Danish disappointment

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011). French title: Au présent. (Translated by Catherine Lise Dubost.)

Helle_Helle_EnglishI wanted to read contemporary Danish fiction. There aren’t many Danish books on the shelves in bookstores and I’d read a review of This Should Be Written in the Present Tense on Jacqui’s blog. I thought “Why not?”. I bought the English translation because I wanted it on e-reader form and the French translation is only available in hard cover.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is about Dorte who moves in a new home near the train station in Glumso, near Copenhagen. Dorte has enrolled at the university in Copenhagen and she commutes to the city but never goes to class. We are in her head as she recalls scenes from her past and talks about her aunt Dorte, her former lover Per…

I managed to read half of the book before abandoning it. I stopped reading it when started having uncharitable thoughts about the main character. In my mind, I called her Dorte-Torte which isn’t nice. And I had the soon-to-be-abandoned book syndrome: walk around the kindle to avoid picking it up, browsing through the shelves to decide which book would be the next…

Dorte is dull and passive and I have a hard time with passive characters. I didn’t care about Per and the likes. I was bored out of my mind by repetitive meal descriptions:

We had goat’s cheese and baguette with red wine, and she made coffee in a French press and heated up the milk.

And this one:

I was going to have meatloaf, but when I stood in the kitchen with the minced meat and the box of eggs I decided I couldn’t be bothered. I boiled the mince and had it in a pitta bread with a bit of cucumber.

I decided I couldn’t be bothered either. God knows the French are obsessed with food. “How was the food?” must be in the Top Three Questions someone asks you when you come back from holiday. But in contemporary literature, it’s rather toned down except if the book is about a chef.

It reminded me of a song by Vincent Delerm. Two people are watching a play by Shakespeare at the Avignon festival. He sings that there are no costumes, no acting, no moves so they thought “why not no public, after all?” and left. I thought there was no plot, no catching characters and if I was about to read about my kind of mundane everyday life, I’d rather live it than read about it.

Helle Helle is a renowned writer in Denmark, she won prizes and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense was awarded the Prix des Libraires in France. I’m not going to say it’s a bad book but that it didn’t work for me. Obviously some readers better informed than me found it excellent. If you want to read something positive about this novel, here’s Jacqui’s review.

 

  1. August 7, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Well, I think Jacqui very nearly abandoned it as well. I had a little bit of the same feeling with ‘The Neck of the Giraffe’ – although that was slightly more interesting, perhaps because the character was thoroughly nasty and making very piercing remarks about everyone else – but it just went on for too long and nothing else much happened, other than following this person and her sadness around.

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    • August 7, 2015 at 5:05 pm

      I was hoping to read ‘The Neck of the Giraffe’ sometime, Marina. Now, probably not 🙂

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      • August 7, 2015 at 5:30 pm

        It’s worth reading, I think, but just a bit long (despite it being only 200 pages long). I’ll put up a review of it shortly.

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        • August 10, 2015 at 5:39 pm

          Will look forward to reading your review of the book, Marina 🙂

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    • August 8, 2015 at 9:32 pm

      Well, a nasty character helps spicing things up. I’ll stay away from The Neck of the Giraffe.

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  2. August 7, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    Sorry to know that you didn’t like it as much as you had hoped to, Emma. I love the title – “This should be written in the present tense”. I remember the first time I read a novel which was written in the present tense and it was such an exciting and novel experience. These days though, many authors write a whole novel in the present tense. The lines you have quoted make me think that either the author thought that she would write in a plain style like Hemingway and get applauded for it or this was her first novel and she was just writing her observations from everyday life – a popular style among beginner novelists. When I tried writing a novel, I wrote a lot of passages like this. When I showed it to a publisher and editor, the editor marked those passages with a blue pen and threw it back at me 🙂 I hope you enjoy your next novel better.

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    • August 7, 2015 at 5:04 pm

      I forgot to ask you one thing, Emma. Is Vincent Delerm related to Philippe Delerm?

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    • August 8, 2015 at 9:35 pm

      Thanks Vishy.
      The title is great and reflects how Dorte lives in the present time. She doesn’t think further than what she currently doing.
      I don’t think this one was Helle Helle’s first novel.
      You need to be very gifted to give mundane things a literary flavour. Some writers do it very well. This one didn’t work for me.

      After that, I had a blast with Fun & Games and the Roth I’m reading is excellent, as usual with Roth.

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  3. August 7, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    Sorry it didn’t work out for you. I do plan probably to read this (a rather indefinite plan I admit), so I hope I get along better with it.

    I do like your description of the signs of impending book-abandonment. I recognise them too…

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    • August 8, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      I’m curious to read your thoughts about it. I suspect you’ll have more patience than me with Dorte.

      There really are signs telling you a book will be abandoned. I’m better at recognizing them and at forgiving me for not finishing the book.

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  4. August 8, 2015 at 3:08 am

    I didn’t get this post for some reason. Too bad you didn’t care for it as I know you wanted to read more Danish books.
    I was talking to someone the other day who told me she’d been working on a book for 3 months and found herself not picking it up for weeks at a time: impending abandonment, I’d say.

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    • August 8, 2015 at 9:50 pm

      You might have missed other ones. Is it a WP problem or do they go into your spam box?

      I’m doing the same thing as your friend with La Chartreuse de Parme. I read it easily as a teenager and now Fabrice’s reactions seem so out of proportion. (Like Mathilde de la Mole’s, now that I think about it)

      Like

  5. August 8, 2015 at 8:54 am

    I’m sorry this book didn’t work for you, Emma. It is a curious one with the potential to divide readers. As Marina mentioned, I very nearly put it aside after the first 40 pages but something about Dorte’s voice kept nagging away at me. I’m wary of putting labels on characters, but I wondered if she was depressed or suffering from another mental health condition.

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    • August 8, 2015 at 9:52 pm

      I remembered you had almost abandoned it too. I tried to persevere but the symptoms were too strong. 🙂
      I asked myself the same question about Dorte. Sometimes she sounds like Maria from Didion’s novel, the passages in the hospital. It seems that what we read is the recollections of a mind recovering from a nervous breakdown or a meltdown.

      Like

  6. August 9, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    I’ve just finished reading this (I’m going to see Helle at the Edinburgh Book Festival soon) and I must admit I was a little non-plussed, but, Like Jacqui, I assumed that Dorte was suffering from depression.

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    • August 13, 2015 at 10:08 pm

      How interesting.
      Please, if you talk to Helle Helle and you get pointers on her book, come back and tell me what she said.

      PS : will you write something about the Edinburgh Book Festival? I’m curious!

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