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.
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.