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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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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