This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (transl. Martin Aitkin): Quietly low-key but curiously gripping

This should be WrittenDon’t you just love that jacket? Having sounded off about the ghastliness of the Aren’t We Sisters? cover a few weeks ago I had to mention it. Brightly coloured, eye-catching and surprisingly well suited to what’s inside it’s perfect, well for me at least. This Should be Written in the Present Tense is a quiet, low-key, curiously gripping novel in which events are so rare they stand out like the vibrant streaks of colour that adorn its jacket.

It’s narrated by twenty-year-old Dorte who has moved into a bungalow just outside Copenhagen where she has a place at university. Somehow she never gets around to buying any curtains, just as she never seems to get around to attending lectures. It’s not as if she has much else to do – she sleeps much of the day, is insomniac at night, remembers her relationship with Per and her welcome into his house by his parents, then her life with his cousin Lars. She talks to her Auntie Dorte for whom she’s named, phones her parents, goes shopping, enjoys the kindness of strangers and bumps into an old study group colleague. Aimless and adrift, she knows what she should be doing but just can’t seem to do it. Life, it seems, is something that happens to other people.

I’m left scratching my head as to quite why this book, full of prosaic exchanges and torpor, is quite so gripping while at the same time hoping that Martin Aitken is busy at work translating Helle Helle’s other novels – she’s one of Denmark’s most respected modern novelists, apparently, but this is the first of her books to be translated into English. There’s a hint in the title and on the first page that Dorte is the one writing the novel but this isn’t a tricksy book full of meta-fictional cleverness, although perhaps it’s me that’s not clever enough to have spotted it. Instead it’s a book that gets under your skin – its drifting, melancholic narrator curiously engaging and oddly compelling.

21 thoughts on “This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (transl. Martin Aitkin): Quietly low-key but curiously gripping”

    1. I’m firmly in the quiet, understated camp. This one was strangely beguiling though – can quite put my finger on it.

    1. Ah, well I didn’t succumb to Mr Knausgaard – far too much of him for me – but I suspect not. It’s very short, a mere 186 pages. I’ll be interested to know what you think it you read it, Helen.

    1. I think you’re right, Claire – it would bear re-reading. I love that cover. It’s more vibrant in reality. Those vivid stripes of cover against a white background fit it beautifully.

  1. As a writer, I get tired of the trope: show what your character wants and thwart them in their quest to get it, as if every novel needs to follow the same pathway. But there’s a dearth of advice for creating interesting characters who lack concrete goals. So I’m always excited to find novels with “unmotivated” characters that work. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. I hope you find it both enjoyable and useful, Anne. You’re quite right: the same old stories can become hackneyed unless exceptionally well written.

  2. Not having read it, I should hesitate to comment, but I wonder if it has some of the magic Anne Tyler’s books have in just pottering through some ordinary lives with remarkable observation?
    Ordering this now!

    1. Oh, I hope you like it, Lisa. Not so much pottering as aimless! I didn’t think I’d enjoy this to begin with but it gets under your skin although I can’t quite explain why.

  3. I really like the sound of this book; there’s something about understated books that I’m drawn to. I love the cover, too. Added to the to-read list!

    1. Me, too, on both counts, Gemma. And the jacket’s even better in the flesh, so to speak. I hope you enjoy it.

  4. The cover and the title are amazing. But i don’t know if i can bring myself to read it. It sounds like it is a quietly brooding novel. Not my strong suit when it comes to reading. But maybe I’ll buy it because it’s so nice to look at?

    1. A little melancholic rather than brooding, I’d say. Not as uncheery as Per Petterson, for instance. The cover’s gorgeous, though, and worth getting yourself down to a bookshop just to ogle it in reality!

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  6. I think you may have found me the perfect novel for my husband’s birthday. He loves European novels in translation where not very much happens. I found him Peter Stamm a year ago and now he’s read all of his novels I need something else. So thank you!

  7. I must have missed this review, Susan, so thanks for letting me know. It’s funny how we’ve both used the same expression about the way this book gets under your skin. I found Dorte’s story very sad, rather devastating in a way. It reminded me how difficult life can be when you’re young, especially if you’re struggling to find a sense of direction.

    1. Interesting that we both had similar reactions, Jacqui. There’s a very strong streak of melancholy running through Dorte’s narrative which I found very affecting. I do hope that Harvill plan to publish more by Helle.

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