Is there a more back-handed compliment than to be called a “woman before her time”? There’s something self-congratulatory in the appellation, how it’s both dismissive of an artist’s work in the moment while anticipating a better future for them that might never arrive. Yet it’s a description that seems to be trotted back out whenever a female writer is rediscovered and their books are put back into circulation. Often this is work that grapples head-on with messy, difficult subjects that are still viewed as unpalatable to the mainstream if they don’t come in glossy, pre-approved packaging: mental illness, addiction, the destructive potential of the patriarchy. Certainly that’s the case with Bette Howland, Tove Ditlevsen, and Leonora Carrington, who have all had splashy re-releases of their previously out-of-print titles in recent months. Each one is wildly different in their approach and style, but taken together their work is a potent reflection of both where we are now and how far we still have to go.
At the start of W-3 (A Public Space), Bette Howland is literally voiceless. Brought to the hospital ward after swallowing an overdose of pills, Howland has been hooked up to what she calls the “coughing machine,” with tubes running up her nose and down her trachea, reducing her speech to a scratchy whisper. This is the uncomfortable truth of her reality, but it’s also a canny literary device, allowing her to serve as observer to the world around her, haunting the edges of her own narrative like the ghost she feels she’s become. With a keen and aloof eye Howland outlines the daily routines of the mental ward she’s released into, which involve a lot of meetings and sharing, and occasional group outings to the movies. It’s a teaching hospital, as she often notes, which means their every movement and utterance is open to interpretation. She introduces the other inmates, many of whom are not on their first stay on W-3, describing an alarmingly thin one as having feet like “reefs of bone” and bearing witness to another’s habit of keeling over the instant she takes her medicine. Like the prisoners at Shawshank, nobody “belongs” on W-3, which is the only way to normalize an abnormal experience. There is a sense of Howland de-sensationalizing her own material, at pains to combat the Cuckoo’s Nest cliches familiar to readers in 1974, when this memoir was originally published, to show us how madness can also be mundane. “Nothing was original on W-3,” she declares. “That was its truth and beauty.”
This is not to suggest that Howland sands down the edges of her environment. There are horrors here. Inmates moan and chatter to themselves in the night. A pregnant woman in the midst of a painful labor is abandoned in front of the hospital. A man named Julius is dragged in by orderlies, shouting that his brain is “squirming.” He then smashes a lamp against his head. What prevails, though, is a feeling of timelessness, not in the nostalgic sense but the bleeding together of repetitious days into one unceasing limbo, which after almost a year of lockdown will resonate deeply with 2021 readers. Howland’s stint in W-3 happened in 1968; it was several years before she felt able to write about it, but that distance only made her more empathetic to the distress of her fellow patients, to recognize their pain as mirror images of her own. At the start of her stay, Howland describes herself as wanting to erase her personal history, to “thrust it from me like a manhole cover.” In an age of commodified self-care and quick fixes, perhaps the most radical assertion of her book is that “getting better” is not a goal to be achieved, but a life’s work. There are no guarantees your illness won’t find you again, but in the very act of writing her way through, Howland staved off the darkness a little longer.
“People turn strange from reading,” Tove Ditlevsen’s mother says early in Childhood, the first volume of The Copenhagen Trilogy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). “Everything written in books is a lie.” This mistrust of artistic expression is drilled into Tove often throughout her difficult adolescence—by a father who dismisses her dream of being a poet, by classmates and teachers who demand she account for her “oddness.” Written decades removed from such traumas, Ditlevsen’s text is nonetheless deeply immersive, retaining a child’s-eye view of events and sprinkling them with a pinch of fairy dust, complete with Snow Queens, witches, and imprisoned princesses. It is perhaps the only way of coping with the rampant physical abuse, alcoholism, and suicide in her impoverished post-WWI neighborhood. It’s the sort of childhood that’s over before it begins, and the book moves forward in time via brisk, choppy chapters that mimic both Tove’s haste and apprehension to get on with a life that has already been decided for her. Possessed with a restless spirit and a thick melancholic streak, she longs for escape, but, much like Howland, Ditlevsen finds solace not in leaving a place but recreating it. “I don’t think very much of reality,” the young Tove says on her confirmation day. She hopes her knack for verse will save her.
Youth, the second volume of the trilogy, picks up not long after the events of Childhood, with Tove’s first, and last, day working as a maid for a wealthy family. She flits from job to job, and seeks patronage for her poetry from older men who keep dying or disappearing before they can make good on their promises of publication. Meanwhile, the ominous rise of Hitler in Germany continues apace in the background. Despite the often miserable bent of her circumstances, Ditlevsen’s prose (translated with fluid grace by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman) maintains a seductive, arachnid-like pull, written with an unapologetic immediateness that strips her life story of the sentimental hindsight that can plague lesser memoirs. One can see the artistic DNA of autofictionists like Cusk and Knausgaard in these pages, but here the egotism of the writer feels purposeful rather than coincidental, a reaction to the societal expectations that conspired to keep Ditlevsen’s ambitions confined, when an advantageous marriage meant more to her family than any amount of literary success. Dependency, originally published four years after the first two volumes, and five before Ditlevsen’s death in 1976 at age fifty-eight, is an unsparing account of conscious estrangement from a world that embraced her talents but failed to love the person behind them. Introduced to Demerol by her third husband, Tove finally finds something that lifts her “to the only level where I wanted to exist.” What’s to be done with a woman whose appetites exceed her times? True to its immersive dimensions, Ditlevsen’s book provides no answers, because she never got any herself that didn’t require oblivion.
Unlike Howland and Ditlevsen, Leonora Carrington makes no pretense of replicating reality in her novel The Hearing Trumpet (NYRB Classics). Instead readers are welcomed into the world of eccentric ninety-two year old Marian Leatherby, who is given the titular instrument early on in the narrative by her friend Carmella in order to eavesdrop on her family. She promptly learns they are planning to put her in an institution. Described by her horrible grandson as so decrepit she’s barely human, Marian lives the kind of liminal existence that’s only possible when the imminence of death has rendered time meaningless. “Sleeping and waking are not quite as distinctive as they used to be, I often mix them up,” as she says. “My memory is full of all sorts of stuff which is not, perhaps, in chronological order, but there is a lot of it.” The Hearing Trumpet is, in one sense, an effort to sift through the “lot of it,” though that’s an awfully conventional way of describing a work that effortlessly flouts expectations. First published in 1976 when Carrington was a comparatively young fifty-nine, the novel presents old age not as a dreadful place of decay but an anarchic realm of possibility where, for women especially, their wildest flights of fancy can finally come true.
Like a funhouse mirror image of W-3, the institution Marian is brought to is run by a doctor who calls himself a “Sanctified Psychologist” and is prone to proclamations like, “This Institute was founded with the intention of introducing people to the Work.” Marian, however, is mostly flummoxed by the Exercises and Self-Observation she’s asked to perform, until a fellow inmate hands her a scroll about the winking abbess whose portrait hangs on the institute’s walls. It’s here that Carrington’s imaginative powers truly expand into something more elusive and alchemical, and readers hoping for a more straightforward narrative may find themselves stumbling to follow her fantastical leaps. Part of the joy, though, is in watching this writer maintain her buoyancy, even as darkness begins to seep into Marian’s world. Like Carmella, who keeps showing up unbidden at the institute when she senses Marian needs her, Carrington is gifted (or cursed) with remarkable foresight; to the modern eye the ice age that envelopes the Earth in the last third of the novel looks a lot like a climate change catastrophe, even as her characters blame it on the atom bomb. “It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collective of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government,’” Carmella declares. “It is a form of planetary hypnosis, and very unhealthy.” That the matriarchal collective that forms in the wake of this disaster is only possible in a post-apocalyptic, and fictional, world doesn’t make it any less inspiring. In fact, it might be the most realistic aspect of the book.
How does a writer like Bette Howland, described by fellow Chicagoan Saul Bellow as “one of the significant writers of her generation,” disappear from the public consciousness in the first place? Similarly, the lag time of translations alone cannot account for why Tove Ditlevsen’s trilogy took almost fifty years to appear in English. Leonora Carrington was a contemporary, and a lover, of the surrealist Max Ernst, so why does her work require excavation while his has remained widely accessible? None of these writers are alive to see their work embraced by a younger generation. If the words of Carrington’s nonagenarian narrator are any indication, they likely would have marveled at it: “Military people never seem to apologize for killing each other yet novelists feel ashamed for writing some nice inert paper book that is not certain to be read by anybody. Values are very strange, they change so quickly I can’t keep track of them.” That’s not to suggest publishing new editions of their work doesn’t have value; quite the opposite. These lovingly curated and packaged books are gifts to readers, though Marian is right to note they probably won’t find a wide audience. But they can still serve as reminders to be vigilant of the ways our industries and cultural conversations fail the iconoclasts who are with us now, producing the challenging and groundbreaking work we should be paying attention to. To adapt the final lines of The Hearing Trumpet, if the woman can’t conform to the times, maybe the times should start conforming to the woman.
By Bette Howland
Public Space Books
Published January 12, 2021
The Copenhagen Trilogy
By Tove Ditlevsen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Published January 26, 2021
The Hearing Trumpet
By Leonora Carrington
Published January 5, 2021
Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is now available from University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in various journals, honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and twice received Notable Story citations in the Best American Short Stories anthology series. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.