My evening with Helle Helle

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I met a star last night. Novelist Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s best-known and most respected contemporary writers. She’s won numerous awards – and I had the honour of not just meeting her, but also sharing a stage with her and spending an hour chatting about our books.

The event was at the ninth Henley Literary Festival, which this week sees book lovers attending more than 170 writing-related talks in the picturesque Oxfordshire town famous for its regatta.

Helle and I were talking with translator and writer Daniel Hahn. It was a felicitous grouping, as Reading the World and This Should be Written in the Present Tense, Helle’s first novel to be translated into English, are both published in the UK by Harvill Secker, a publisher that Hahn also often translates for.

Despite apologising for her (near-perfect) English, Helle spoke powerfully about her writing process and the way she created the quiet, intimate and enthralling world of her novel, in which lead character Dorte drifts through her days, taking the train into Copenhagen but never attending the university course on which she is enrolled.

I was particularly interested by Helle’s comments on what writing means to her. She used a sentence from her book as an example: ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control, they were both of them teachers.’

The humour in this sentence came from the lack of a conjunction, she said. If she had written ‘They couldn’t keep the weeds under control because they were both of them teachers’ or ‘They were both teachers so they couldn’t keep the weeds under control’, the sentence would be flat. It was the lack of conjunction that left the space for that dash of wry humour.

This was the key to literature for her: playing with language and seeing how it worked and making it do interesting things.

Afterwards, we chatted in the green room about the Danish television series that have taken the world by storm. Helle revealed that she wasn’t much taken with The Bridge but she’d loved the first season of The Killing.

Then it was back on the train to London for me – and a long spell sitting at a red signal which meant I missed the last tube home. Although it wasn’t as epic a journey as the night I went to speak at the Hilt in Hampshire, it did mean I didn’t get back until 1.30am.

There’s no rest for the wicked, though, as I’m writing this on a train bound for Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, where I’m taking part in an event at Wigtown Book Festival tomorrow. Here’s hoping this journey goes smoothly – and that the next discussion is every bit as fascinating…

Denmark: office politics

The Exception by Christian Jungersen was one of several books suggested by Danish book blogger Christina Rosendahl. I was grateful for the tip-off as Danish-to-English translations are not particularly common and my knowledge of the literary scene in Denmark is, well, probably slightly less extensive than my grasp of 18th century marquetry.

In actual fact, Rosendahl’s words about this novel weren’t the most glowing of recommendations – she said it was ‘quite good’. However, the subject matter intrigued me, and, as it’s a thriller, I thought it might make a welcome contrast with some of the other books I’ve been reading this year.

The story turns around four women working at the Danish Centre of Genocide Information. Tasked with collating, curating and archiving data about the world’s atrocities, they come under strain from a series of pressures to do with budget cuts, politics and their own loyalties and foibles that skew and twist the office dynamics. But when two of them receive death threats, the working environment takes a turn for the poisonous and it’s not long before the barbarity they document comes crashing into their comfortable lives.

Office dynamics are Jungersen’s speciality. Adept at isolating and revealing the mechanisms that enable people to be ‘so dishonest with themselves that they aren’t even aware of what they are doing’, he lays bare the steps by which ordinarily decent people can victimise and bully a colleague, all the while believing they are doing nothing wrong. This is rendered all the more impressive by the split narrative, which sees the story told through the eyes of all four women, and the weaving in of theories about the psychology of those who commit acts of genocide, which enables Jungersen to draw interesting parallels with the mental violence perpetrated in the office.

Jungersen gets round the problem of having to shoehorn a lot of background information and theorising into the novel by having several of the characters write articles about the psychology of genocide. This emphasises the ‘cognitive dissonance’ through which they are able to hold several conflicting ideas in their heads at the same time, acting cruelly while maintaining a belief in their own goodness – just as they write pieces about the mental mechanisms of ‘evil’ without applying them to their own lives.

Nevertheless, he labours the point a little towards the end, even quoting a section from one essay twice in case the reader has somehow missed the comparisons he is drawing. Similarly, although generally well handled, one or two of the more outlandish twists in the plot – which, without giving too much away, brings a Serbian war criminal into the orbit of the women’s workplace – are a little hard to swallow.

By and large, though, this is a gripping, thought-provoking and intelligent piece of work. It makes us question the patterns we  play out in our day-to-day lives and acts as a powerful warning against the sort of lazy pack mentality that can be all too easy to slip into. It was a jolly good pageturner too.

The Exception (Undtagelsen) by Christian Jungersen, translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson (Phoenix, 2007)