EIBF 2015: Helle Helle, smashing symbols

I have never before heard an author who not only strongly rejects the very idea of the intentional fallacy as Helle Helle, but she also seems appalled that readers might accidentally find symbolism in her work. Things are what she says they are and are only given significance by the way they relate to the character who is observing them. Nothing more.

It’s almost outrageous to anyone with even a passing interest in literary criticism; so impossibly arrogant that I suspect the huge signing queue after her event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday night was swelled with people who had come along having never heard of her but were by then fascinated and overawed by her confidence. I’m pretty sure almost everyone in the audience that night bought a copy of her book, This Should be Written in the Present Tense, there and then. She was, I should stress, also very charming and friendly and often self-effacing, and she clearly knew that her position was a difficult one to swallow.

In her native Denmark, the event’s chair Lee Randall told us, Helle has won every literary prize going and is one of the country’s “most-read and best-loved authors”. The novel, which was originally published in 2011, is the first of her many works to be translated into English, making it eligible for the EIBF first book award this year. It has, she said, “a tiny plot” — a girl of 20 rents a house near the railway into Copenhagen where she is supposedly attending university, but isn’t: “She’s drifting around going to cafeterias, spending all her money in charity shops, hanging out with a young poet and there are a few young men there. She is drifting along, that’s what it’s about.”

I’ve begun to read it and, as the chair pointed out, despite the fact it’s short it is extremely dense and not at all a quick read. Every word counts.  She will always have the first and last sentence of a book before she can write, she said, and a character that interests her.

“Every day I get up in the morning and start writing. For a long time it doesn’t work. I might spend a year writing the first 20 pages. Everything has to be there on the first pages and I end up thinking just two good sentences today, or just one or three. I think in sentences, so I’m very close to every word. It doesn’t make sense to me to write anything that doesn’t have meaning. I want every word to have a meaning. Then one day there are enough sentences that merit a novel.”

But what meaning? Like anyone else would, Randall’s reaction to the fact her character, Dorte, is living by a station on a railway connecting her childhood and adult life, was to ask if that was significant.

“Oh, so you find the station symbolic?” Helle asked. “It’s not. I always have stations and trains and boats.”

To be able to assert so calmly that a reader’s interpretation is wrong was jaw-dropping. You can’t just do that, can you? It seems she can and will at every opportunity. Later, she said, when talking about how she supplements her income by doing events at schools, talking about her short stories, she will “explain how they should read them and understand them and that there are no symbols”.

No, the main reason she chose the location was, she said, was: “It’s good for me to write from small places, out in nowhere, where people can get stuck  there are not so many buses and trains. People can get stuck … Also, this book takes place in the 80s because I don’t think I can get cellphones into my books because they are so disturbing, they take away the focus and people disappear from where they really are, it’s much better without them.”

There’s something brutally existential about her writing. It’s a procession of incidents described by what people see or do or say, and as far as I can see, never what they think or feel. When I mention to her after the event that the few pages I’ve had time to read remind me of nothing so much as Camus’ The Outsider she seems extremely pleased at the comparison. (I do hope Dorte’s not heading for the guillotine, though.)

Randall asked her about something Helle had previously said was important to her, that she’d noticed her parents, when asked how they were, would always answer by saying what they were doing: “I really wanted an answer like ‘I’m fine,’ and my mum would say, ‘I’m waiting for my sister,’ or my dad would say, ‘We’re going to have a new roof,’ or something.”

This, she continued, informed her own writing, because we don’t get to know what’s really going on inside people: “I don’t write what they feel or think, I write what they do and what they say because that’s what it’s all about, and that’s how we view each other all the time. I can’t read you, so I move around and can study you and maybe I get some thoughts about how you are.”

I suppose this must mean that she is hoping that if you describe the exterior, physical life of a person precisely, all observers will necessarily read the internal life in exactly the same way, the way she intends, so that everyone is reading the same book in the same way. If she has pulled that off, that is one hell of a feat, or perhaps that’s just how she measures her success, how close she comes to that ideal.

She can’t have completely succeeded with this intention, though, as flicking through the book in the signing queue I come across a reference to Gary Larson’s classic Far Side cartoon about Midvale School For the Gifted and mention it to her. Apparently no-one in Denmark got it. if none of her readers understand what Dorte means when she refers to it, can they really understand her thoughts at that point or her disappointment that her companion doesn’t either?

Anyway, back to the talk. Was there a reason, Randall asked, why she could recall everything Dorte eats because it’s described in such detail, but something as significant as an abortion happens in a couple of lines, barely noticed?

“People have said to me in Denmark, it’s so strange that Dorte is having an abortion and I write three lines about it, and there’s a whole chapter about buying Danish pastry in a baker’s shop. I guess it works better when you don’t use many words for the important stuff. It really does. It’s much harder that way, if you don’t describe it too much. Maybe it’s just because I’m not very good at describing feelings.

“If a young girl, she is the main character and it’s written in the first person, so she tells the story and when she talks very little about an abortion and then she talks so much about buying pastry, that says a lot. It is easier to talk a lot about things that don’t mean that much.”

Which is an observation on human nature and interaction so accurate yet obvious I’m surprised I’d never heard anyone articulate it before so simply.

She isn’t just a fan of writers who write sparingly, too, though. She described how she has had a “Virgina Woolf summer” having visited her house in Brighton. So she doesn’t have a problem with metaphor and symbolism by other writers, it seems. The title of the book itself, though is taken from someone who was also fond of concision: “It is written in the past tense. I took the title from Samuel Beckett, actually. Because I was reading his novel Molloy and that book all the time comments on the text while it is written. Then on page 23 it says ‘all this should be written in the past tense’. I thought, ‘I’ll take that for my book.'”

The audience questions included one that brought out an interesting fact about Danish arts funding. Although, she said, many authors in a small market such as Denmark is do rely on translations to make a living, there is a generous grant system and the Lifetime Award of the Danish Arts Council isn’t just an honorary title, it’s something she can fall back on, even though she doesn’t need to at the moment. “It’s a kind of insurance, in bad years, I would get some money, so that I can survive, so it’s a great honour, but it’s also nice to think about that, there are bad times sometimes. We have to support our literature in Denmark to support the language.”

The Danish language was also the subject of a revealing anecdote about translation, which is that she was told by someone who had worked on international subtitles for shows such as Borgen and The Killing that they are much better dramas in translation, because in the original Danish everyone talks far too much, and the translations cut through to the essence of the script.

To close, the final question was about what she saw as the purpose of writing.

“As a child when I read a book, I found out that I was completely away from this world and at the sae time even more alive than I was normally. Maybe that’s why I write because books can do that and I can have that feeling when I write. What’s more important is that is what literature is — at the same time you can be completely away from this place and be so aware of this place, too.”

There was much more and although she often claimed her English wasn’t good enough to communicate what she meant to say, she seemed clear to me. Bafflingly obstinate about the most basic tenets of literary criticism, certainly, but a truly fascinating and commanding presence.

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