Saturday 30 October 2021


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The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen (translated by Tiina Nunnally)   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
After all, he thought, a face is created by the person who sees it, not by the person it is seen upon; our faces belong to those who perceive us just as our identities exist only in the minds of those who perceive us; we rely upon those who perceive us. To see oneself in the mirror, he thought, is at once the most familiar and the strangest thing, possibly even a dangerous thing, now that he thought about it, or a thing anyway not without its dangers. We have no reliable identity, he thought, nothing definitive or stable, except what is achieved, if achieved is the right word, through the extent of laziness that the person who perceives us applies, or does not apply, as the case may be, in falling back upon a previous conception, or preconception, of what they may think of as us. Not entirely a clear thought, he thought. Faces have trouble staying where they belong in Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces, or, rather, Lise has trouble keeping the faces of others where they belong. “You have to watch over them all the time, thought Lise, full of anxiety, and make them play their roles. … They noticed if you neglected them for a moment and thought your own thoughts. … Then they would take revenge and start to live for themselves.” In the first part of the book, when Lise is living at home with her three children, her partner Gert, and the housekeeper Gitte—who is affordable thanks to a literary prize won by Lise. Gert resents Lise’s independent successes, and is flagrantly unfaithful to her. As Lise is struggling to hold her world together mentally (“Life consisted of a series of minute, imperceptible events, and you could lose control if you overlooked a single one of them.”), the text is full of similes, evidence either of the associative compulsion with which Lise desperately tries to retain conceptual control, or of the associative compulsion which continually assails the stability of that world by likening its contents to things that they are not. Who knows which, he thought, but in any case similes are always a sign of mental instability. After Gert’s lover Grete commits suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, Lise becomes convinced that Gert and Gitte are conspiring for her to do the same. “Was he still thinking about his dead mistress?” wonders Lise. “She didn’t think so because, all things considered, his strength lay in his lack of imagination.” Lise does overdose, rings the ambulance, and wakes up in a psychiatric hospital, strapped to a bed. At the hospital the similes fall away from the text, no longer of any use in holding off a breakdown (or having done their work in inducing one). At the hospital things are what they are. Lise’s torments as she lies there, the nurses attending to her wearing the faces of Gitte and Gert, speaking sometimes ‘as’ Gitte and Gert, and the voices and faces, also including those of her children, continuing to appear to her through the grilles in the wall of her room (the ‘negotiation’ grille and the ‘torture’ grille), culminate in Lise believing that she is ‘allowing’ acid to be thrown into the face of her youngest son. At this point Lise believes herself to be finally acutally insane, but it is from this point that the doctor considers that she is starting to recover. Indifference is the cardinal property of sanity, after all, and as Lise becomes more indifferent she gets closer to the point of returning home. The faces tell her, after she learns that Gitte has left the household, that Gert is keeping her in the hospital so that he can marry her teenage daughter (not his daughter). Was Lise’s intuition of Gert’s possible sexual intrusion upon her daughter the unfaceable catalyst for her breakdown? After Lise is released, Gert does not clearly deny that such a thing has occurred, but the indifference that Lise has learned in her ‘revovery’ and the doubts that she has been induced to develop in her own judgement and in her own memories in the same process means that she returns to her life in a narrowed and more fragile way, heading into life’s quotidian horrors with no defence but indifference. How and at what cost can that indifference be maintained? 

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