Tove Jansson’s “Travelling Light”

Originally published in Swedish in 1987, Travelling Light has finally been published in English and is another fine addition to the Tove Jansson bibliography. It is a collection of twelve short stories that bear all the Jansson hallmarks: finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, commenting on human psychology, juxtaposing witty asides and harsh dialogue with moments of deep sadness, and with a strange humour lurking beneath it all. Most of the stories are around ten to fifteen pages in length, with central story “The Garden of Eden” by some distance the longest at around forty pages, and all are thoroughly engrossing.

Jansson never gets bogged down in description or crafted similes; her prose is extremely clean and precise – not a word is out of place, nothing is extraneous. As such, it can both be read as quite devoid of familiar literary devices but also as a wonderfully refrshing change of scenery. To use “clean” and “precise” is not to mean boring or lacking in personality; these stories are resolutely not boring – I often came away from the stories with the feeling that I had never read anything quite like it. Jansson’s talent for writing about the surprising psychological aspects of the everyday and the ordinary is quite breathtaking, and she finds the most imaginative yet believable situations to write about. For example, an apparently simple story about a teacher and his partner leaving the city for a short break (“The Gulls”) becomes a comment on existential despair and the power play in relationships. A woman visiting a relative in a foreign country (“The Garden of Eden”) explores the interference of friends and the unspoken social rules and hierarchies inherent in small communities. A dinner party between friends (“The P.E. Teacher’s Death”) is interrupted by brutal dialogue and musings on the nature of life and suicide.

None of the stories ever feel mechanical, or like Jansson is trying to weave something together to give a clever moral message at the end. Nothing is spelled out. Instead, the reader is left with a series of vignettes, of situations, of ideas, and is left to make up their own mind. For me, this makes these stories all the more powerful and effective. If one got the sense that Jansson was trying to be “clever,” the stories would devolve into little more than quirky set pieces. As it is, she lets the stories breathe and gives them space to be what they are, and sometimes what they are initially may appear to be something quite simple. But there’s a depth and richness there, and it’s easy to be deceived by her lack of florid language, but there’s so much going on. She varies her narrative voice from story to story: sometimes first-person, sometimes third-person, sometimes male, sometimes female, and it makes for a diverse and consistently interesting collection. Her dialogue is simply wonderful, and the characters she writes about are often not scared of being rather forthright and rude, often humorously so.

Jansson of course deserves the credit for crafting such unique, beautiful, sad, funny stories, but kudos must also go to translator Silvester Mazzarella for his great work, to Ali Smith for an insightful introduction, and to Sort Of Books for bringing this work to English and to a new audience. It seems that there are a few more Jansson works yet to be translated into English, and I look forward to them eagerly.


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Poem of the Day: Ted Hughes – “Pike”

Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads-
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: red fry to them-
Suddenly there were two. Finally one

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb-

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks-
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them-

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly toward me, watching.

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Billie Holiday – Lady Sings the Blues (1956)

Published in 1956 and ghost-written by William Dufty, Billie Holiday’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues” was later made into an Oscar-nominated film and has perpetuated some of the myths surrounding Holiday’s eventful life. But while Dufty may be ghost-writer, make no mistake that this is Billie in her own words. The streetwise phrases, the patois, the slang, it’s all there. What emerges is a distinctive narrative voice. It is perhaps a cliche to say it reads like a diary, but more than any other autobiography I have read there’s a real closeness, intimacy, and a complete lack of holding back.

So what, if these are Holiday’s words, was Dufty’s role? A writer and editor at the New York Post, Dufty was married to Billie’s friend Maely and the book was written from conversations with the singer at the Duftys’ New York apartment (as well as from previous interviews.) But it’s so clearly Billie that you almost forget Dufty’s involvement beyond editing and fashioning it into a presentable, readable state (but Dufty does deserve major credit for bringing the book to life.)

Billie comes across as tough and streetwise but with a heart of gold. There may be factual inaccuracies along the way (her mother and father are not believed to have married, and were a little older than the book states) but the voice is so vivid and absorbing. “Lady Sings the Blues” takes us from the poverty of her Baltimore childhood through her spell in a Catholic reformatory institution after she was molested as a child to the bright lights but harsh realities of Harlem, where Billie found herself in jail for prostitution and then became a surprise star on the Harlem club scene.

We learn all about the advent of her singing career, tempered by episodes of horrifying racism, ill-fated relationships, and heroin addiction that, after her one-year jail term in 1947-48, cost her lucrative spots in New York night clubs. In between there are numerous delightful episodes with a surprise cast of characters including Clark Gable, Sarah Vaughan, and Lana Turner, and asides about her views on drug addiction and the healthcare system of America compared to Europe. The chapter about her European tour in 1954 is one of the book’s most heart-warming and heart-breaking at once; here is a woman filled with joy and excitement about going to Europe and finding herself genuinely surprised and delighted by the positive reception she gets, the warm-hearted fans, the knowledgeable critics, and the newspapers that do not skew her words.

It’s a book I couldn’t put down. Vivid and full of life to the last, it seems to echo Billie’s policy of dusting herself off and carrying on. There’s no preaching or self-pitying, and while the story is often unbearably tragic, Billie herself never comes across as a tragic figure. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s funny, but she’s never tragic or miserable. In the end, it’s a pretty inspirational story. The fact that she died only three years after its publication adds an extra poignant note to proceedings. It’s difficult to get cold hard facts about a life as tangled and shrouded in mystery and myth as Billie Holiday’s, but “Lady Sings the Blues” is a wonderful companion to her music and, with an enlightening introduction and short essay on the picks of her discography by critic David Ritz, this 50th anniversary edition is the way to go.

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Informative, in-depth, objective, respectful – Graeme Thomson’s Kate Bush bio is one to treasure

I loved this book.

Graeme Thomson deserves a huge amount of credit for not only conducting some (useful and insightful) research and interviews with key people, but for sculpting his work into a biography that is immensely readable, well-crafted, and genuinely engrossing. It’s a biography that goes pleasingly in depth about Kate Bush’s life and career without mining for needless gossip or tabloid tittle-tattle; instead, it’s a respectful yet objective look at one of our most fascinating, original, and talented creative artists – a fine line difficult to navigate, but one Thomson pulls off remarkably well.

Anyone with a genuine knowledge of Kate Bush will already know that the tabloid reports of a strange, reclusive, “witchy” character are laughably inaccurate and that the truth is more that she acts just as any normal person would – she does her job, and then she lives her life in private. It just happens to be that her ‘job’ is making music, which of course leads to publicity, naturally. After reading the book, you really get a sense of Kate Bush the person – warm, genuine, determined, normal, but not without the odd endearing eccentricity – alongside Kate Bush the artist – hard-working, experimental, committed. Thomson’s insights are well-judged and more than once I felt he was articulating exactly how I felt about her and her music but hadn’t been able to properly express. His writing style is accessible but sophisticated, lending the book the air of a proper critical analysis as opposed to some previous biographies, which felt like extended magazine articles.

The book is excellent throughout but a few episodes are memorable, such as the new interviews with old schoolfriends of Bush from the 1970s shedding some light on her childhood. The information about the album sessions and recording processes is fascinating, and even the most ardent Kate Bush fan would acknowledge that the book reveals some interesting insights that perhaps they did not know before. The list of interviewees is impressive – producers, record company men, musicians, dancers, friends – and it seems the only people who did not grant new interviews were Kate’s family and her longest collaborator, Del Palmer, perhaps understandably. Even so, without the input of the closest in her circle, the book feels deep, rich, and well-rounded. This is the biography that someone of Kate Bush’s stature deserved, and it more than delivers. There will not be a better one. Quite possibly the best rock biography I have read to date – a triumph.

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Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles: Volume 1”

Last month, I finished reading the first (and to date, lone) volume of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and found it an utterly engrossing read.

Anyone who listens to Dylan’s records will know him as a superior, talented wordsmith, but it was reading his prose – crackling, sparky, full of wit and sometimes surprising amounts of emotion – that finally really made me connect with him as a writer. His lyrics are evocative and poetic, as is his prose, but he has a real talent in the latter form for narrative exploration and character-developing.

Dylan wouldn’t do something so boring as a chronological account of his life and times. This doesn’t start in 1941 and end in 1961, with a promised second volume all about his ’60s heyday. Oh no. Instead, Dylan focuses on a few select periods of his life and career – his time spent performing in New York City before getting his record deal, his life in Woodstock with his family, but persecuted by the press and over-zealous fans, in the late ’60s, and his time in New Orleans in the late ’80s recording Oh Mercy with Daniel Lanois.

Each different time period is given due credit, due respect, and each one is made interesting and alive by the sheer power and accessibility of Dylan’s beautiful way with words.

I came away from this book feeling like I knew Dylan a little better, maybe understood his music a little better, and inspired to follow his example. As good as any rock star autobiography you’re likely to read.

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Carol Ann Duffy’s World Cup poem

In a couple of previous posts, I’ve not been very complimentary about Carol Ann Duffy’s latest work as Poet Laureate, but her new poem “The Shirt,” written in response to England’s poor performance at the World Cup, is a definite improvement. It feels, to me anyway, a lot less stilted and forced. Part of me thinks the alliteration and assonance is somewhat overdone, but it doesn’t grate and I do actually think it fits.

If she writes more like this, I could get on board. If she offers up dollops of shite like “Achilles,” that’s another matter.

Afterwards, I found him alone at the bar and asked him what went wrong. It’s the shirt, he said. When I pull it on it hangs on my back like a shroud, or a poisoned jerkin from Grimm seeping its curse on to my skin, the worst tattoo.

I shower and shave before I shrug on the shirt, smell like a dream; but the shirt sours my scent with the sweat and stink of fear. It’s got my number.

I poured him another shot. Speak on, my son. He did.

I’ve wanted to sport the shirt since I was a kid, but now when I do it makes me sick, weak, paranoid.

All night above the team hotel, the moon is the ball in a penalty kick. Tens of thousands of fierce stars are booing me. A screech owl is the referee.

The wind’s a crowd, forty years long, bawling a filthy song about my Wag. It’s the bloody shirt! He started to blub like a big girl’s blouse and I felt a fleeting pity.

Don’t cry, I said, at the end of the day you’ll be back on 100K a week and playing for City.

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Carol Ann Duffy strikes again with election poem

Another crock of shit from the pen of the Poet Laureate. An election poem entitled “Democracy”:

Here’s a boat that cannot float.

Here’s a queue that cannot vote.

Here’s a line you cannot quote.

Here’s a deal you cannot note …

and here’s a sacrificial goat,

here’s a cut, here’s a throat,

here’s a drawbridge, here’s a moat …

What’s your hurry? Here’s your coat.

Believe me, I get that she’s writing about popular events. I don’t mind this. Whether it’s the election fiasco or the state of David Beckham’s feet, I’m all for her, well, doing her job as Poet Laureate. But come on, this is not good poetry. It’s not abysmal poetry, and there are some things to enjoy about it, but overall I find it insipid, weak, and at its worst predictable and annoying. Which is not the standard I expect from a Poet Laureate.

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Poem of the Day: “Metrical Feet” (Coleridge)

Metrical Feet

TROCHEE trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks, strong foot!, yet ill able
Ever to come up with Dactyl’s trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long.
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.
One syllable long, with one short at each side,
Amphibrachys hastes with a stately stride —
First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer
Strikes his thundering hoofs like a proud high-bred Racer.
If Derwent be innocent, steady, and wise,
And delight in the things of earth, water, and skies;
Tender warmth at his heart, with these meters to show it,
WIth sound sense in his brains, may make Derwent a poet —
May crown him with fame, and must win him the love
Of his father on earth and his father above.
My dear, dear child!
Could you stand upon Skiddaw, you would not from its whole ridge
See a man who so loves you as your fond S.T. Colerige.

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Tove Jansson: “The True Deceiver”

I hadn’t read any of Tove Jansson’s work prior to this, and knew pretty much nothing about her. Basically she was a Finnish (but Swedish-speaking) writer and artist who became most famous as the creator of the Moomins. As a result, her adult fiction (she focused exclusively on adult fiction from the early 1970s onwards) is comparatively neglected and undervalued. The True Deceiver was published in Swedish in 1982, and it has taken until 2009 for the first English translation to appear. Thomas Teal did the wonderful job.

I bought the book on the strength of this review I read on the train…-true-deceiver

I wasn’t disappointed. The prose is precise and cold almost; it’s maybe the least sentimental book I can think of reading (my recently-read Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat is pretty unsentimental too). It’s not “look how lovely and idyllic this snowy Swedish village is.” It’s about the harshness and coldness and severity of the Scandinavian winter.

The plot is simple – a social outcast but trusted maths genius, Katri Kling, is poor, in her twenties, and responsible for her teenage brother Mats. She decides that she is going to live in the “rabbit house” of famous children’s author Anna Aemelin in the same village (the house resembles a rabbit) because she wants to give Mats a better, more secure life. So she takes advantage of a robbery in the village by faking a break-in at the Aemelin rabbit house to convince Anna she needs companionship and the security of having someone living with her.

The rest of the novel is essentially about the power struggles between the pair, a psychological tussle. Katri is ambitious, cold, reserved, honest, and Anna is innocent, creative, lackadaiscal. Over time, the roles gradually seem to be reversing. Anna becomes much colder, while Katri seems to take on a more emotional personality at points. It’s also extremely subtle and while both Katri and Anna do seem to take on elements of the others’ personality, it’s not as prosaic and boring and obvious as a clean switch. It doesn’t end with any kind of resolution, which I think is a good thing. It leaves things hanging. It’s quite haunting.

There is some wonderful imagery here and some insightful observations. I think there are a couple of reviews that say it better than I do, but this is a unique and strange and beautiful book perfect for the winter. I think in time I will come to read Jansson’s other works.

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Poem of the Day: “I Am of Ireland” (WB Yeats)

A 1933-published poem by William Butler Yeats

I Am of Ireland

‘I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,’ cried she.
‘Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland.’

One man, one man alone
In that outlandish gear,
One solitary man
Of all that rambled there
Had turned his stately head.
That is a long way off,
And time runs on,’ he said,
‘And the night grows rough.’

‘I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,’ cried she.
‘Come out of charity
And dance with me in Ireland.’

‘The fiddlers are all thumbs,
Or the fiddle-string accursed,
The drums and the kettledrums
And the trumpets all are burst,
And the trombone,’ cried he,
‘The trumpet and trombone,’
And cocked a malicious eye,
‘But time runs on, runs on.’

I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on,’ cried she.
“Come out of charity
And dance with me in Ireland.’

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