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  • A Chaos of Faces: Expressions of Despair in Tove Ditlevsen’s Ansigterne
  • Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg

In the last pages of Tove Ditlevsen’s Ansigterne (1968; The Faces [1991]), the protagonist, Lise Mundus, returns home after she is discharged from the psychiatric ward. She wonders:

Var det ikke en slags sygdom, at folk kunne gå rundt og holde fast på deres eget jeg? Hele dette kaos af stemmer, ansigter og erindringer, som de kun dråbevis turde lade slippe ud af sig selv og aldrig kunne være sikre på at få igen.

(2015a, 160)

Wasn’t it a kind of sickness that people could walk around holding onto their own ego?—that whole chaos of voices, faces, and memories that they only dared to let slip from themselves drop by drop, and never could be certain of retrieving again.

(1991, 146)1

Throughout the novel, Lise’s experience of such slippage as she recovers from a mental breakdown is visually rendered through uncanny images of faces, too large or too small, shattered and pieced awkwardly back together. Loosened from their bodies, floating between Lise and the third-person narrator, these faces are not only symptoms of psychosis or side effects of the sleeping pills Lise takes to quell her anxiety, but are also visual markers of the fragile nature of her subjectivity. Evocative of earlier manifestations of German and Scandinavian expressionism, these disembodied faces signal the despair of a fractured self—slipping away drop by drop—which the narrated subject struggles to hold together. But they also speak to Lise’s embodied struggle to become a female writer. [End Page 96]

Ansigterne, similar to many of Ditlevsen’s over thirty books of fiction, memoir, and poetry, is narratively driven by domestic angst and claustrophobia. The novel follows Lise, a respected children’s author who is tormented by hallucinations of faces. Lise struggles to balance a writing career with managing the family home, where her maid may be having affairs with her husband and teenage son, and her husband may be sleeping with her daughter from a previous marriage. After a suicide attempt, Lise is placed in a closed psychiatric ward where she dreams of writing amid the cracking, doubled faces that continue to haunt her. Her endeavor to assemble an authorial identity comes to a head in the novel’s conclusion when she declares to her sleeping husband that she will start writing the next day. Less driven by plot than by image and metaphor, Ansigterne is experimental, fragmented, and figurative in its chronicling of despair. Spun out of a character whose subjectivity and embodied existence constantly hover on the edge of dissolution, the novel navigates the fragile boundary between the individual and the exterior world. One might even say, to borrow Theodor W. Adorno’s précis of Marcel Proust, that Ansigterne “examines internal and external reality, using as its instrument the existence of a [wo]man without a skin” (Adorno 1991, 316). Ditlevsen, like her literary predecessors, gives us a character in flux without clearly delineated limits, and sometimes without skin, to navigate the movement of despair between her characters and their external environment.

Given Ansigterne’s ties to a tradition of women’s writing—the novel has been compared to Amalie Skram’s Professor Hieronimus (1895) and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) (Brantly 1995, 263; Petersen 1992, 257)—it may seem polemical to cite Adorno’s theoretical analysis of a high modernist author. Ditlevsen, in fact, has repeatedly been placed “outside the modernist project” by her Danish contemporaries, and her writing continues to be seen as traditional and “a little old-fashioned!” (Midé 2005; see also Ravn 2017, 142).2 As the Danish author Olga Ravn suggests, this perception is no doubt linked to the overwhelming [End Page 97] tendency to intermingle the life and works of female authors, a tendency that Ditlevsen parodied and despaired over throughout her authorship.3 While male authors’ playful treading of lines between autobiography and fiction has been tied to formal, theoretical, and sociological ends, Ditlevsen’s reception has struggled against the gendered confines of the “male literary establishment” (Brantly 1995, 260) on the one hand, and the...


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