Friday 10 August 2012

Art in Nature - Tove Jansson

I’ve probably mentioned before my envy of those readers who can eagerly await the latest novels from their favourite writers, doubtless following them on Twitter and keeping an eye out for their appearances on late-night BBC programmes, etc. etc.  Well, I don’t have any of that.  All the authors I love are dead.  But one thing I do look forward to with joy is Sort Of Books commissioning more translations of Tove Jansson’s books, mostly under the excellent translating skills of one Thomas Teal.  These are slowly and steadily emerging, so that I can track their arrival with the same keenness which others (I presume) await tid-bits from @margaretatwood.

The latest-translated Tove Jansson book was published in 1978 as Dockskåpet which, I have no reason to doubt, is rendered into English as Art in Nature.  It is a collection of short stories, with ‘Art in Nature’ as the first.  Usually I have to be in the right mood to tackle a volume of short stories, but there are two short story writers – Jansson and Katherine Mansfield – whom I found so good that I will love them whenever I pick them up, whatever mood I am in.

As usual, Jansson rather defies any attempt to spot a unifying theme.  The blurb has opted for ‘witty, often disquieting’ in which Jansson ‘reveals the fault-lines in our relationship with art, both as artists and viewers.’  It is true that there are a number of artistic people who crop up in these stories – from a cartoonist to an actress, from the painter of trains to the constructor of miniature furniture – but Jansson’s gaze is, as usual, turned upon the wider canvas of humanity itself.  It always feels a little pretentious to say that Jansson’s topic is human behaviour, because isn’t that what all writers and artists use as their topic? – but someone Jansson seems more perceptive and more precise in her examination, so that the matters of plot and setting fall away beside the details of human life she unveils.

But that is too vague for a review.  It’s how I always feel about Jansson’s writing, but it doesn’t really help you know how this collection differs from any of her others, does it?  Well, Art in Nature contains two of my favourite Jansson stories yet.  One is ‘A Sense of Time’ which is about a boy and his grandmother – the grandmother has lost her sense of time; she will wake him up at 4am to give him his morning coffee, or insist that he goes to sleep in the middle of the afternoon.  It’s a rather clever little story, more reliant on beginning-middle-end than Jansson usually is.  It also includes a little sentence which helps illustrate what I like about Jansson’s subtlety:
Grandmother let her thoughts move on to John, wondering in what way he’d grown old.
I loved that she didn’t write ‘whether or not he’d grown old’, or even ‘how old he’d grown’, but ‘in what way he’d grown old’.  It immediately makes me think of all the possible ways of growing old; how Grandmother has identified different manifestations of age in her different friends; her experience of aging.  Lovely.  My other favourite story was ‘The Doll’s House’, where Alexander begins to build a model house, gradually excluding his partner Erik.  It’s all very gentle and slow and observant.  It feels appropriate that Katherine Mansfield should have written a story with the same name, albeit a very different story.  Here’s another instance of a small matter of phrasing revealing Jansson’s cleverness (I’m assuming the Swedish does the same):
The house rose higher and higher.  It had reached the attic, now, and had grown more and more fantastic.  Alexander was in love, almost obsessed, with the thing he was trying to create.  When he woke up in the morning, his first thought was The House, and he was instantly occupied with the solution to some problem of framing or a difficult staircase or the spire on a tower.
The word ‘almost’!  It turns the story on its side, a little.  I had prepared myself, by then, for a tale of obsession – for the reductio ad absurdum narrative of a man whose life is taken over.  And indeed that quality is there, in the background, but that ‘almost’ shows how measured Jansson always is.  These are still recognisable people; their actions and reactions are unlikely to be extraordinary or irrational.

Here’s another excerpt, from the story ‘White Lady’, about three women going for drinks together and reminiscing:
Regina said, “Green, white, red, yellow!  Whatever you’d like.”  She laughed and threw herself back in her chair.
“Regina, you’re drunk,” Ellinor said. 
Regina answered slowly.  “I hadn’t expected that.  I really hadn’t expected that from you.  You’re usually much more subtle.” 
“Girls, girls,” May burst out.  “Don’t fight.  Is anyone coming to the ladies with me?” 
“Oh, the ladies’ room, the eternal ladies’ room,” said Ellinor.  “What do you do there all the time?  The whole scene was like something from an early talkie, with too much gesturing.  It wasn’t a very good film; the direction was definitely second-rate.  “Just go,” she said.  I want to look at the fog on the ceiling.”
Jansson excels at depicting awkwardness, disappointment – particularly the disappointment between expectation and actuality.  Which is ideal for creative subjects, of course, as well as the tensions between friends and relatives.  Whenever Jansson writes about illustrators (as she does at length in The True Deceiver, for example) it is tempting – if reductive – to read her own experience with the Moomins into them.  In ‘The Cartoonist’, the popular cartoonist of weekly comic strip Blubby absconds:
“It was their eyes,” said Allington without turning around.  “Their cartoon eyes.  The same stupid round eyes all the time.  Amazement, terror, delight, and so on – all you have to do is move the pupil and an eyebrow here and there and people think you’re brilliant.  Just imagine achieving so much with so little.  And in fact, they always look exactly the same.  But they have to do new things all the time.  All the time.  You know that.  You’ve learned that, right?”  His voice was quiet, but it sounded as if he were speaking through clenched teeth.  He went on without waiting for a reply.  “Novelty!  Always something new.  You start searching for ideas.  Among the people you know, among your friends.  Your own head is a blank, so you start using everything they’ve got, squeezing it dry, and no matter what people tell you, all you can think is, Can I use it?”
How much did Jansson recycle from her own life?  How much did she feel her own ability to depict amazement, terror, delight, and so on – whether with pen or paintbrush – was redundant?  Possibly not at all; possibly Allington is just a character in a story.  I don’t know.  But she certainly had no need to feel inadequate – in fact, considering how many of these stories are about creativity, I suspect she did recognise the value of the creative arts, and she is one of my favourite practitioners of them.

There were two or three stories in Art in Nature which didn’t work for me – one about a monkey, a couple longer ones towards the end which seemed to meander a bit – but I have enough experience with Jansson to suppose that I’d probably enjoy them more another time, or under different reading conditions.  For the most part, this collection is yet another arrow in a quiver of exceptionally good books.  Do go and pick this up, or any of her previous books (although people tend like Fair Play least) if you have yet to try this wonderful writer.  And thank you, Thomas Teal and Sort Of Books for continuing to make her novels and short stories available to an English-speaking audience.  Long may you keep doing so!  As Ali Smith says, on the back over, ‘That there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure.’


  1. What a great review! I've just finished reading this too, and really enjoyed it although I must say not QUITE as much as her other books. I'm not sure why, since it is stuffed with brilliant stories, I don't think she could write a bad one. I share your excitement every time I see there's more of her work being translated!

    I felt that the cartoonist story was in part a clever joke on her part, as if she were playing with exactly that blurring of art and nature/life that her readers would be bound to wonder about.

    Have a lovely weekend!

    1. Thanks so much Helen!
      I do love her stories, but I also long for more novels...

  2. Doesn't the original title mean something like "Doll's House"?

    1. Ah, that makes sense, that's another one of the stories in there.

  3. That's a lovely review Simon. I'll keep an eye open for this, as I've not read it yet, but Jansson is one of my Great Discoveries this year, and I love the books I've read so much that I want everyone else to read her and love her too!

    1. Thanks Christine! Well, if you loved her others, you'll definitely love this! I do adore her books so much.

  4. That's a lovely cover! Love the excerpts you've shared here. I have only read Fair Play and did enjoy it. I've also listened to the BBC production of The Summer Book, but thought it was just so-so. I guess I should get around to reading the book proper.

    1. Sort Of Books do produce the most wonderful editions.
      And Fair Play is actually my least favourite of her books (although I do still love it) so you definitely have some treats in store!


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