Helle Helle cover[Soft Skull Press; 2016]

Tr. by Martin Aitken

This Should Be Written In the Present Tense is Danish author Helle Helle’s first book to be translated into English. She has written several novels and collections of short stories since 1993, and is one of Denmark’s best-known and best-selling authors. After reading This Should Be Written In the Present Tense, which is a quiet, unobtrusive novel in which very little appears to happen and the sentences are sparse and deceptively simple, I find this fascinating. We might associate the words best-selling with a writer like Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen, but in terms of a comparison on the strength of this single translated novel, Helle Helle seems to have more in common with, say, Jenny Offill or Nell Zink, writers similarly elliptical in style.

The novel’s protagonist, Dorte, is in her early twenties. The novel opens as she moves into her own house, a place where she will live on her own for the first time ever, although she moved out of her parents’ house several years earlier. This is significant: hitherto, she has always lived with another person — mostly boyfriends, but also her aunt — and found herself essentially marking time. This new step of living on her own feels, then, like an attempt to motivate herself, provoke some kind of action, some kind of being alive, compared to her previous passivity.

The bungalow she moves into is in Glumsø, near Copenhagen, which has a population of just a couple of thousand people. The bungalow feels even more remote than this — there are fruit trees in the garden, and the only other building frequently mentioned is the railway station. Dorte travels between Glumsø and Copenhagen, where she is — or sort of is — studying, except she never actually manages to attend her classes. Even when inertia does not prevent her from getting herself dressed and ready and catching the train, she ends up mooching around cafes or vintage clothing shops. The present-day sections of the novel are comprised mostly a series of non-events, narrated minimally but often with seemingly extraneous detail:

I went down the stairs and out into the street. I walked back towards the Strøget, then went into a shop on the corner, through the shoes and upstairs to the women’s department. I took a random tweed coat off the peg and went into a fitting room. I looked at my face from all sides in the two mirrors, smiling and not smiling. After that I tried the coat on, it didn’t look bad at all. But then on the train home I decided to give it to Dorte. I’d never wear it anyway. I once heard her speak highly of tweed on a trip to Gisselfeld, a rare Sunday outing with my mum and dad to look at the old oak trees. We had coffee in a lay-by on the way back.

Dorte is never quite comfortable in the bungalow. She spends the first night sleeping sitting up, having not taken her aunt’s advice and put the sheets on the bed before she was too exhausted, and later during her tenancy has to imagine two guards standing watch over the front step in order to be able to fall asleep at all. The bungalow becomes representative of Dorte herself; a place she is not quite comfortable inhabiting, but to which she must often return. Despite her apparent longing for human connection, she often pushes it away. Dort seems to always long to be where she is not, and so the space of the threshold takes on a strong significance and is a recurring theme throughout the novel.

Dorte’s vague life in Glumsø is interspersed with a few events from her recent past, from living with her boyfriend Per at his parents’ house, to moving in with his cousin Lars, who shortly afterwards leaves her to move back home to recover from an unspecified breakdown. Despite how it sounds, with the accumulation of quotidian detail and slow-moving daily actions, this novel does not really resemble the writing of Karl Ove Knausgaard; there is insufficient internal reflection for that, although the two could certainly be considered as part of the same overall style.

Is the narrator depressed, or suffering more generally from an early twenties ennui? When she moves in with Per, it is the second time she has left home and she is still only eighteen, so perhaps she is suffering from a lack of boundaries. Her parents show up from time to time, kindly, ghostly, well-meaning, but Dorte seems to not quite know what to do with them. Once Dorte hides from her mother when she arrives home to find her mother on the doorstep. She seems to feel rather ambivalent towards them, but much more affectionate and open towards her aunt, also Dorte, after whom she was named. The aunt is more relatable, it seems, being still in the same kind of limbo of working out the meaning of life or finding a real soulmate that her niece is experiencing.

The two women have discussions, talk about their lives, their lovers — but frequently without really telling the truth or going into detail. Even here, despite the obvious affection for her aunt, there’s a certain amount of indifference. The aunt, mirroring the niece, works her way through a string of boyfriends without ever managing to find a really good one, the right one. She can be put off people for the tiniest and yet most profound of reasons. There’s a moving scene where the aunt goes on a coach trip with a new boyfriend. She’s quite excited, rather jolly, and talking a lot. The other passengers begin to mock her gently.

‘Look at all those birds. I’ve never seen so many!’

‘They’re called seagulls,’ said the woman in the seat behind, and some people began to laugh. Dorte laughed even louder then and twisted round in her seat half standing up. She put her hand on top of the woman’s on the headrest.

‘Are they really seagulls? I think I’m dyslexic with birds.’

After she sat down again and had been quiet for a second with a smile still on her face, her boyfriend leaned over and said:

‘I think you should settle down now, don’t you?’

It was as if all the life drained away from her. She couldn’t say how it happened. The corners of her mouth drooped. Her arms went limp. She turned her head away and looked out at the fresh green fields and trees and the roe deer as they ran. Nothing had ever seemed so sad to her.

This is one of the most emotional moments in a novel where there is, in general, an enormous amount of effort expended on noticing the minutiae of the surroundings rather than going with — indeed, as a way of avoiding — the emotional flow of the moment. Translator Martin Aitken has beautifully captured Helle’s streams of laconic sentences, many of them beginning with “I” plus a verb, that build to create this accumulation of sensory detail. Taken together, they accumulate into a compelling, rhythmic pattern. There’s a lot of sensation — Dorte sees, hears, smells and tastes things much more than she admits to experiencing feelings. We learn of sensations that are instantly familiar (“I hadn’t pulled my socks up properly in my boots, they bunched up under my feet,” she notices, when her boyfriend’s mother tells her she is glad they have started seeing each other) but are also part of Dorte’s avoidance of anything that might entail having a feeling — particularly if it’s in someone else’s company.

In addition to this emotional passivity, things simply happen to Dorte; there’s no point fighting events. A young couple arrives on the doorstep having missed their train. They end up staying the night, taking her hospitality for granted. She doesn’t really want things to happen, but she doesn’t have the energy or the assertiveness to stop them from happening. It’s not just Dorte who’s passive, though. The other characters can be equally inert. When Dorte leaves Per, she gets up before him, packs her suitcase, and then when he wakes up tells him she’s leaving. They lived with his parents; it was as if Dorte and Per were the sober, responsible adults, and Per’s slightly hippy teacher parents the children — excitable, in love with each other and in love with life. Dorte’s time with Lars is scarcely more exciting. He goes to teacher’s college and she stays at home, purposeless. When Lars leaves her, there is again no fuss, no argument. He doesn’t even tell her face to face, instead leaving a note. Dorte “opened the cupboard and sure enough most of his clothes were gone. It felt like a relief, only I didn’t know why. It hurt a lot too. I kept standing there staring at the half-empty shelves.” Dorte gets drunk, cries a bit, and then gets dressed up to go out. But in the bar she simply sits alone and gets drunker. A great deal more attention is given to the interaction with the man who helps her up and then home when she falls down outside the bar. It’s as if this encounter will go somewhere, only it doesn’t — and this time we see Dorte quietly but firmly resisting the obvious outcome.

Ultimately this is a subtle, minimalist novel about purposelessness, although not necessarily futility. The intriguing title serves to highlight the careful constructedness of this past-tense narrative, framed by Dorte’s time living in the bungalow. The penultimate chapter shows Dorte and a possible new boyfriend possibly about to embark on some kind of future together. It ends, portentously, with the new man saying “It’s all in your hands.” But then there’s one more chapter, just a single page in length, in which the narrator takes a step back. It begins, “I wrote too much about that doorway,” referring back to the book’s very first line, “I wrote too much about that step.” This step is the same threshold Dorte has had such difficulty negotiating over the course of the novel. On which side does she really want to be? Dorte watches as a married man who works at the Glumsø station (and with whom she had a very brief fling earlier in the novel) moves away to start a new job. He’s moving on, moving forward, but will Dorte ever be able to do the same thing? The novel quietly builds in power as it depicts Dorte’s dithering inactivity as something essential both to the story and, crucially, to Dorte’s life.

JC Sutcliffe is a writer, translator and editor. Her reviews and translations have been published in the Times Literary Supplement, the Globe and Mail, the Literary Review of Canada, Words Without Borders and Carte Blanche. She also writes about books at Slightly Bookist

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