This Should Be Written in the Present Tense

helle helle

Whose book is it – reader’s or writer’s? I ask that question because my reading experience of Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense differed from my normal relationship with a novel as I had the opportunity to hear Helle speak after I’d finished reading. Although unusual, this isn’t the first time I have listened to an author discuss a book I have just read, but on this occasion my understanding of the novel was altered in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

The novel itself tells the story of a young woman, Dorte, who leaves for university but does not attend, a fact she keeps hidden even from her aunt (also Dorte), the person she seems closest to. While she drifts through her present existence we learn about her past life and relationships. For a while she seems to live an idyllic existence with her boyfriend, Per, and his parents, but she leaves him to live with his cousin, Lars. The transition from one relationship to another is described in terms of action rather than emotion:

“He put his hand on my shoulder, I turned towards him and then we kissed. Per came back with his LP… When Per went to the bathroom we kissed again.”

Similarly her decision to leave Per:

“After we got home it seemed like the only thing to do was pack. I did it on the Tuesday morning before Per woke up, and when he did I told him. I carried the suitcase down the stairs and put it down und the sycamore tree while I got my bike out of the barn.”

In this way, the novel gives the false impression that nothing much happens; in fact, it disguises its eventfulness by burying moments such as these, which would be foregrounded in a traditional story, amid the prosaic details of everyday life. A perfect example of this is Dorte’s abortion:

“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’d got me a present…”

Only the word ‘long’ reveals any kind of emotional reaction, and ironically Helle makes the telling as short as possible, not even allowing this event a sentence to itself. This style led me to assume that that Dorte was, in fact, suffering from depression (a feeling that intensified when her namesake has a breakdown near the novel’s end):

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt I should wash my hair. I realised I hadn’t had my dinner.”

Helle, however, presented her character as someone who was not unhappy but simply drifting through life. As an example, she mentioned the scene where Dorte boards a train when the conductor waves her on even though she has no intention of travelling – tearing her jeans as she gets off again. In this reading her passivity is a pause in her life, perhaps a reaction to the events the novel describes, but one which has the potential to be healing. This idea of letting life happen to you seems anathema to our contemporary driven society (perhaps on reason why the novel is set in the eighties, along with the absence of smart phones) but becomes an element in Dorte’s coming of age. A stylistic difference also goes some way to explain my different perception of Dorte’s state of mind: in the English version many of the commas have been replaced by full stops, creating a much slower, more lifeless narrative voice.

Helle, in fact, described This Should Be Written in the Present Tense as her most optimistic novel (of course, having not read the others, the context of that statement is unclear). At the beginning (which is the novel’s endpoint – everything is told in retrospect) Dorte seems determined on a new start: her parents have just washed down the apartment, her torn jeans are repaired, and she has filled three black bin bags with what she no longer needs – including pages of her writing. The novel begins with the phrase “I wrote too much…” and ends with advice from a writer:

“I’m always asking myself why does this have to be there, why does that have to be there? And if I can’t find a reason, it goes.”

This feels like a defence of Helle’s style, a declaration that, although she may seem to privilege the trivial over more serious events, what she has included has been deliberately selected. This style allows the novel space for the reader, hence more than one reading is available – something that it is all the better for.

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11 Responses to “This Should Be Written in the Present Tense”

  1. Emma Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and information about the lecture Helle gave.

    You know I couldn’t finish this novella, Dorte got on my nerves for her passivity (I also thought she was depressed) but not only. The style irritated me. A lot.

    If this is her most optimistic novel, I can’t imagine what the others are and I’m not ready to start any of the others.

    In the end, did you like Helle’s book?

    If you want to read a powerful book about someone lost in her life and relationships, with an unconventional family, try Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion. If you’ve read it already, what did you think about it?

    • 1streading Says:

      I happily read the novel, though felt underwhelmed when I finished. I think I like it more in retrospect: though it isn’t one I would rave about, it’s more interesting than it at first appeared.
      Jacqui has previously recommended Joan Didion to me (and has now done so again!) but I haven’t got round to reading her yet.

  2. poppypeacockpens Says:

    Having seen mixed reviews have to say I’ve been intrigued by the style of this one & your review has persuaded me it’s worth a punt. Thanks for sharing ☺

    • 1streading Says:

      I read it with my book club (and then six of us went to see her). No-one suggested they wished they hadn’t read it and it did promote an interesting discussion, so I hope you like it.

  3. roughghosts Says:

    Curious. I had not heard of this book but I suspect I might like it, but probably not at this point in my life. Maybe when I’m feeling better. 🙂

    • 1streading Says:

      Jacqui has also reviewed this here
      Emma also reviewed it here
      It’s Helle’s first translation into English and possibly only has a UK publication.
      You may well want to wait until your feeling better however!

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    Fascinating. I’m glad you’ve written about this novel, Grant. As you say, so much is buried in the background of this story and the reader has to try to complete some of the gaps. Like you, I wondered if Dorte was suffering depression, so it’s interesting to hear Helle’s perspective on her character’s situation.

    Out of interest, did Helle say why the punctuation had been altered in the translation? Did she think it might have made a difference to our perceptions of Dorte?

    I’ll second Emma’s recommendation of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, a searing novel about a woman cast adrift in her life. It conveys a more powerful sense of dislocation than Helle’s story.

    • 1streading Says:

      Helle suggested this was a decision of the translator as he felt the ungrammatical commas didn’t always work in English – you can see where they’ve been retained at points.
      The Didion recommendations are coming thick and fast – I may have to succumb!

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Play it as it Lays is spectacular. Count me as another recommender.

    This is definitely on my radar, despite as poppy says distinctly mixed reviews. Still, I’m curious about the full stop/comma thing. Admittedly English uses full stops much more and commas much less than many other European languages, but changing one to the other can as you say change the sense of the text.

    Would smartphones be a problem for the text? It doesn’t sound story-driven enough for period to matter that much.

    • 1streading Says:

      I felt one of reasons that I had assumed Dorte was depressed was the number of short sentences, which were obviously, in a sense, misleading.
      The comment Helle made regarding smart phones was a general one – she said she didn’t think she could wrote a novel set in the present because of them. I’m not sure how they would have impinged on this novel, but I wonder how many other writers share her misgiving?

  6. 1967 – A Man Asleep | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Man Asleep reminded me of a more recent novel, Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense. Helle’s novel appears superficially (i.e. to me) to be about a woman who is depressed, but Helle […]

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