‘The equal of anything else published this year’ – This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle

tsbwitptThis Should be Written in the Present Tense is Helle Helle’s first novel to be translated into English and her fifth (I think) novel published in Denmark. Like the novels of Tove Jansson and Amélie Nothomb (with which comparisons can be made) it asks one question more than any other – when can we have the rest?

Like Jansson and Nothomb, Helle needs less than two hundred pages to satisfy the reader. I am perpetually distrustful of large novels (even though some of my favourite novels are pretty massive). Too often they are padded out with nothing to make them look good on a shelf or suitable for reading by a swimming pool. There are British novelists who can cope with brevity, Alison Moore, Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald, but for the most part we have to import out slim volumes from Europe or America. You don’t believe me? Look at your bookshelves. How many of the thin books are British?

And I don’t know why this is. And I admit that we are supposedly moving into the age of the novella: though I do wonder why we feel the need to categorise a novel with less than a certain number of pages as being in some way ‘other’, lesser, as opposed to being just, well, shorter.

This Should be Written in the Present Tense is short but it is the equal of anything else published this year. In her beautiful, sad, narrative, Dorte tells of her present life in a bedsit near the university she should be attending and what happened in the year before she left for university. In some ways Dorte is an incredibly passive character, she drifts from one relationship to another, life is something that happens to her. You can read the character as having depression, but equally you can read her narrative as being near universal. We do not control our destinies, not really. We are blown around like leaves in a storm, sometimes. The counterweight to Dorte’s position is that of her aunt, also called Dorte, who is unsuccessful in love not because she wants to little but too much – “You have to feel it, right down to your fingertips…all the time”. Neither Dorte has the winning formula to life, but neither does either of them have the ability to change.

Dorte (narrator) is the personification of modern ennui, detached from and slightly confused by society, going through the motions, existing. She describes what happens, or most of what happens, but not how that makes her feel. This sounds cold but it isn’t. The author is neither detached or ironic, only her character is, and this balancing act is expertly handled (both by author and translator). Dorte doesn’t tell us everything, but everything is told. The plot, though nearly non-existent, and largely a series of outside influences pushing the character along, is arresting, almost hypnotic. This is an important and hugely relevant work.

Any Cop?: This Should be Written in the Present Tense is a perfect example of why 186 pages is plenty. There is so much in this book, so much hinted at and alluded to. So much going on off-screen. Helle Helle is a real talent and This Should be Written in the Present Tense is one of the literary finds of the year.

Benjamin Judge


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