“The Trouble With Happiness,” a collection of short stories now making their first appearance in English, also takes place at a time when a woman, no matter how brilliant or successful, is expected above all to be a homemaker. The focus of these stories from the 1950s and early ’60s, translated by Michael Favala Goldman, is unrelentingly domestic. A new wife dreams of acquiring an umbrella. A parson’s widow meets her youngest son’s fiancée. A man decides to punish his 5-year-old son for losing the pocketknife that he himself was given as a child. A little girl helps her mother dress up for Carnival. A young couple shop for 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 a back-street abortion, their message is the same. Family life is a hell from which there’s no escape. Love is fleeting: Whatever infatuation you once felt for the merry party girl or the refined scholar you married will invariably curdle into resentment, incomprehension or spiteful mind games, as you find yourself compelled to repeat the tortures your own parents once inflicted on each other and on you.
In “Perpetuation,” Edith, whose husband is leaving her, recalls seeing her own father for the last time. He’s about to abandon his wife and small daughter for a new girlfriend, and his eyes are lit up with an unfamiliar joy. For every man’s “liberation,” Edith reflects, there’s a “little side room” where “a child is kneeling, whispering: Dear God, please let my daddy come back.”
“She had never seen him again,” Ditlevsen continues. “How old had she been? Six or seven. You get by, helped by hate flaring up in your mind like a tall, clear flame, which keeps despair at a distance. Her mother hated the woman, and the child hated the mother, and that was childhood.”
The concluding piece — the title story — ends on an unexpectedly rousing note, with its first-person protagonist opening a musical sewing box from her childhood. “Fight for all you hold dear,” its tune goes, 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 depicted in her fiction is grim, but her limpid, deadpan voice insists nonetheless that art, beauty and even a working-class girl’s dream of one day possessing a silky umbrella “like a butterfly’s radiant wings” are things that must be fought for.