Helle Helle: Beautiful Tales of Forgotten People

The unknown 'debut' novelist Helle Helle is a multi-award-winner and apparently Denmark's most popular author, writing since the early 90s. It's just taken the English-speaking world time to catch up. Here she explains the banal beauty of her work.

Feature by Dominic Hinde | 03 Nov 2015

Helle Helle has just answered a ten minute, three part question from an Edinburgh International Book Festival audience member, about the significance of shoes and glasses of water in her writing. It is apparently standard routine for the Danish author abroad, with foreign audiences keen to read her work as delicate highbrow literature.

You see, Danish culture is currently hot in Edinburgh, with a City Link festival having taken place in 2015, designed to bring Danish artists to Scotland and export Scottish ones to Copenhagen. It has meant a flood of interesting Danes in the Capital, and some of Edinburgh's finest visiting their eastern neighbour. The aim is not to dress up either country as a neat package for export, but to let the two meet on their own terms outside of the stereotypes, whether they be about highbrow Nordic intellectuals or tonic-swigging Scots.

And so, back to Helle Helle – visiting Edinburgh back in summer – and her unwilling attachment to that aforementioned stereotype.

“I don’t write to be difficult,” she explains. “What I write is my language, because that is where I am coming from.” And where Helle is coming from is important to her work, and also explains her unusual name. Born Helle Olsen, she adopted her mother’s maiden name early in the career, hence the double Helle. Her characters are from beyond the city, jogging around lost in the forests of windswept Jutland, living in abandoned smalltown railway stations or manning the cash registers on ferries across the Baltic. Their dislocation has proven a strange attraction for her international public.

“I had someone tell me that they found Rødby – Puttgarden, my novel about two women working the perfume counter on the train ferry from Denmark to Germany, exotic because he had never considered that those people had whole lives when they got up from the checkout,” says Helle. “He lived in Berlin and was literary, but these people were opaque to him.”

A Passive Way of Living

Helle’s single English language work, This Should be Written in the Present Tense, has a similarly low-level tone. Its main character, early 20s university dropout Dorte, is intriguingly normal in her compulsions and her insecurities. After inviting a couple to stay the night in her home, she then maintains the charade of being a hardworking student by taking the train to Copenhagen for non-existent classes.

Dorte is lost, but no more than anybody else. The style may be more serious, but at times she is deeply reminiscent of her Norwegian contemporary Erland Loe’s naïve drifters on the periphery of Nordic society, engaged in a banal and largely inconsequential but still entertaining adventure.

“I used to go to Copenhagen, ostensibly to study, but spent a lot of time floating around the city instead,” she says. It is a passive way of living well suited to her literary style. Throughout her work there is a sense of ambivalence encapsulated by descriptions of the mundane practicalities of the everyday. Her characters do not achieve great things, instead settling in the cracks.

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Sat in the temporary village of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and on the final pen-swipe of a seemingly infinite signing queue, Helle admits she forgets which of her releases she is supposed to be talking about. In front of her, alongside stacked copies of This Should be Written... is her latest Danish release, so new it has not been translated at all.

“You write a book and then it comes out in one language, then you write another but as far as foreign audiences are concerned you are a debut author.” It is a distorted chronology that means Helle, active since the early 1990s and widely translated, is up for Edinburgh’s prize for debut authors. It also means she is something of an unknown quantity for the crowd packed into one of Edinburgh’s smaller marquees to see her. Even the session chair admitted to knowing almost nothing about Helle’s work or its background, hopefully clutching a translated novel in the hope it might yield some answers.

“Maybe it’s better explained in English,” ponders Helle as she tries to describe her approach to writing and to implement it. The sentences come alternately in English and Danish. “There are some things you can only say in Danish though,” she reflects.

“It’s a challenge, every time you go somewhere new you have to re-adjust and people are always reading a translation. My English translator Martin Aitken was always emailing me, asking and explaining things.” By way of illustration, Helle points to her latest book. Its title Hvis det er is almost unstranslatable. "You can’t even say it in Norwegian," she laments. The title is something akin to ‘if you like’, “but you have to listen to the intonation,” says Helle, picking up the book and sliding it across the table. “You can have this hvis det er,” she nods to make her point.

Helle and Language

It is obvious Helle spends a lot of time thinking about her language. Form is a central plank of all her writing and it is testament to her ability that she has made the jump overseas to critical acclaim with subject matter that does not correspond to either of the dominant strands of Scandinavian literature export (Noir and Feelgood). Her sparse, pared down language is the polar opposite of the deep rambling attention to detail that made Karl Ove Knausgård a household name. Nor is the dysfunctionality of her characters endearingly quirky like many other Nordic exports of late. In English or in Danish, Helle’s books are economically written and finely balanced. 

“It shouldn’t be abstract though,” she emphasises. “I’m always driven to write about things I am most connected with and write in a way that fits the people I am writing about.” Continuing with the suggestion that “it is not supposed to be a hymn to the trivial, but you do write about the small things.”

Her style may not be gritty, didactic or overly naturalistic, but Helle is also that increasingly rare thing, a working class writer. “I guess I am one, and my characters are like that. I’m not a political writer, at least not in the strictest sense. I have never set out to write a book that tries to comment on or illustrate the conditions of the working class, but I do write about things I find recognisable,” she ponders.  “I think one of the things you can say is that these tales of people not managing particularly well or who don’t have everything gives an energy to my language.”

The result is a unique and appealing world outside of the mainstream,  expertly seen through the eyes of someone who observes without judging.  Helle’s real talent is to take you from your own mundane reality and into someone else’s, if you like.

The paperback edition of This Should be Written in the Present Tense is out on 5 Nov, published by Vintage, RRP £8.99