Regular readers of S-i-a-B will know that Tove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, and a new translation of her work (this one by Silvester Mazzarella, with another brilliant introduction by Ali Smith) will get me into the literary equivalent of a tizzy. I have to be in the right mood for reading short stories usually, but when they come from the pen of Tove J, they race to the top of the reading pile. And these were no exception.
Unlike Jansson's best known adult work, The Summer Book, these stories don't share the same sorts of settings and characters. We range from familiar Scandinavian islands to mysterious woods to the cabin of a ship to - most innovatively - an almost post-apocalyptic town. Though the scenarios vary wildly, each is clearly the work of the same writer, for Jansson brings to each and every story a stirring and extraordinary insight in the workings of the human mind and - more especially - the interaction of people. These people often covertly clash with each other, or don't let on everything they are thinking; they feel awkward, distrustful, inadequate. Characters often say things which are disconcerting because they are so unexpected, but also because they are so perceptive and true.
"Anyway, solitary people interest me. There are so many different ways of being solitary."
"I know just what you mean," said X. "I know exactly what you're going to say. Different kinds of solitude. Enforced solitude and voluntary solitude."
"Quite," said Viktoria. "There's no need to go into it further. But when people understand one another without speaking, it can often leave them with very little to talk about, don't you think?"
That comes from 'The Garden of Eden', one of the longest and one of my favourite stories in the collection. The mid-length story is so difficult to get right - it doesn't have the quick impact of a five page story, but also shouldn't meander too much. 'The Garden of Eden' gets it just right in its depiction of Professor Viktoria arriving in a mountain village west of Alicante, and trying to create a truce between two warring women. There are so many layers to the story, none of them overblown, and the whole piece is wonderfully more than the sum of its parts.
But Jansson's insights into human character don't preclude her beautiful descriptions of the natural environment. I was particularly taken with this, from the same story:
At that exact moment the setting sun broke through a gap in the mountain chain and the twilit landscape was instantly transformed and revealed; the trees and the grazing sheep enveloped in a crimson haze, a sudden beautiful vision of biblical mystery and power. Viktoria thought she had never seen anything so lovely. She remembered once a set designer saying, "My job is to paint with light, that's all it is. The right light at the right time." The sun moved quickly on, but before the colours could fade, Viktoria turned and walked slowly back to her house.I don't really read in a visual way, as it were, but this description really worked for me - and it's typical of the beautiful images that Jansson places congruously alongside the interaction of flawed and interesting characters.
If I had to choose just one story as my favourite, it would be 'The Woman Who Borrowed Memories' - a deliciously, deviously clever story concerning the reunion of two women, and the disunity of their shared recollections. One is vampirically changing and appropriating the other's memories - all shown very subtly, very believably. It represents everything I love about Jansson's 'touch'.
'The Summer Child' is about a disconcerting child visitor, anti-social but not malevolent:
When it came to giving people a bad conscience, he was an expert. Sometimes all he had to do was just look at you with those gloomy, grown-up eyes and you would instantly be reminded of all your failings.I wonder if Jansson was thinking of her own writing when she wrote those words. The human mind and soul cannot be held up to such close inspection without the reader glancing at their own. But although Jansson exposes so many home truths, entirely without sentimentality, Travelling Light is far from a depressing or distressing collection. Instead, it makes you marvel with fascination, soak in the wonderful prose, and be grateful that there existed someone with so precise, perceptive and unpredictable a view of the world.