This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (review)

Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s leading contemporary novelists, and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (originally published in 2011) is the first of her books to be translated into English. It’s a strange novella. I wasn’t sure whether to review it at first, but in the end, something about it got under my skin.

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The story is narrated by twenty-year-old Dorte, a student at Copenhagen University. At least that’s what she tells her family and acquaintances – she doesn’t seem to have many friends. Instead she spends her days drifting around Glumsø, the small town where she lives by the railway, or travelling to Copenhagen to wander the streets and shopping malls. Dorte lives by herself, and her existence is desperately quiet and isolated save for a few random off-beat encounters with the neighbours and passers-by:

I bought a roll and a cup of coffee at the bakery in the arcade. The place was expensive, but you could sit there as long as you liked and they didn’t charge for water. I sat right at the back against the wall. I got my book out and tried to read. After almost an hour I went to Scala. I went round the different floors, looking at jewellery and jeans, I took the escalator up to the cinema, but there was nothing on that I wanted to see. Before I went home I bought a melon in the Irma supermarket. I sat on a train with it in my canvas bag, looking out at the back garden and sheds and little houses. I thought about my own bungalow with the apple tree and no curtains. It was a very sad melon. I put it in the window in the kitchen, it stayed there until well into November. (pg. 44, Harvill Secker)

As the story unravels, we learn more about events in the past two or three years in this young girl’s life. At eighteen, while working as an au pair, Dorte drifts into a relationship with a boy called Per, ‘he didn’t know what to do with himself either.’ She ends up moving in with Per, the young couple sharing a new bedsit on the first floor of the family’s home. This isn’t the first time Dorte has left home though (and possibly not the last either) as Helle slips the following statement into the story:

It was the third time I’d left home. My mum and dad gave us a pewter mug as a moving-in present, but they never got the chance to see the place. (pg. 36)

This short passage is indicative of the author’s approach. This is a book where certain aspects of Dorte’s life are clear from the narrative, but so much of what’s actually happening here is implied or suggested that the reader must endeavour to fill in the gaps. A more distinct picture only comes into focus as we try to look beyond the words on the page, making connections between what Dorte is telling us and what we suspect is happening. For instance, by the time we reach the end of the following passage we have a pretty good sense of what has happened to Dorte. Elsewhere in the narrative, however, the text seems more oblique:

Per went with me to work and back again, he tickled me on the waterbed until I nearly fainted, he took his clothes off and put them back on again several times a day, went with me to the doctor’s when I got pregnant and on the bus to the hospital seven long days later, and on the way back that same afternoon he’s got me a present, a hair slide from a silversmith, made out of a spoon with a proper hallmark. I was so relieved and felt so much better despite the anaesthetic, we couldn’t stop laughing until the driver told us to be quiet. But then in the evening I had to go and lie down before dinner. Per told his parents I was feeling a bit off colour. (pg. 47)

Dorte’s relationship with Per doesn’t last. There’s a sense that she’s simply ‘waiting for it all to fall apart,’ and so she packs her suitcase and leaves – it seems like ‘the only thing to do.’ She slips in and out of relationships with a few other men. None of these attachments seem to be going anywhere. The only constant in Dorte’s life comes from the relationship with her aunt (who also happens to be called Dorte). Aunt Dorte has her own troubles, and when her backstory is revealed it feels like a punch to the guts.

Helle Helle’s prose strips everything back, and her matter-of-fact style matches the sparse nature of Dorte’s life – even her bungalow has little in the way of furniture, the windows lack curtains. There is a focus on the mundane, the directionless feel to Dorte’s life, and this approach may not appeal to every reader. It would be quite easy to give up on this book; I nearly abandoned it after 40 pages, but something about the sadness and isolation in Dorte’s life drew me in. She cries and has difficulty sleeping at night. I wondered if she was suffering from depression.

I read this novella several weeks ago, back in November in fact, and I’m still thinking about it. Gradually we discover that this girl is at a complete loss as to what to do with herself or how to move forward with life. There are moments when Dorte realises that she needs to take positive action, but she seems numbed by the reality of it all. I’ll finish with a quote that captures this feeling:

I painted my nails and decided I needed a new look and a new way of thinking and walking. I even thought I might put a piece together for a newspaper, I just didn’t know what about. There was nothing in particular I was good at, except perhaps writing lyrics for party songs, but I didn’t even do that any more. Instead I wrote a list of things I ought to see and do in Copenhagen. I was full of good ideas. For once, I fell asleep straight away, but then woke up again far too early. The front room looked like an explosion in a second-hand shop, and I’d got nail varnish on the lamp. I tidied up and got dressed. I was ready before six. I caught the five-past-nine. (pgs. 79-80)

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (tr. by Martin Aitken) is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: library copy.

57 thoughts on “This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (review)

  1. naomifrisby

    Fantastic review Jacqui. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read this but you’ve swung it for me with the quotations you’ve chosen, the middle one particularly – there’s some very powerful events hidden in there. This sounds very interesting indeed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Naomi. I’m very glad you picked that up from my review as so much is left unsaid or hinted at, and these events (some of which are pretty traumatic) have left their mark. This book’s right up your street and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    Like you, this book found its way under my skin, Jacqui. I remember describing it as ‘curiously gripping’ in my own review. It left me hoping that there are more Helle translations in the works.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, erdeaka. I think what the author is trying to achieve is to illustrate just how hard life can be for a young woman if she doesn’t have a job or place at college or a steady boyfriend. There isn’t much for Dorte to cling on to for support and her life lacks direction so she ends up drifting from one thing to another. It’s very sad…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I’d be so interested to hear your take on this or any of her other books available in German. She seems to have quite a following in Denmark so I’m hoping we might see more of her work in translation.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The cover’s great, isn’t it. It caught my eye at the library, and I had to have it even though I’m meant to be focusing on the TBR at the moment! I wonder if the brightness of the cover is a deliberate antidote to the tone of the story itself as they’re quite different from one another. It is an intriguing book and this girl’s story just got under my skin. It would have been so easy to bail on this one, but I’m glad I stayed the course.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui. In some ways, what you say about the book reminds me of my experience with Christa Wolf, having to read between the lines and discover the unsaid. Sounds like a powerful book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Oh, that’s really interesting; Christa Wolf is on my list for sure and I’d like to give her a try later this year. One for German Lit Month, perhaps?

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    Hmm. As you say, the focus on the mundane and the directionlessness of a young girl’s life may not appeal to all. It’s dangerous territory for a writer – has to be done so well. Not for me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a book that will divide people, and it would be quite easy to get to the end and go ‘so what?’ I think there’s more to it than that, but the quotes give a good feel for Helle’s style and the nature of Dorte’s life. Not for everyone as you say (and very different from Knuasgaard who writes about the minutest of details of everyday life in such compelling way!).

      Reply
  5. realthog

    It’s definitely Not My Kind of Book, but you make it sound really quite engrossing — well done! I shall have to research its availability on this side of the pond.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. It’s not for everyone, and I didn’t think it would be your kind of book! The quotes give a good feel for the style and subject matter so if you’re wavering on any of the passages this one might not work for you.

      Reply
  6. My Book Strings

    It sounds like a book you need to take your time with, so that you don’t miss any of the events that are only implied or hinted at. I think I would enjoy reading this, though this review alone makes me a little sad for Dorte.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s it, exactly. Dorte’s life is very sad, and the picture builds over time. There’s something about her voice too; it’s quite hard to explain, but I think it’s one of the reasons why her story got under my skin. Let me know if you do try it.

      Reply
  7. Naomi

    The cover and title of this book really catch my attention. It sounds like something that would interest me when I am in the mood for something to contemplate. Great quotes!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Naomi. The cover’s great isn’t it, and the title’s intriguing too. They caught my attention as I picked it up in the library even though I have a mountain of unread books at home. It’s a quiet book; as you say, one that requires some thought and contemplation.

      Reply
  8. Brian Joseph

    I tend to like books that are a little different.

    This reminds me of someone I knew who really just drifted around aimlessly in his early 20s. He falsely told many of his family and friends that he was a student and later that he had a good job.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gosh, that’s very sad. Dorte’s story rang true to me and I wondered how many others might hide certain aspects of their life or invent things in a similar way. It’s probably a lot more common than we might think. I hope your friend managed to establish a life for himself in the end.

      Reply
  9. Scott W.

    A Danish friend strongly recommended this author a few years ago when, to the best of her knowledge, nothing had yet been translated into English. Good to know that there’s now something available.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is. This is the first to be translated, and I wonder whether we’ll see more as it looks as if she’s written 4 or 5 other novels and some short stories too. Good to hear that this writer comes highly recommended by your Danish friend. She seems to have caught the attention of critics and readers over there.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Now you mention it, they do read like diary entries although they aren’t presented as such in the novel (or not explicitly anyway). There are some passages of dialogue too, mainly between Dorte and her aunt or Per, the boyfriend, but like the passages I’ve quoted, several of the conversations focus on the everyday, the mundane. Once again though when the conversations touch on emotions quite a lot is left unsaid and you have to look beyond the words on the page.

      Reply
  10. Gemma

    Great review, Jacqui! This book is already on my to-read list, but your review has reminded me what initially drew me to it. The book sounds intriguing – there’s something about books with characters who lead quiet lives which interest me. I love the title, too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gemma. If that’s the case then I think you’ll like this one, and the quotes should give a good feel for what to expect in terms of the writing. The title attracted my attention too. It’s written in the past tense and while there are times when Dorte is looking back over the last two or three years the sections on her current life are expressed in a similar way. The timeline moves backwards and forwards a fair bit!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. As I mentioned in the review, I nearly put this book to one side after 40 pages or so, but something about Dorte’s voice and the sadness in her life prompted me to keep going with it. I think it’s a book that will divide people, but it has stayed with me. I’d really like to know what you make of it should you ever get a chance to read it (I know how huge your TBR is, though!).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul (from Peirene Press) is the only other Danish novel I’ve read, and it’s interesting because Helle Helle’s prose reminded me a little of the Juul. There’s something cool and stripped back about the writing in both of these novellas.

      Reply
  11. lonesomereadereric

    Interesting. It’s the kind of book I could imagine getting frustrated with if I weren’t in the right mood or if I got impatient for crucial events to be dealt with directly. It seems like it probably contains a lot of mundane detail which is there to lead up to an effect or mood, but I can see how this would put some off. It says something though that it’s stuck with you so. Reading the passages and your descriptions makes me think of Jean Rhys’ early novels about affairs that don’t work out and aimlessness in Paris – although maybe this isn’t quite as bleak.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Exactly! I think you’ve got it, Eric. The piling up of one mundane detail after another (you can see it in that first quote) is there to illustrate the lack of purpose in Dorte’s life. I think Helle’s trying to give the reader a feel for the hopelessness of it all. It would be very easy to get frustrated or bored with this story; I’m glad I stayed the course, but it’s not going to appeal to everyone.

      It’s funny you should mention Jean Rhys as I’ve only read one of her early novels, and she’s on my list for this year. The Helle isn’t quite as bleak, but I found it desperately sad…

      Reply
  12. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I’m glad you did review it, I remember reading Susan’s review and being intrigued, there are certainly mixed opinions out there, probably because it is a reasonably popular book and a bit of a surprise for many. I like how you distilled it in your reply to Erdeaka. One to watch for sure.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. It’s funny as I didn’t expect this one to generate so much discussion. but I’m glad I reviewed it! It’s a Marmite book for sure, and I can imagine it being quite a frustrating read for some (especially readers who like a good plot). This writer has got something, definitely, and I’ll be interested to see if Harvill (or others) publish more of her work in translation.

      Reply
  13. 1streading

    A really interesting review. It’s amazing how many books that you initially have a “difficult” relationship with do get under your skin in a way that books you instantly love don’t.

    Reply
  14. Seamus Duggan

    Sounds intriguing, especially as aimless drifting and depression are a couple of my greatest skills. I lived in København for a while (not long enough to learn any Danish beyond the ingredients for pizzas), and the mentions of Irma and Scala brought back memories.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I recall our conversation under my H is for Hawk post, how the early loss of a parent and search for meaning in life can leave you open to feeling a sense of empathy for troubled characters. I wondered if that’s why Dorte’s character got under my skin? It’s a strange book, Seamus, and it might go one of two ways for you (should you be minded to try it). I think this writer’s got something though…

      It’s funny how we home in on the essential phrases when trying to get by in a foreign country. The Danish for a glass of red/white wine would be my equivalent of your phrases for pizza ingredients! Glad my post triggered a few memories of Denmark for you.

      Reply
      1. Seamus Duggan

        I worked in a pizza restaurant, which made it pretty essential. It used to catch the customers out because they would order their pizzas and I would read the orders back in what I was told was a very effective Jutlander accent. Then they would try to strike up conversation in Danish at which point I would have to fess up to only speaking pizza. I was also a dab hand at ordering Tuborg!

        Reply
  15. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There are some parallels between the two characters for sure although The Blue Room is more unnerving (post-Blue Room is a good way of thinking of it). I could see this as a Peirene book, it’s just their type of thing.

      Reply
  16. Max Cairnduff

    I thought this sounded really interesting. I’ve been to Copenhagen a fair bit, both on business and for holidays, which helps spark interest of course but the book sounds interesting wherever it’s set. The quotes have this wonderful sense of anomie. I think one for the TBR pile.

    Glad you went back to it, I wouldn’t have heard of it otherwise. Well, sort of glad, not sure my TBR pile thanks you.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Anomie. That’s a great way of describing the breakdown in connections between Dorte and her surroundings. The quotes are very telling, aren’t they? If you like the sound of them, then you should be fine with this one.

      Re: the TBR, think of it this way…it’s a short book, so you’ll whizz through it.

      Reply
  17. Pingback: Danish disappointment | Book Around The Corner

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