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: “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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Carol Ann Duffy’s Beckham poem = NO.

I’ve never particularly liked Carol Ann Duffy’s work, finding it exceedingly banal, lacking in skill and technique, and often disconcertingly amateurish. I say amateurish with particular pointedness considering she has recently been appointed Poet Laureate.

But now it appears she is plumbing new depths of absurdity with her Beckham-inspired poem “Achilles.” Oh look! Beckham injured his Achilles tendon! I know – let’s equate that with the Greek myth because the Achilles tendon and the mythological figure Achilles… wow they’re linked! That’s never been done before! I could get over the mind-numbing simplicity of such a link were it not for clumsy, ugly lines like “And it was sport, not war, his charmed foot on the ball.”

Given that Beckham’s injury only took place two days ago, it’s evident that this was a quick affair. But maybe the Poet Laureate ought to have spent a few more hours on polishing up this particular turd.

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Muriel Spark: “The Driver’s Seat”

My previous experience with the work of Muriel Spark was her 1959 novel Memento Mori, which I read last year on something of a whim. But I’d always heard good things about The Driver’s Seat, her 1970 novella, so opted to try it out as my next Spark.

The copy I read was a trusty leather-bound library edition from the year of publication – 40 years ago now – with previous readers’ annotations colouring my perceptions along the way. It was a short read, at only 160 pages in big text, but my goodness does it stay with you. I can’t quite remember the last time a novel left quite an impression.

The Driver’s Seat challenged my views on the narrative and the role of character; giving away the fate of the main character, the completely bizarre but quite sad Lise, in the third chapter of seven is a stroke of genius that I certainly hadn’t expected. Lise as a character is one of the most intriguing I’ve ever come across; the narrative isn’t omniscient and there are lots of “maybe she thought this” or “she might have done this”: nothing concrete. I like that. Lise’s quirks and foibles are obviously borne out of a mental illness, and she’s not exactly likeable, but there’s an inherent melancholy to her humdrum, bland life.

I also loved the other characters who pop in and out: the friendly (if a little batty) elderly lady Mrs Fiedke, a trove of would-be suitors for Lise like Bill and Richard, and the girls at the store where Lise buys her garish clothes.

I don’t want to reveal more of the plot or the style, but suffice it to say that if you haven’t already read The Driver’s Seat, I highly recommend you do. It won’t leave you in a hurry.

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Poem of the Day: “White Heliotrope” (Symons)

White Heliotrope by Arthur Symons (1895)

The feverish room and that white bed,
The tumbled skirts upon a chair,
The novel flung half-open, where
Hat, hair-pins, puffs, and paints are spread;

The mirror that has sucked your face
Into its secret deep of deeps,
And there mysteriously keeps
Forgotten memories of grace;

And you half dressed and half awake,
Your slant eyes strangely watching me,
And I, who watch you drowsily,
With eyes that, having slept not, ache;

This (need one dread? nay, dare one hope?)
Will rise, a ghost of memory, if
Ever again my handkerchief
Is scented with White Heliotrope.

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Poem of the Day: “Dublinesque” (Larkin)


Down stucco sidestreets,
Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops
Above race-guides and rosaries,
A funeral passes.

The hearse is ahead,
But after there follows
A troop of streetwalkers
In wide flowered hats,
Leg-of-mutton sleeves,
And ankle-length dresses.

There is an air of great friendliness,
As if they were honouring
One they were fond of;
Some caper a few steps,
Skirts held skilfully
(Someone claps time),

And of great sadness also.
As they wend away
A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy,
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty.

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Poem of the Day: “Wolfwatching” (Ted Hughes)


Woolly-bear white, the old wolf
Is listening to London. His eyes, withered in
Under the white wool, black peepers,
While he makes nudging, sniffing offers
At the horizon of noise, the blue-cold April
Invitation of airs. The lump of meat
Is his confinement. He has probably had all his life
Behind wires, fraying his eye-efforts
On the criss-cross embargo. He yawns
Peevishly like an old man and the yawn goes
Right back into Kensington and there stops
Floored with glaze. Eyes
Have worn him away. Children’s gazings
Have tattered him to a lumpish
Comfort of woolly play-wolf. He’s weary.
He curls on the cooling stone
That gets heavier. Then again the burden
Of a new curiosity, a new testing
Of new noises, new people with new colours
Are coming in at the gate. He lifts
The useless weight and lets it sink back,
Stirring and settling in a ball of unease.
All his power is a tangle of old ends,
A jumble of leftover scraps and bits of energy
And bitten-off impulses and dismantled intuitions.
He can’t settle. He’s ruffling
And re-organizing his position all day
Like a sleepless half-sleep of growing agonies
In a freezing car. The day won’t pass.
The night will be worse. He’s waiting
For the anaesthetic to work
That has already taken his strength, his beauty
And his life.

He levers his stiffness erect
And angles a few tottering steps
Into his habits. He goes down to water
And drinks. Age is thirsty. Water
Just might help and ease. what else
Is there to do? He tries to find again
That warm position he had. He cowers
His hind legs to curl under him. Subsides
In a trembling of wolf-pelt he no longer
Knows how to live up to.
And here
Is a young wolf, still intact.
He knows how to lie, with his head,
The Asiatic eyes, the gunsights
Aligned effortless in the beam of his power.
He closes his pale eyes and is easy,
Bored easy. His big limbs
Are full of easy time. He’s waiting
For the chance to live, then he’ll be off.
Meanwhile the fence, and the shadow-flutter
Of moving people, and the roller coaster
Roar of London surrounding, are temporary,
And cost him nothing, and he can afford
To prick his ears to all that and find nothing
As to forest. He still has the starlings
To amuse him. The scorched ancestries,
Grizzled into his back, are his royalty.
The rufous ears and neck are always ready.
He flops his heavy running paws, resplays them
On pebbles, and rests the huge engine
Of his purring head. A wolf
Dropping perfect on pebbles. For eyes
To put on a pedestal. A product
without a market.
But all the time
The awful thing is happening: the iron inheritance,
The incredible rich will, torn up
In neurotic boredom and eaten,
Now indigestible. All that restlessness
And lifting of ears, and aiming, and re-aiming
Of nose, is like a trembling
Of nervous breakdown, afflicted by voices.
Is he hearing the deer? Is he listening
To gossip of non-existent forest? Pestered
By the hour-glass panic of lemmings
Dwindling out of reach? He’s run a long way
Now to find nothing and be patient.
Patience is suffocating in all those folds
Of deep fur. The fairy tales
Grow stale all around him
And go back into pebbles. His eyes
Keep telling him all this is real
And that he’s a wolf–of all things
To be in the middle of London, of all
Futile, hopeless things. Do Arctics
Whisper on their wave-lengths–fantasy-draughts
Of escape and freedom? His feet,
The power-tools, lie in front of him–
He doesn’t know how to use them. Sudden
Dramatic lift and re-alignment
Of his purposeful body–
the Keeper
Has come to freshen the water.

And the prodigious journeys
Are thrown down again in his
Loose heaps of rope.
The future’s snapped and coiled back
Into a tangled lump, a whacking blow
That’s damaged his brain. Quiet,
Amiable in his dogginess,
Disillusioned–all that preparation
Souring in his skin. His every yawn
Is another dose of poison. His every frolic
Releases a whole flood
Of new hopelessness which he then
Has to burn up in sleep. A million miles
Knotted in his paws. Ten million years
Broken between his teeth. A world
Stinking on the bone, pecked by sparrows.
He’s hanging
Upside down on the wire
Of non-participation.
He’s a tarot-card, and he knows it.
He can howl all night
And dawn will pick up the same card
And see him painted on it, with eyes
Like doorframes in a desert
Between nothing and nothing.

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Muriel Spark: “Memento Mori”

The Daily Mail has a “retro review” piece today about Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, one of my personal favourite books.

I don’t think I had ever read a book so centred around older people; I could probably count the under-70s on one hand. What this novel is is a darkly witty, wry commentary on the lives and attitudes of not just old people but the attitudes of society in general towards old people.

Spark’s style is often quite harsh and abrupt, brusque even, but there’s a healthy dose of humour and quirky little scenes peppered throughout. It’s a fluid, quick, enjoyable read; not what you’d call “plot-driven,” but sometimes the best novels aren’t. It’s the dialogue and the characterisation that works wonders here. Her portrayal of Charmian Colston’s supposed dementia isn’t sentimental or cloying – instead it’s workmanlike, practical, in the best sense. You don’t get any “woe is me” passages here. As such, the novel retains a speedy quality that helps it attain page-turner status.

Reading blurbs about a cast of old age pensioners in a retirement home may make you think immediately of cosy Sunday evening family dramas. You’d be mistaken for thinking that Muriel Spark could fall into the same trap.

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