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.