Book Review: Travelling Light (Tove Jansson)

In the continuing discovery of translations of Tove Jansson’s various writings for adults, something becomes ever clearer: thirteen years ago the literary world lost a great talent. The twelve stories in this collection are, for the most part, absorbing, but significantly they mark a shift of form. It becomes evident that the stories collected in Jansson’s previously reviewed A Winter Book (Sort Of Books, 2006; from stories originally written between 1968-71 and 1991-98) are chosen specifically for the overall semi-autobiographical effect. Travelling Light (Sort Of Books, 2010; from the original Swedish Resa Med Lätt Bagage, published by Schildts Förlags Ab, Finland, 1987; English translation by Silvester Mazzarella) is a collection of characters other than Jansson herself, encompassing themes of disorientation, the balancing act of isolation and connection, and the inescapability of our ways of being.

Such wordiness is not becoming of Jansson’s fine clipped prose. Her characterisations tend to sit well and cleanly in the mind, even if sometimes given only a brevity of pages. Within this more eclectic range of people pressed into the lines, even the character in the title story seems more at ease: this piece also having been included in A Winter Book, Jansson’s first person male narrative there feels a little incongruous. Here, the character of Mr Melander is surrounded by other stories that don’t make him jump out sharply from the whole.

Also here, regarding characterisations in the Travelling Light collection, Jansson presents two elderly men, in The Hothouse, whose quiet squabbling over a bench used for reading and contemplation leads to some mutual respect and even longing; there is a well-drawn but loathsome child, in The Summer Child, who casts doom and gloom over his island hosts; a woman tends to an injured lover, following an unknown and unnamed external catastrophe in the rather prosaically titled Shopping, yet there is an edge of the psychological drama creeping in.

Indeed, it is this edge that is a welcome shift in Jansson’s writings (or in this reviewer’s readings of what has washed up on the shore of the desk to date). Elis, the summer child, certainly presents as disturbed but also as desperately and quietly missing something. Jansson writes:

Elis buried the grebe up near the road to the town where there had been a forest fire and there was nothing left among the tree stumps but willowherb; trust him to find a spot like that. He put up a cross with a number on it. Number one. Other graves followed — rat-trap victims, birds that had flown into windows, poisoned field-mice, all solemnly buried and numbered. Sometimes Elis would remark in passing about all the lonely graves that had no one to care for them. ‘And where is your own family graveyard? I’m interested. Do you have a lot of relatives buried there?’

In Shopping, Emily goes out at dawn whilst Kristian recovers from an injured leg, but there is the nagging feel that whilst she ‘shops’ (that is, loots), she also ‘keeps’ Kristian: is Kristian being told the whole truth there behind the boarded up window? In other stories, Jansson attempts the same feel but to varying degrees of success. In The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, for example, Stella returns to a studio apartment she used to live in fifteen years earlier and where, now, Wanda occupies the place. Wanda tells Stella that really it was she, Wanda, to have been benevolent to Stella in her parties there and not, as Stella believes as true, the other way around. There is an undertow, for sure, but Jansson does not quite set the tone as cleanly as she could have done. There is the motif of a more modern lift installation which recurs in the tale, but it doesn’t play itself out fully into enlightenment.

In The PE Teacher’s Death, Jansson has her characters arranged in a somewhat stiffly-put dinner date, deliberately drawn in the manner of received wisdom on social etiquette. Whilst some observations are succinct enough, the attempts at psychological disturbance fall a little short. Henri’s wife, Flo, wavers in her coming to terms with the eponymous character’s demise, an environmentalist, and with the social rigour of the occasion, at the house of Nicole, whose husband, Michel, a property developer, is away. The effect of the whole, however, doesn’t quite strike true enough. The same can be said for the lead character, Viktoria Johansson, in The Garden of Eden. That she is a professor visiting her God-daughter, who is suddenly called away, in Spain is fine enough; even that she begins to fall into all the social trappings that might appear in any other place does not perturb the reader: however, that Viktoria so readily manages to assume mediator role between two feuding women, and the delicate potential psychological nuances in the microcosm, feels a little out of kilter with believability.

In respect of disorientations, of sorts, in An Eightieth Birthday, young May and her partner meet a group of ‘real artists’. May is told:

In the whole silly business [of life], the only thing that really matters is passion. It comes and goes. At first it just comes to you free of charge, and you don’t understand, and you waste it. And then it becomes a thing to nurture.

Later, regarding a flowering bird cherry seen on their walk, May hears:

What can you do with something like that? Just let it flower . . . Look, here’s our lovely hostess! Isn’t that right — shouldn’t we just let it flower and admire it? It’s one way to live. Trying to recreate it is another. That’s what it boils down to.

It is a small nudge out of social ways they are otherwise expected to engage in for May and her partner, Jonny. In The Gulls, Jansson returns to island retreat territory in placing over-stressed Arne, child-like in his dependence on Elsa, far from the urban crowd. It is a transition Arne struggles with, and he seeks the love and patience of Elsa who, in her nature-knowledgeable ways, chooses to hide small pieces of the brutal real world from him. Jansson is really far more at home in this sort of landscape than in the urban territory. In A Foreign City, for example, small disorientation attempts aside, the reader feels as claustrophobic in the words as Jansson may well have done amongst the bricks and stones.

There is light, in The Forest, and love, in Correspondence (which also features in A Winter Book). In the former, Jansson relates a short tale of two brothers: the narrator assumes the mantle of father-figure to the younger boy, and though there are darknesses of child-fear here in the story-telling, there is also a deep understanding of what it is to be this age. Of the boys’ imaginings of being out, as Tarzan, Jansson writes:

When we came home to eat, Anna [the hired help] asked what we’d been playing and my son told her we were much too old to play. We were exploring the jungle.

‘That’s nice,’ said Anna. ‘You go right ahead. But do try not to be late for supper.’

Travelling Light ends with Correspondence: this being a collection of letters from Jansson’s young Japanese admirer, Tamiko Atsumi. The affect is just as powerful as is delivered by its inclusion in A Winter Book, and it’s fitting that this collection should end so poignantly. This passage, from the staccato English prose that peppers the text throughout, leaves the reader aching:

It’s been snowing all day.
I’m learning to write about snow.
Today my mother died.

It is love, it is light in both its forms, and it encompasses disorientation, isolation and connection, and — in Tamiko’s resignation that Jansson won’t receive her in Finland (Tamiko’s next line highlights a subtlety: ‘When you’re the eldest in your family in Japan, you can’t leave home and you don’t want to’) — there is also an inescapability of our ways of being.

There is no doubt that Jansson’s contribution to the written form encompasses the crisp, the clean, the sharp, and the beautiful.