‘The Faces’ by Tove Ditlevsen (Review)

Well, as wonderful as January in Japan was, the fun had to stop some time, and it’s time to move on and start looking at books from elsewhere.  Of course, that’s not exactly the most onerous of obligations, especially when you have a whole stack of great books just waiting to be read (and, let’s face it, that’s always the case chez Malone).  Let’s kickstart the next phase of my 2021 reading, then, with a short novel by a writer whose (posthumous) star has risen substantially over the past year or so, and on the basis of this latest release, I can certainly see why 🙂

Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen passed away in 1976, but last year’s release in English of the three works making up The Copenhagen Trilogy (Childhood, Youth and Dependency, translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman) made a bit of a splash in reviewing circles.  Sadly, I haven’t managed to get to those yet, but I was recently sent a copy of Ditlevsen’s short novel The Faces (tr. Nunnally, courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics), and having finished that, I’m very keen to try the trilogy.

The Faces is the story of Lise Mundus, an acclaimed children’s book writer.  While she spends much of her time at home with her husband Gert, her three children, Hanne, Mogens and Søren, and Gitte, the housekeeper, it can’t be said that this is the happiest of families.  Lise suspects her husband, with good reason, of having affairs, and she also seems to have a rather strained relationship with her daughter.  When you throw in Gitte’s creeping influence on the family, you can see why Lise isn’t really in any mood to write.

The catalyst for the events of the book is Gert’s revelation one evening that his former mistress, Grete, has killed herself, and this soon brings on Lise’s own suicide attempt, one she never actually wants to succeed.  It’s merely an opportunity to escape from her home and the people she thinks want to hurt her.  However, on waking up in a mental hospital, she’s to discover that she’s not alone – she’s been followed by several voices, and familiar faces…

The Faces is a short, blistering work, a picture of a woman’s journey through mental illness.  We follow Lise on her path into hell and back, with the bulk of the novel set inside the hospital she’s sent to after taking the pills.  As she moves from ward to ward, having been judged unmanageable, we wonder whether she’ll ever get out, particularly given her inability to separate reality and illusion.

The writer describes Lise’s growing paranoia superbly, showing her listening to voices in the pipes at home:

The voices from below grew louder, and as if driven by someone else’s will, Lise went over and knelt down, placing her ear against the base of the hot-water pipe near the floor.
“She never shows herself outside the apartment.  You don’t have to believe me, but they’re trying to drive her crazy.  I’ve heard the husband and the girl talking about it.”
p.36 (Penguin Modern Classics, 2020)

These conversations involving neighbours and family members are what drive Lise to drastic measures, but despite taking pills and making it to the hospital, the voices continue, and only get worse.  Strapped to her bed in the safe ward, she imagines discussions with her family members, and faces at the grates in the wall, warning her that she’s still not safe.

Apart from Lise, the key character in The Faces is Gritte, a negative influence at home and a stubborn presence at the hospital – if we can believe what Lise tells us.  She’s apparently sleeping not only with Gert, but also with Mogens, and while she’s overly friendly, professing to worship Lise’s writing talents, she’s also secretly plotting to have her employer kill herself.  It’s her face that appears most, with Gritte developing into Lise’s torturer-in-chief at the hospital, delighting in nasty threats, particularly against the young Søren.

Faces, as you’d expect, are a major feature of the novel.  Early on, we learn of Lise’s curious obsession with them, and her thoughts on how they’re used:

They were all asleep except Gert, who hadn’t come home yet, even though it was almost midnight.  They slept, and their faces were blank and peaceful and didn’t have to be used again until morning.  Maybe they had even taken off their faces and placed them prudently on top of their clothes, to give them a rest; they weren’t absolutely necessary while they were sleeping. (p.3)

Of course, if faces can be removed, then they can be used by others, so Lise doesn’t find it at all odd that many of the doctors and nurses at the hospital seem to have borrowed faces she knows, with Gert and Gritte, in particular, often doing the rounds in their white coats.

The imagination in the writer’s style is apparent from the first pages and makes the book a joy to read, with Nunnally doing wonderful work with Ditlevsen’s light, shifting prose.  Never plain, it’s all superbly written, and telling similes and metaphors frequently stop the reader in their tracks:

The room seemed bare as a grave with no headstone or cross.  It resembled the rented rooms of her youth where she had written her first books, and this was the only place where she found that fragile sense of security which is nothing more than the absence of change. (p.5)

For me, that last sentence, observing the idea of safety in withdrawal, is a sentiment that hits uncomfortably close to home…

Throughout the book, the reader will undoubtedly be wondering where it’s all going.  The obvious arc is down and up, a story of her recovery, but it’s not quite that simple.  The majority of Lise’s fears stem from pure paranoia, yet there are enough clues to sense that not everything is in her head.  Gert is certainly not the ideal husband, and whether or not people are actually sleeping together, there is a slightly twisted dynamic to the family’s relationships.  It’s unsurprising, then, that Lise enjoys her time at the hospital; in fact, she’s not sure she ever wants to leave.

The Faces is a wonderful short novel, one I’m sure most of you out there would enjoy.  I’m very keen to give the trilogy a go, and with a one-volume edition now out, I’m sure I won’t be the only one to do so.  There’s still much of Ditlevsen’s work waiting to be translated, and with the positive response to the trilogy, I wonder if this is the start of an upsurge in her fame and popularity.  Let’s see if more appears in the coming years – I, for one, would be very surprised if there wasn’t more of her work in the pipeline.

4 thoughts on “‘The Faces’ by Tove Ditlevsen (Review)

  1. I cam across Tove Ditlevsen as part of my EU27 project a couple of years ago and found an old copy of her Copenhagen trilogy at my university library, before she was relaunched to such enthusiasm. I had never heard of her before, but am glad she is finally getting some recognition, although apparently some in Denmark deride her as ‘sentimental’ and ‘sensationalist’.


    1. Marina – I did read somewhere that she’s not universally adored, but I certainly liked this. Nice to see a ‘forgotten’ writer being rediscovered, anyway 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.