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Posts Tagged ‘Tove Jansson’

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

The Listener was Tove Jansson’s first collection of stories for adults. A recent read for #witmonth it proved a good choice for a period when I was in a very strange reading mood. Jansson’s clear, crisp prose, clear vision and her delicate philosophy was a delight to dip in and out of.

I came to Tove Jansson quite late – the Moomins completely passed me by as a child – and I only ever heard of Tove Jansson as an adult. I adored The Summer Book and A Winter Book, and I fully intend to explore more of her work – and while I enjoyed The Listener a lot I didn’t think it was quite at the standard of those other two. One story in this collection – The Squirrel is also in A Winter Book – as it was one of my favourites from that collection, it was lovely to encounter it again.

There are eighteen pieces in this collection – which only runs to 157 pages, so some of these stories really are very, very short indeed, and so rather difficult to write about. I shall attempt therefore to just give a slight flavour of the collection – but I certainly feel as if there is a limit to what I can write about this one.

Jansson’s stories portray a city ravaged by storms, the beauty of the start of spring, childhood, old age and love. There is some quite lovely imagery here – and as ever her prose is a simple joy. Characters are introspective, thoughtful, and philosophical. A couple of stories veer towards the supernatural, but with a delicacy that never strays too far from reality. Artists feature prominently, as does light and scenery – Jansson’s descriptions are always spot on.

“In this naked light, all of winter’s traces are visible not least in a face. Everything becomes distinct and turns outwards, exposed, penetrated by the light. People come out of their holes. Perhaps they’ve survived the winter in flocks or maybe alone, willy-nilly, but now they appear and make their way to the harbour, the way they always do.”

(In Spring)

The Collection opens with the title story. Aunt Gerda is a good listener, but old age is impacting on her memory, she fears what this might mean for her. Her solution to her forgetfulness is to create a unique artwork that will record the secrets that have been confided in her, but while it preserves these secrets it will also betray them.

“It seemed to her the window was a great eye looking out over the city and the harbour and a strip of the gulf under ice. The new silence and emptiness was not entirely a loss; it was something of a relief. Aunt Gerda felt like a balloon, untied, soaring off its own way. But, she thought, it’s a balloon that’s bouncing against the ceiling and can’t get free.
She understood that this was no way to live; human beings are not built to float. She needed an earthly anchor of meaning and care so she didn’t get lost in the confusion.”

(The Listener)

In The Birthday Party – two sisters throw a birthday party for their young niece – inviting a number of local children to their home. The niece herself doesn’t arrive – and the bemused aunts, clearly unused to children – or how to behave around them – try desperately to keep the party going. The way Jansson portrays these clueless women, so out of their depth is just brilliant.

“‘Come in,” said Miss Häger. “Please, go right on into the sitting room, where there’s room for everyone. Don’t stand in the doorway, go right on in …” The children went into the sitting room. She clapped her hands and cried, “Now you can start to play! What game would you like to play?” They stared at her without answering. Vera Häger went out into the kitchen and said, “You’ve got to come, right now, right away. It’s not working.”
        Her sister lifted the platter with the decorated ice cream and said, “What do you mean? What’s not working?”
         “The party. They’re just standing around. I don’t think they like me. And Daniela hasn’t come.’”

(The Birthday Party)

Black-White – is one of the longest pieces – and one of those I liked the most. It is a homage to the artist Edward Gorey. The artist in the story is an illustrator – married to Stella, they live in the house she designed. The artist is working on a collection of fifteen black and white illustrations for a book – he is inspired to use darkness in the illustrations – yet all around him in the house where they live there is just too much light. Stella suggests that he use her aunt’s old house which is standing empty in which to work. The artist packs up this things and goes to the house, where he will be alone.

In Letters To An Idol a woman writes often to an author who she admires. In time, he actually writes back – and soon after that they meet. A story which demonstrates perfectly that meeting those we admire can be problematic.

In The Wolf an elderly woman meets a Japanese man Mr Shimomura who is an illustrator for children – he specialises in drawing animals. He has asked to see some dangerous animals; he draws a wolf to demonstrate what he would like to see. So, despite the cold, and her advancing years, the woman accompanies him to a zoo – to show him a real wolf.

I mentioned The Squirrel above – the story I read before – it is still a thoroughly beautiful piece of writing, so delicately observed. An old woman living in a small house on an island, looks out of her window one day and sees a squirrel. She muses about how it came to be on the island, probably drifting over on the driftwood that washes up on the shore. Her life becomes oddly caught up with that of this little creature – her fascination in it increases. The squirrel affecting her quiet, ordered little existence on the island in unexpected ways.

The Listener is beautiful little collection of stories, Jansson’s prose is the star of the show – and I am reminded once more how I really must explore more of her work.

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Translated from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson came into my life because of my very small book group, it was one I already had had tbr for a long time. Tove Jansson is beloved of many because of both her tales for children and her stories for adults. Somehow, I didn’t hear of the Moomins until I was an adult, they completely passed my childhood by. Yet, I was assured that I would love Tove Jansson, and I did, though of the two Jansson books I have read to date, A Winter Book is definitely my favourite.

Ali Smith writes a wonderful introduction to this edition. Her affection for Jansson’s storytelling is obvious.

“The very thought of it made me feel giddy. Slowly, slowly, the world was turning, heavy with snow. The trees and houses were no longer upright. They were slanting. Soon it would be difficult to walk straight. All the people on earth would have to creep.”

(from Snow)

I love short stories, and these are definitely the type one can read in great greedy gulps – there is a delicious calmness to Jansson’s prose. Heart-warming and vividly described – Tove Jansson brings the landscape and people of her childhood and old age to life, though largely autobiographical these pieces are stories not memoir. There is a lightness of touch here, a quiet wisdom and gentle humour – a real joy of a read.

Parts one and two of A Winter Book; Snow and Flotsam and Jetsam come originally from The Sculptor’s Daughter, stories inspired by Tove Jansson’s childhood in Helsinki. Her family part of the Swedish speaking minority in Helsinki. Beautifully, depicting the mind and imagination of a child, the collection opens with The Stone – in which a young girl finds what she believes to be an enormous rock of precious metal. With extraordinary strength and grim determination, she rolls the rock homeward.

We catch some tantalising glimpses of Tove Jansson’s bohemian household – the parents of her child characters here a sculptor and an illustrator like her own, clearly drawn from life. In Parties – a young girl delights in listening to her father’s parties from her bedroom.

“I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music, and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes.

It’s not worth looking, because if you do everything you’ve imagined disappears. It’s always the same. You can look down on them and there they are sitting on the sofa or the chairs or walking slowly up and down the room.”

(from Parties)

In other stories we meet Annie – who revers the work of Plato, and who helps the young narrator collect bird-cherry branches, as the gypsy had told her to. Poppolino, a family pet monkey, Albert a childhood friend, and Jeremiah a geologist, and an old fisherman Charlie.

There are stories of the sea, boats and flotsam and jetsam of the shore, and of course the island made famous in The Summer Book. In, The Boat and me, the girl describes the boat she was given when she was twelve, and the first solo trip she took in it.

In part three; Travelling Light, Jansson turns her attention to matters of maturity, ageing in particular. In probably the longest story in the collection; and one of my favourites, The Squirrel, an elderly woman living in isolation on an island, becomes obsessed with a squirrel who has most probably drifted over to the island on a piece of drift wood. The squirrel is not a reliable visitor – but the old woman watches out for him and discovering he has been nesting in the wood pile – divides it up between them.

“The logs must be carried, carefully, to the exact place where they were needed. The person carrying them must herself be like a log: heavy and ungainly but full of strength and potential. ‘Everything must find its place and one must try to understand what it can be used for…I carry more and more steadily now. I breathe in a new way, my sweat is salt.’”

(from The Squirrel)

Correspondence is told in letters, based on the real life correspondence of Tove Jansson with a young Japanese fan.  

These stories are pretty much little pieces of perfection, exquisitely told. I shall not wait too long before reading my other collection of Tove Jansson The Listener. I see from the contents, that the two collections have one story in common – but that doesn’t matter.

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the summer book

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

witmonth2017As August draws to a close, I am sneaking in under the wire with my final read for Women in Translation month – and reviewing very slightly out of order to do so.

“Wise as she was, she realized that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they’re eighty-five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself.”

The Summer Book, is a book much loved by many people, and has been chosen by my very small book group as our September read. It’s a slight book, of apparent simplicity, its charm however is in that deceptive simplicity. There is a delicious clarity to Jansson’s prose – which beautifully mirrors (I can only imagine) the clean air of the Island in the Gulf of Finland of which she is writing. It is a book full of quiet wisdom, humour and love. There is a brusqueness to Jansson’s storytelling, a subtle tenderness which is never sentimental or overblown. I can see why it is so greatly loved by people whose opinions I trust.

“An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”

Shockingly this was my first ever experience of Tove Jansson, I didn’t even read the Moomins as a child – and only became aware of them as an adult. Thanks are due to Karen, who sent me this book an absolute age ago. Books have a tendency to disappear into the depths of the tbr bookcase never to be heard of again. So, while it might have taken a while for this book to float to the surface, it did so at a perfect moment – and I read it over one long, lazy Sunday, transported to a place of extraordinary natural beauty.

summerhouse2The Summer Book tells the story of an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia as they spend a summer together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. Tove Jansson, wrote The Summer Book shortly after losing her mother – the character of the grandmother was based on her, the character of Sophia based on her own beloved niece, also called Sophia. In the foreword to this edition Esther Freud tells of her visit to the Island and her meeting with the now adult, real life Sophia.

It is spring as the novel opens, and little Sophia wakes up in the small, island cottage to the knowledge that she has the bed to herself because her mother has died recently. Sophia’s grandmother is never far away, who despite her advancing years is a lively, imaginative companion, full of fun, as well as the wisdom brought by great age. Sophia’s father is also present on the island, but he remains very much in the background throughout the novel. The story of their summer is told through a series of vignettes, with titles like; The Cat, The Tent and The Enormous Plastic sausage.

Over the course of the summer, Sophia and her grandmother explore the island’s flora and fauna, spending hours in the ‘magic forest.’ They discuss what heaven might be – the subject of loss and death ever present. We see Sophia unable to cope with the loss of a palace she and her grandmother have made – so her grandmother stays up all night to make a replacement.

“She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.”

Sophia is encouraged to explore the simple joy of sleeping in a tent, and must learn something about how the reality of something she wants does not always match the dream in a chapter about a cat that is given to her.

“It’s funny about love’, Sophia said. ‘The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.’
‘That’s very true,’ Grandmother observed. ‘And so what do you do?’
‘You go on loving,’ said Sophia threateningly. ‘You love harder and harder.”

There are so many lovely little stories within this book, including an episode of house breaking, that the grandmother drew Sophia into when another house on a neighbouring island shows signs of being got ready for occupation.

In grandmother and Sophia’s company we meet visitors and neighbours, suffer disappointment and delight, and experience the unpredictability of the surrounding seas.

This was a lovely little read, and I’m sure I will read more Tove Jansson now – having read The Summer book I really should go for The Winter Book next I suppose.

tove jansson

 

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