Sunday 31 October 2021

The Umbrella, the New Yorker, Tove Ditlevsen

On a wet and windy afternoon six people made their way up our field towards the pine grove, where in a groundswell moment, they were proposing to lie down on the ground for ten minutes. Most of them were well kitted out with waterproofs and something to lie on, except the two youngest, who were dressed as usual and huddled as they walked under a pale and partly broken small umbrella.

I had just read Tove Ditlevsen's story 'The Umbrella' in the New Yorker. A girl in the nineteen thirties dreams of owning an umbrella. When she is ten she sees a pretty woman in a nearly floor length yellow dress holding a slim strong translucent umbrella as she crosses the courtyard. A headscarf and a sturdy shopping basket is all you need, her mother taught, and look for a man with brown hair and dark eyes. You do not need an umbrella. Is our skin so fragile we can't take a little weather? 

But Helga had never tried to put herself in another person's shoes; it had never been necessary. Her entire character consisted on a pile of memories without a pattern or a plan. There were a number of pairs of brown eyes, a twilight mood, an immense, undefined expectation, a yellow dress, and an umbrella.

Helga marries Egon and the days pass. He starts drinking and she raids the piggy bank.

The moon lit the little room like a false dawn. With the deftness of a thief, she counted the money. There were almost forty kroner. She held them in her hands, smiling gently, redeemed and alone, like a child smiling in her sleep. All she could think of was an open, translucent umbrella with a certain shape and colour. 

Egon breaks the umbrella over his knee. Helga's is passive when Egon tells her, over his shoulder, at the end of the story, 'You'll get another umbrella.' 

The two girls this afternoon, 13 and 16, had not dreamed of their umbrella nor its replacement. They went up to the pine grove and lay there for ten minutes on a wet and windy day and took photos up their nostrils and into the pines. 

Their umbrella is disposable. It is a dishonest headscarf, enfin, and a sturdy shopping basket, an immense, undefined expectation, just as in nineteen thirties Copenhagen. 

It made sense that the umbrella was ruined. She had set herself up against the secret law steering her inner world. Few people, even once in their lives, dare to make the inexpressible real.

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