This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle #NordicFINDS23

Translated by Martin Aitken

Susan recommended this novella to me last year (her review here), so I acquired a copy – thinking ahead for this year!

What an odd book this is. Our narrator, Dorte, chronicles her everyday life for us and remembers previous relationships – that’s it. It is simple, yet hypnotically compelling. The events within its covers may be mostly mundane, but the way Dorte recounts them to us give them an aura of strangeness, as if she is observing her life from outside.

Dorte is theoretically a student at university in Copenhagen, but doesn’t appear to go to her lectures. She lives in a little bungalow which her aunt Dorte, for whom she was named, found for her outside the capital opposite a train station where she watches the comings and goings and the stationmaster and his girlfriend who live above the station. She finds she can’t sleep at night, she has no curtains a constant low-level concern. She spends her days shopping, enjoys pastries, meets a few friends, talks to strangers who help her, visits her aunt, picks apples from the tree in the garden and doesn’t do much else. She usually tells us what she eats and what is in her cupboard. Life seems a bit perplexing to her at the moment.

The first night in the house I slept sitting up. I sat in the armchair with my legs up and the duvet on top of me. I hadn’t put the sheets on the bed, though Dorte had reminded me about it.

‘Remember to put your sheets on first thing. You’re always knackered after a move.’ […]

I wrapped myself in the duvet and fell asleep with my head hanging down, and slept until a goods train a mile long passed through when morning came. The lamp was still on as the sun came up.

Even when she was in a relationship, a while previously, and working – well, sort of – writing witty lyrics for party songs, a lot of life was spent in bed. First at Per’s parents’ house – where they seemed to live on his waterbed, and later after she decided her relationship with Per wasn’t going anywhere, she rarely went out when shacked up with his cousin Lars either. Although her own parents seem supportive, she never considers moving back home with them.

Yet she continually doesn’t make life easy for herself. She’s prone to falling over, or thinking she can do a long cycle ride, ending up with people stopping to look after her. She will eventually accept help offered and enjoy it even, but not prolong the encounters. Only her aunt and later, an old friend, Hase, seem to reach her repeatedly.

Reading this novella, I was reminded of Otessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation which has an equally drifting protagonist. But where I disliked Moshfegh’s rather unreliable narrator, there was something about Dorte that made me want to mother her, and I hoped she would find her way out of her limbo state.

Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s foremost authors; this novella first published in 2011 was her first to be translated into English in 2014. Martin Aitken does a marvellous, seamless job, but sadly, I can’t see any more of her books available in translation, as I’d read them if there were. This novella was oddly beguiling, and I would recommend its descriptive, yet matter-of-fact writing.

Source: Own copy. Vintage paperback, 186 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

So that’s Denmark ✓

I’m returning to Tarjei Vesaas from Norway next with his novella The Birds.

8 thoughts on “This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle #NordicFINDS23

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s hard to put my finger on why I put up Dorte, but the quality of the writing was surely the largest part of it.

  1. Julé Cunningham says:

    I smiled when seeing your post today with Martin Aitken’s name listed as the translator. He’s also the translator of the excellent book I started with the year with, Ida Jessen’s ‘A Change of Time’. He must have a talent for spotting beguiling Danish books!

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