ATW80: DENMARK – This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle

Review published on September 28, 2015.

So it’s on to leg five of my literary globetrot and Denmark, the setting for and birthplace of one of the most iconic figures in literature of all time, Shakespeare’s own Hamlet. And not only have we Denmark to thank for this fictional icon but also one of the nobility of world literature, Hans Christen Andersen, he of the fairy tales. Who doesn’t know at least one of his classic stories –the ugly duckling who turns into a beautiful swan, a mermaid seeking the love of a human prince and, of course, the pompous emperor who marches down the street in his birthday suit! And what of his lesser-known tales: The Saucy Boy, The Shirt-Collar, The Old Bachelor’s Nightcap and (possibly not!) the forerunner to The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s NestThe Girl Who Trod on the Loaf! I’m not sure Disney will be clamouring for that one anytime soon, but still there’s a whole collection of stories to discover to delight children (and adults) the world over. Then there’s the matter of Denmark’s Nobel prize laureates, who include Henrik Pontoppidan, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, and depending on which line you take, Denmark-born, Norwegian-national, Sigrid Undset.

With these auspicious roots, Denmark it seems has quite the literary heritage and indeed was the tenth most translated European language for the period 2000-2012. But in comparison to neighbouring Sweden and Norway, it is still something of a literary featherweight (with 118 translations compared with Sweden’s 309 and Norway’s 190 in that period) and perhaps not the most widely accessible or prominent of the Scandinavian traditions. Having said that however, there are some increasingly popular Danish authors flying the nearly eight-hundred-year-old Dannebrog – the oldest state flag in the world still in use by an independent nation – not least crime aficionado Jussi Adler-Olsen whose fifth Department Q book, Buried, was released in February this year, with book six, The Hanging Girl, coming hot on its heels in September. And of course, this wouldn’t be a Scandinavian literary invasion without a slew of crime writers. And whilst Adler-Olsen very much leads the way, Danish brother and sister, Soren and Lotte Hammer, are also doing their bit for Danish crime, with their Konrad Simonsen series, the fifth instalment of which, The Girl in the Ice, has just been released. Number one Danish bestseller Sara Blaedel has been voted Denmark’s most popular novelist three times since 2007 and has had her Detective Louise Rick crime series translated into English, the latest title in which, The Forgotten Girls, releases in October, whilst bestselling Danish crime author Elsebeth Egholm’s Dead Souls was released in May. Also writing in the genre are Steffen Jacobsen, author of When the Dead Awaken and Trophy, and Erik Valeur, author of The Seventh Child and winner of the 2012 Glass Key Award, given by the members of the Crime Writers of Scandinavia. Peter Hoeg is a popular name with his breakthrough novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and most recently The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter which asks what would you do if your parents were con artists? Meanwhile Sissel-Jo Gazan’s The Dinosaur Feather was named Danish Novel of the Decade and has been followed up by The Arc of the Swallow, which won the Danish Readers Book Prize in 2014. Martin Jensen has been honoured by the Danish Crime Academy twice and the third instalment of his medieval crime series the King’s Hounds, A Man’s Word, released in March. Kim Leine’s The Prophets of Eternal Fjord which released in July has received the Golden Laurel award and the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize – only the second Danish writer to take the honour in the new millennium – and Naja Marie Aidt, winner of the Beatrice Prize, the Danish Critics’ Prize and the second Danish writer alongside Leine to be awarded the Nordic Council Prize since 2000, sees her second English translation in October with Rock, Paper, Scissors. Mikel Birkegaard’s The Library of Shadows offers a literary conspiracy, whilst Christian Jungersen’s You Disappear is more of a psychological drama. Jonas Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale is a coming-of-age tale for modern times, whilst Lene Kaaberbol’s Doctor Death offers a historical twist on the tradition. Finally, short story and novella fans will find something in the work of Dorthe Nors.

Amongst the most acclaimed of Danish writers is Helle Helle, who has received the Danish Critics’ Prize, the Beatrice Prize, and the P.O. Enquist Award, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Danish Arts Council, so I was intrigued to read her first novel translated into English, the curiously titled This Should Be Written in the Present Tense.

Stylistically, Helle’s novel stands out. Written in sparse, simple prose, with short sentences and childlike clarity, it’s something of a fast, plain read, but this simplicity both enacts the narrator’s struggle to make something of her life – twenty-something Dorte is directionless and apathetic, drifting through her life – and belies the wider realities that are hinted at and alluded to. Having said that, on the face of it, it is quite an easy novel to dismiss, very little happens and the style can become somewhat monotonous – but such is Dorte’s life and existence. Helle doesn’t make it particularly easy for the reader to really find a way in and get a foothold on the narrative. Is this really just about the day-to-day life of a young woman in its stark mundanity? At the most essential level, yes. But is it too about the struggles of youth? The process and art of writing? Both of these things, I would suggest, and more, but these are questions and answers that Helle keeps at a distance, hidden in the minimalist style. Indeed, the facts and observations that other novelists would overlook, that would go unnoticed and certainly unremarked on are the essence of this quotidian narrative, in which the focus is very much on the minutiae. Dramatic tension and climactic action are non-existent, but that’s not to say that there’s no character development or narrative arc. As one of the characters in the novel – a writer – says, ‘Usually you can make do with a lot less… 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 seems to be very much the artistic philosophy of Helle herself, an author who cites amongst her literary heroes Samuel Beckett. And there’s certainly something of the literary self-consciousness to this novel that demands attention. For a book that says so little and so simply, it is one that points to hidden depths. Whilst some readers may find it all a bit stylised and vacuous – I’ll admit I was tempted to give up within the first fifty pages – other readers may be drawn in by the simplicity and what lies beneath. I certainly think this is one that the more you try to engage with and question, the more you get from the reading experience. Yet for me it just doesn’t have that naturally engaging and inquisitive style that gets you on board. There were similarities here with my Norwegian selection, Naïve.Super, although Helle I think does give readers slightly more to engage with. This is a novel that I think will very much divide readers but one too that would be an interesting choice for reading groups, if only to see what they make of it. Not necessarily my cup of tea but a fascinating insight into contemporary Danish literature.

Jade Craddock
Personal read 2
Group read 2

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle is published in hbk by Harvill Secker in Nov 2014

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