, is having an affair with their housekeeper, Gitte, having seen his previous lover Grete kill herself. (The use of similar names adds to the reproduction of a mental blur in the reader.) She also believes that Gitte is supplying her with sleeping pills to drive her to kill herself.
These thoughts of Lise’s are delusional, but there’s plenty really going on that’s harmful enough. She takes an overdose of the pills and ends up in a secure hospital, “tied to the bed with a wide leather belt covered with bolts and screws”. Her life there becomes the centre of the book, as ambiguous and shifting as her life outside, and as powerful as other accounts of institutional life, such as Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table. Lise longs for “a different place, another reality, where it might be possible to exist” – even if that means a locked ward.
She is tormented by intrusive voices and fears other people’s faces for their changing, unpredictable expressions. Her mother visits her but is unsympathetic: “You always thought you were better and smarter than your father and me.” But throughout, Ditlevsen’s sublime imagery fills the mind: “Reality disappeared behind her like someone on a railway platform as the train pulls away.” And “in hospitals there was a white peace that smelled of ether – like the white peace after giving birth, after the pain has been endured”.
Despite the horror it depicts, Ditlevsen’s writing is deeply humane and understanding. She knows the mind’s cruel ingenuity to tailor pain to our worst fears; as a writer, Lise believes people are accusing her of plagiarism and, more wryly, of having “never caught on to modernism”. And she recognises that the opposite of fear is not happiness, but hope, hope that “moved like gentle, melodic sentences through her body”.
Yet even when there is a hint of a happy ending, Lise “knew it wouldn’t last” and this is what makes The Faces occasionally hard to read; its strengths come from real suffering and we know that for Ditlevsen too, happiness didn’t last. To say, then, that her death by her own hand in 1976 was a loss to literature is insufficient, insensitive even – but undoubtedly true.
• The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen, translated by Tiina Nunnally, is published by Penguin (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply