Review of Reviews 2014

As the end of the reading and writing year is upon us, I have been considering the content of my various reviews over the past twelve months. What follows is an admittedly lengthy piece but one which, I trust, can be returned to or read in sections: it is a piece that can be analysed in itself, certainly. The collection of sixteen titles reviewed in 2014 forms just a proportion of total reading content in the past year; however, the reviews that have been inspired by these books do offer the opportunity for this writer to further engage with the process of writing. To be better writers we must continue to read, to analyse, and to learn.

What follows is a review of the reviews of those sixteen titles. The salient aspects of each review have been republished in this post, re-worded for greater clarity in some cases, and roughly categorised (anonymising here, for the most part, regarding comment references to particular authors). The intention is that each comment can stand alone as a point of reflection for writers in consideration of their own work.

This review of reviews has been a process of reading, analysis and synthesis in itself. It embraces various short story collections, novels, novellas, and a form of travel-journal. Twelve authors’ works are included, namely: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Diego Marani, Javier Marías, Gabriel García Márquez, Christopher Burns, Tove Jansson, Esther Freud, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Ben Okri, and Bruce Chatwin. The original reviews can be found via the left-hand side bar.

The review points to follow offer this writer some food for thought. I trust that they can do likewise for you too.
 
Openings
• The author tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can.
• There is an interesting opening idea and we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery.
• However, the author’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether.
• The ever-increasing reading hope that the author’s opening line will, at some point, amount to something fails to materialise.
 
Reader engagement
• Something may be happening. A reader must care.
• A story not entirely believable might be forgiven (a reader might go with the flow).
• The author exercises skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time.
• He has the ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print.
• Moments of magic realism left unnurtured cause some reading dissatisfaction.
• What we are left with is something that lingers, certainly.
• Of a collection engaging with semi-autobiographical material: we can suspend our imaginations for a certain period and indulge in the idea that pure fictions are present, but at the back of the reading mind is the knowledge of something different taking shape.
• The effect of the story must strike true enough.
• Obscure literary references: some are more easily comprehensible than others.
• Also avoid the relentless and frankly irritating insistence of including foreign language as the primary source of much dialogue, followed by English translations or vice versa (as if to say, grandiosely, ‘look I speak French/am French and how superior I must be’).
• The gracelessness of the exploration is a growing agitation in the read.
• The author’s meandering, sometimes unfathomable writing style jars repeatedly.
• It is the rambling, unintelligible, non-contextual aspect of the author’s writing that is the most bafflingly frustrating.
• Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here the author throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that the main character is somewhere and somewhen else. It isn’t at all clear what is going on.
• A reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in what appears to be the middle of another without forewarning.
• The main character narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy.
• This book is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the author, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways.
• Whilst it remains fine to meander, some of the tellings of tales appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.
• The author meets and references a great many people in his exploration, with noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory, but the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances.
• The author offers up pages of excerpts from his previous notebook travels, some of which provide succinct pause for thought, but the overall effect rather spoils the narrative drive of the whole.
 
Fictive suspension/flow
• Fictive suspension must be maintained.
• In a semi-autobiographical collection, writing as another gender disturbs the fictive flow: a certain degree of interest is lost because, in the context of the collection as a whole, this just does not fit; the nagging returns as to who is narrating here.
 
Brilliance and beauty
• Expertly describes bleaknesses and deftly describes raw power and beauty.
• Describes small slices of scenes with colour and delicate words.
• He has the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail.
• The author does offer up moments of linguistic flourish.
• As delicate and as beautiful as an object found on a beach.
• A string of beautiful arrangements.
• In places, sprinkled with beautiful description.
• The author weaves in some beautiful imagery and sensory assemblages of market places.
• There are some small successes in playing with language.
• The author is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought.
• There are moments of quoted poetic beauty.
 
Clumsiness
• Avoid jamming into a narrative apparent knowledge of the nuances of a subject matter in clumsy ways.
• The writerly device of a character narrating to the author a personal shared back-story tale (memories of place, times, objects) can feel somewhat clumsy.
• Do not set up titles for books by way of contrived conversations between characters.
• There is a proliferation of clumsy similes.
 
Identity of a book
• Pay attention to the potential for a crisis of identity (what is this book trying to be?)
• One story is confused in its descriptions, place, time, and reason for being.
• What is it that is the heart (not at the heart) of this book?
• The author does not seem to know what this book is: is it some discourse on metaphysical angst, an exploration of meta-fiction, detective-mystery magical allusion, or any or none of the above?
 
Body of work
• The practice of ‘writing on writing’ (as in building on the body of work), can be a useful device for development of the art form, but the body of work must have an integrity regarding its development (every writer’s quality of output will shift over time).
• A story might be ‘re-purposed’, by altering the title, character names and setting of a previous story.
• A story collection can form from ideas for a novel.
• ‘I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time’ — Márquez (the whole process took some eighteen years).
• Characters may be linked across the author’s body of work (there being a penchant for returning characters, as would seem to be the case).
 
Characters
• Names are used in dialogue to introduce characters, or to try to indicate who says what next. This feels somewhat amateurish.
• If we’re to immerse in the voices of characters presented to us, we need to be able to differentiate between those characters.
• Characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page.
• The author has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history).
• There are believable patterns of lives, though in sometimes slightly fabulous ways.
• The author seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: a promising opening; offering us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters.
• There is slight irritation in the author’s choices of flat, almost prosaic, character names: Simon, Peter, Mary, Andrew, Neville, Tony, et al (should we place our characters so blatantly in their landscapes by such choices, or can we afford to exercise more in the way of flourish and embellishment in this respect?)
• We bow down to the nature knowledge of one of the characters and suppose that it is true.
• None of the wisdom portrayed is dispatched in a holier-than-thou or preached manner.
• Can a character be seen as ‘a real child’? That is, it can be easy to slip into the trap of writing a child character in stereotypical sugary-sweet form; or, would an average child want to use words such as ‘aristocratic’ in speech?
• It is perplexing that a character referred to as existing on an island does not become in any way concrete for the majority of a book, and does not speak until three pages from the end. That he’s subtly eased off the frame of the page is a little off-putting.
• There are gradual interactions between characters.
• There is a concern though: little love can be shown to either of the main characters by the reader.
• A third character is the pivot, and the author has successfully sketched him in the neutrality that is required in order for the other characters to be as shaded as they are.
• Katri Kling, in her hardness, and Anna Aemelin, in her softness, have perfect names for their characters.
• In short story collections, surround a character by other stories that don’t make him/her jump out sharply from the whole.
• She exhibits a deep understanding of what it is to be child age.
• The author carefully and gradually draws a picture of the main character.
• Such is the author’s skill at writing from the younger child’s perspective (not in saccharine sweet stereotyped ways) that she manages to convince us of the magic of place at the same time as slowly unfolding the frustrating mother character.
• However, more psychological damage should have been caused to one of the child characters as a result of the mother character’s actions.
• Avoid extremely sketched and ridiculous stereotypes.
• The main character presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of the author himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence.
• The author surrounds the main character with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about and stare off into the evening sky. Those characters are reminiscent, perhaps, of beginner writers’ early attempts at creating believable people: stereotypical, paper-thin, verging on archetypal.
• The author mostly eschews the naming of places and people (on one level, this works in the context of the formation of myth-making; on another level, as a novel-story, this is wholly unsatisfactory).
• Even more curious is that the author then deems it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale, and he names another who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination.
• This book includes a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words the author lays down.
• The main characters mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods.
 
Dialogue
• A flow of alternating dialogue — a collection of people and their overlapping conversations — although not difficult to follow, is clumsy in its execution.
• Dialogue here, in its relative scarcity, is unconvincingly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme.
 
Sewing up
• Beware of writing that feels like after-thoughts, as a means of sewing up bits the author has neither the wit nor the inclination to think through as he goes.
• The author writes in a seemingly self-conscious manner at times, trying to fill in the holes he’s left, looking to smooth it all over and say to the reader how that’s all been cleared up, let’s move on.
 
Meanderings
• Avoid late and turgid long myth-tales as meandering excursions.
• The author’s long expositions build without any great pace or urgency to a point of frustration.
 
Twists and deviations
• Significant twists in some stories only serve to disturb the reader: the slightest of fictive cheating has taken place.
• That we gradually work out a time and place in any given story should work as a reward for our reading and connecting the puzzle pieces: when we’re shifted from that path, rudely as it were, when we’re walking comfortably along in the story’s authority, it risks unsettling us.
 
Meta-fiction
• Meta-fiction can be a dangerous game to play.
• When an author rides a vehicle such as ‘language’, a reader will inevitably find his thoughts turning to thoughts on language.
• The problem with the meta-fiction approach is at least two-fold: the reader becomes acutely aware of the writer’s thinking on writing, somewhat drawing the author as character into the piece, and the author needs to ensure everything he writes thereafter is faultless.
 
Depth
• There is consistently something lying beneath the surface in the author’s stories.
• The author’s writing appears to develop from conceptual inception, but the full depth of that thinking on the author’s part doesn’t always shine through.
• There are stories in this collection that aren’t so subtle or are laden and convoluted and which don’t reach the depths to which they might aspire. One, for example, is a messy stream of consciousness affair with no real focus; another is very slight and without great depth; another is a long and somewhat turgid exposition alluding to age.
• This is a tale that attempts to press some deeper concerns into the short- and long-term conscious process of the reader, but which falls short of this presumed target because of the shortcomings of its details.
• The story flows well enough, initially, but ultimately vagueness does not always result in depth.
• A poetic assemblage of no great solidity.
• It is a liquid flow of words which purports to meditative depths but, in reality, delivers a silted stodge to wade through.
• The idea is greater than the depth in its pages.
• There is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is an accumulation of detail.
 
Structure
• Readability is let down by the author’s penchant for the occasional long and convoluted sentence.
• Consider syntax word orders of sentences and grammatical structures.
• Straighten out the incomplete sentences that tend to crop up.
• Avoid dense, impenetrable text.
• Markers are placed early on in stories and economically returned to later.
• There are recurring motifs.
• There is, however, a proliferation of partly constructed sentences throughout the book, which does have a tendency to distract the discerning eye.
• The author has presented, in short, a garbled concoction.
• ‘The end justifies the means’ is not a pretty means by any stretch.
• Stereotypical perceptions are to be avoided.
• This work is a fair percentage full of seemingly drunkard-penned ramblings in need of a good editorial savaging.
• It becomes apparent that the author either has a short attention span for maintaining motifs or anchor references in his story telling, choosing to introduce them and then just ignore them, or he has an inability to keep them in check.
• English translations may not accurately represent the nuances of the original language, but this work is peppered with incomplete sentences (the proliferation soon becomes cumbersome and annoying).
• He starts to warm to a new idea (or, if it’s been there all along, it’s been difficult to tell).
• There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.
• There is ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale which is not wholly achieved.
• At times the author’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies.
• Do not replicate the author’s repetitive listed descriptions, for line upon line.
 
Plot
• Not for everyone: there is no definite plot, no narrative sweep of direction, no main crucible or conflict for the characters to navigate.
• The author’s story is a journey, though one without defined plot. This doesn’t matter because what we’re presented with is a tale of subtle love and frustration, abandonments, confusions, immersions and beauty.
 
Crafting
• He spends time on his words.
• There is a predilection for certain favourite words or motifs.
• Precise, cut-glass, clear, clean prose. Hardly anything is wasted in the arrangements of words.
• For the most part, this collection is subtle, well-written, with the feel of care in construction, thought, considerations of structure and texture.
• There are some slender and beautiful juxtapositions in place.
• Juxtapositioning the prosaic and the beautiful can result in unexpected art.
• Sometimes it feels as if the author is crafting a piece, out and out, from a single kernel of an idea or from the delicate arrangement of one notion touched against another.
• There are some very deliberate structural arrangements/filmic qualities, in places.
• A book of love, a sculpting of character, enmeshing of characters.
• A book filled with clean, efficient, beautiful language.
• Despite its lack of plot or narrative direction, this book is built on love — a love of nature, for the island itself, for beauty, for characters.
• The author creates, perhaps with full intention, the overwhelming feel of something cold, winterstruck, and crisp yet troubling.
• There are layers that the author has, undoubtedly, deliberately stitched into this book.
• The ‘sketching’ process is one of the author’s signatures. She uses an economy of words which, for the most part, works well (we are left to think).
• The author’s contribution to the written form encompasses the crisp, the clean, the sharp, and the beautiful.
• One character’s long hoped-for return is a ghost that hangs in the pages throughout.
• Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but the author rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.
 
Place and time
• The author’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters.
• The author’s achievement here is to place this book in its own time, imbuing it with its own sense of memory.
• This is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place.
 
Magic and myth
• The author deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic.
• The author’s ideas might well be worth magic consideration, but his way of writing on them just brings the reader to the point of drifting off because of a lack of belief.
• A story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth.
 
Endings
• Avoid clumsy and unsatisfactory endings.
• On occasion, the author ends a story abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea.
• Take care not to let a story peter out: the potential force of the tale fades.
• This collection ends with effective poignancy.
 
 

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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.
 
 

Book Review: A Winter Book (Tove Jansson)

Some accounts offer us the heightened middle of a life led: A Winter Book offers us the book-ends to Tove Jansson’s long life. Herein lie twenty stories dealing with childhood and older age; however, for the larger part, the reader is really engaging with semi-autobiographical material. We can suspend our imaginations for a certain period and indulge in the idea that pure fictions are present, but at the back of the reading mind is the knowledge of something different taking shape. The feeling is all the more succinct for this reader, having recently immersed in Jansson’s much acclaimed The Summer Book (1972, 2003) and her novel, The True Deceiver (1982, 2009). The body of work is like a succession of waves.

A Winter Book (Sort Of Books, English translation from the original Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart, 2006) is, according to the introduction by Ali Smith, a combination of select stories about childhood from Jansson’s first collection (Sculptor’s Daughter; Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968) and a smattering of pieces from various later sources, translated into English for the first time. The stories span periods between 1968-71 and 1991-98: the latter being three years before Jansson’s death at the age of 86.

The reader must first accept the slow pace of the story offerings in this collection in order to begin the process of engagement (whether having read previous Jansson offerings or not). Each piece stands alone, but as the reader delves deeper into the pages, Jansson’s characters start to return to the shore, in the analogy: of course, here are the repetitions of Jansson’s parents, Signe (known as Ham, for Hammarsten) and Viktor, both artists, but here too are others such Old Charlie, sketched in to a few of the stories, before taking his leave again. This sketching process is one of Jansson’s signatures. She uses an economy of words which, for the most part, works well (we are left to think); however, perhaps a little more could have been offered in the economy of words that form some of the story titles: Albert, Jeremiah, Annie are titles that don’t frame the story offerings so well.

Fourteen of the twenty stories in A Winter Book are concerned with childhood. It is Jansson’s childhood and what soon becomes clear is the worldview of this child as inculcated by two artistic, Bohemian parents in the early 1920s or thereabouts, in Helsinki and the outer lying islands of the Gulf of Finland. Parties, for example, is an account of a child/Jansson who is subsumed into the culture of her father’s Bohemian gatherings, and her mother’s own art and engagement with these parties, and who doesn’t question any of this way of being: she just accepts it as the normal way of things. She writes as the child narrator, in concluding the piece:

‘I go to bed and hear Daddy tuning his balalaika. Mummy lights the oil lamp. There’s a completely round window in the bedroom . . . One can see out across all the roofs and over the harbour and gradually all the windows go dark except one. It is the one under Victor Ek’s asbestos wall. There’s a light on there all night. I think they’re having a party there too. Or perhaps they’re illustrating books.’

Jansson’s mother was an illustrator. Added to this forming worldview, as written, are moments of understanding of childness, some succinct wisdoms extolled, and comprehension of the (ir)rational logic that children sometimes express. For example, in The Stone, the child narrator pushes a metallic-like object she’s found all the way home and up several flights of steps, believing it to be made of silver (silver, not gold, which will make her rich); there are wisdoms such as ‘a [male] friend never forgives, he just forgets, and a woman forgives but never forgets’, and the quiet Zen-like quality of ‘One always lands up somewhere. That’s important’; of the irrational — or rational — logic, in The Iceberg a child narrator articulates that, if no-one speaks about the iceberg that the family row past, then that iceberg therefore belongs to her.

Jansson’s accumulated wisdoms, as spoken through her child narrator, also include (in Parties), regarding breaking the day in gradually following a gathering, ‘One must be able to move about in peace and quiet and see how one feels and wonder what it is one really wants to do’, and (in The Dark) ‘It is terribly important to find a hiding place in time.’ In fact, this is another wave to gently form and break (in the reading realisation that this ‘hiding’ is a motif that finds its occasional return): Jansson is hiding from the world that troubles her — in the very real sense of her returns to her summer island retreat (as seen in The Summer Book), as well as can be assumed in her children’s books about Moominvalley and its own worldview, and also in particular Winter Book moments such as in Snow (in which a child/Jansson, and her mother hide away in a snow-bound country house, where the latter works at her art); in Flying (in which the child narrator imagines flying and effectively hides away on the ceiling); in The Iceberg (in which the child expresses a desire to climb into a small grotto on the eponymous ‘vehicle’ floating by).

In The Boat and Me, Jansson describes her older child self, defying her father’s wishes by taking a small boat out for a solo rowing trek around the islands. It is a process of hiding, in part, but it’s also indicative of the spirit of adventure, the love of raw nature, and a certain sign of the times. Jansson shows here how children just need to do things sometimes (‘I don’t know why it’s important’, implying that it just is), and tells of ritual and rite of passage in rowing all the creeks and headlands and seeing ‘her territory’ (land) from the vantage point of the sea.

Albert is related as a childhood friend, and the story also touches on the child logic: ‘[On the raft] we reached deep water, but that was alright because we had both nearly learned to swim.’ There is that spirit of adventure to the story of the child narrator and Albert setting sail and getting caught out by the fog, but there are also the child ruminations here on death and fear (the former being an area Jansson returns to in later life, later in the collection, but from a more world-weary perspective). When looking closely enough at the collection as a whole, we begin to see the way that nascent processes on death, as well as on love and beauty, art and play, begin to form.

In Snow, the child narrator/Jansson becomes anxious at the snow trapping them in their country retreat, but her mother stops working and tells her that they’re hibernating, and they play, and the child is overwhelmed with love for her because of all of this. In Annie, the housekeeper by that name has a tempestuous relationship with the child Jansson; the child admires Annie’s strength and beauty and Annie understands the state of childness when the child becomes anxious at them stealing bird-cherry flowers openly and brazenly (Annie acknowledges the child’s sense of ‘wrongness’ and introduces hiding into the act of theft). Later in the same story, Jansson describes how the child plays ‘house’ with the things left out for her by Annie, with a sense of duty, knowing that a better house could be built in a different room. In High Water, Jansson describes her father, a sculptor, and his love of- and inspiration gleaned from storms: so Jansson, the child, loves storms too. They are of art. It is another small incoming wave to tell of this child’s forming worldview, taken on from the adults around her. Jansson’s father seems to need purpose and/or to be someone in touch with the seascape. Perhaps this is also true of Jansson herself.

Flotsam and Jetsam brings these ideas of worldview, seascape, art or beauty together. Despite the story being a tale of the convoluted local rules of salvage and principle, we can see how the idea of ‘doing things correctly’ is forming. There is some degree of twisted correctness here in the tale, but there is the nuance that is with due concern to the process of art: art is in the doing. This can be further read in The Spinster Who Had an Idea, in which the eponymous regular summer island guest and would-be artist tries her hand at various art endeavours but then interrupts the almost sacred ritual involved in Jansson’s parents’ casting of plaster.

Art and play come together, in the interpretation, in Jeremiah, in which the child narrator/Jansson sees play as a kind of art form after meeting and being in attendance to (‘looking after’) a visiting geologist where neither speaks the other’s language and so the communication is in play. When a female geologist also turns up, it unsettles the play/art relationship. In The Spinster Who Had an Idea, the child ultimately struggles with the concept ‘what is art?’ and with her father’s interpretations of what this is to him (albeit unwritten, this is heavily implied).

There are stories in this collection that aren’t so subtle or are laden and convoluted and which don’t reach the depths to which they might aspire. The Dark, for example, is a messy stream of consciousness affair with no real focus apart from being the continued inculcated worldview of the child who believes her lot to be the way it is, perhaps the only way we can or should be. German Measles is concerned with jealousy for a pet monkey and about having a guilty conscience. As such, the tale is very slight and without great depth. The first of Jansson’s later writings in this collection, The Squirrel, is similarly somewhat lacking. Despite the occasional succinct observation, such as Jansson’s insight into words placed face down overnight (‘because if words lie face down there’s a chance they might change during the night’), The Squirrel is a long and somewhat turgid exposition alluding to age: the routines and fixations of an isolated old woman who hides away (between her island’s rocks, in her bed), who potters with unnecessary necessaries, and who considers exactnesses. A squirrel invades her island, but there’s no empathy or sympathy here for her or for the squirrel. It is the child Jansson as an elderly woman but it doesn’t feel like that child character who naively takes on everything of the adult world around her.

There is a similar distancing felt in Letters from Klara. The theme is the tribulations of age but this epistolary piece reveals little of any great significance, despite (again) the occasional moment or enigmatic touch, such as in one of the crotchety Klara Nygård’s letters regarding how the aged start to give away their possessions. There is a passing thought, however, that maybe Klara Nygård may well be linked to the wise old Madame Nygård, portrayed in Jansson’s novel The True Deceiver (there being a penchant for returning characters, as would seem to be the case). This is as much as can be taken from this piece.

Jansson then delivers a piece of unexpected art. Messages begins in prosaic manner with a brief note from Tuulikki Pietilä (Tooti), Jansson’s partner, to her. It soon transpires that Messages is a collection of excerpts, no more than a few lines long each, received in various correspondences following Jansson’s success as an author. It is, at first, difficult to grasp the idea of this piece, as seemingly banal as these messages begin. However, gradually, through careful selection and juxtaposition, there is a sort of world-weary nuance at play, and the whole is shot through at exactly the right positions with banal and beautiful counterpoints. In amongst the variety of requests for product endorsements for Moomin pictures (on sanitary towels and marmalade jars, for example), for specially requested tattoo designs, or a request made by a sheepish ‘friend’ in asking for a drawing for her grand-daughter, in amongst a missive from a plagiarist incredulous that permission should have been sought for use of Jansson’s work, and amongst sinister accusations and cold warnings of Jansson being ‘watched’, there are the short, unneedy information-giving banalities of love from Tooti and the occasional poignant and extremely beautiful comments of a young Japanese fan.

For example, immediately after the confident arrogance of a group of young upstarts seeking endorsement for plastic products (as also referenced in the writing on Anna Aemelin in The True Deceiver), there is the elegance of Japanese Tamiko’s humility:

‘Dear Jansson san, I have collected money for a long time. I will come and sit at your feet to understand. Please when can I come there?’

The final two messages read:

‘I brought the washing in, you can put the potatoes on at 6. Someone called Anttiia phoned.’

‘Dear Jansson san, Take good care of yourself in this dangerous world. Please have a long life. With love.’

The overall effect is quite stunning. This reader/writer is left to wonder what Jansson would have made of these comments/messages here. There is a natural connection from Messages to Correspondence, in which Jansson creates a story of some of Tamiko Atsumi’s letters to her. Tamiko comes across as increasingly obsessive in her ‘love’ for Jansson from afar. In its overall brevity, the piece develops an uneasiness because of this ‘love’, albeit potentially lost in translation in the faltering English of someone admittedly coming to grips with learning the language. However, deftly and simply, Jansson brings us back to Tamiko’s elegant, humble and poignant concluding words.

We have been on a journey and we continue with the final two story offerings in this collection. In Travelling Light, Jansson writes ‘My voyage had suddenly been altered and my peace destroyed.’ This line is apt for this piece as we initially travel with the author in what we read as an at least semi-autobiographical tale of someone determined to escape the clamour of people by leaving life behind for a trip on a ship into the unknown. However, the tale of the fictionalised Jansson we fall into the fictive flow with is unsettled some half-way through when the narrator transpires to be a Mr Melander. At this point a certain degree of interest is lost because, in the context of the collection as a whole, this just does not fit. Perhaps Jansson has been far too deft here for her own good in successfully unsettling the reading process in a piece that focuses, in part, on the unsettling nature of other people (though we can’t read this for sure). It is a shame because Jansson offers some fine perspectives of world-weariness, though the nagging returns as to who is narrating here and this, ultimately, overwhelms the idea of how someone eventually returns to character traits they’ve always apparently exhibited, as is the direction of the end of this story.

The collection ends with Taking Leave: undoubtedly an account of some poignancy for Jansson (being concerned with the inevitability of age and of having to leave her summer island retreat with her partner, Tooti, for the very last time); however, the deliverance of that poignancy is not altogether realised in the writing. There is a short and satisfying detour about whether to signpost visitors to the ‘secret room’ in their soon-to-be discarded house (they don’t signpost but Jansson writes ‘We put a small bottle of rum in [the secret room] as a surprise and as a reward’), but for the larger part Jansson makes use of the writerly device of Tooti narrating to her the tale of their boat being sunk one summer in a storm. It is a back-story nod towards the memories of place, times, objects, and leaving the island behind. The device feels somewhat clumsy though and Jansson then moves into her final symbolic ending: that of an old kite of theirs, found again, and taken away on the wind across the Gulf of Finland. Despite this, Taking Leave doesn’t quite leave us with a feeling of everything being left behind: Jansson floats off, as does her kite.

What A Winter Book does do is add to the character that is Tove Jansson, who we see in her childhood adventures and forming worldview and comprehensions of art and beauty and play, through her primary interactions with her artist parents, and in the affects on her by the occasional childhood friend, adult acquaintance rowing by, or oddity of adult such as Jeremiah the geologist or Annie the housekeeper rowing by her life in the analogy; A Winter Book also delivers the wisdoms of Jansson the elder, her world-weariness and resignations, and her coping strategies with the world that is so much bigger than she ever could deal with. Jansson’s identity is of the seascape: her writing is of waves and returns. In the end, Jansson lost faith in the sea, became fearful of it, and she knew it was the beginning of the end.

A Winter Book marks the book-ends of a long life in art and beauty, love and nature.
 
 

Book Review: The True Deceiver (Tove Jansson)

Deception is a slow restlessness: several days after finishing this novel, I’m left to ponder, in a measured manner, what it is that is the heart of this book. By the very nature of the book’s ghost-marking, it’s true to say that, in The True Deceiver, Jansson has delivered something — if not overwhelmingly beautiful, as The Summer Book is, then at least — significant in some way. That she’s able to stretch out the small disturbances of a tiny snowbound community, one winter, waiting for the spring to return, and still make each page, each short and sweet chapter, engaging is commendable. However, it is to the question, once again, that is ‘what is it that is the heart (not at the heart) of this book?’ that some small restlessness is focused.

Jansson’s two principal characters are, in their own ways, engaged in forms of deception: Katri Kling (‘little witch’ as one of the other characters calls her) is cold and calculating; Anna Aemelin, an illustrator, the old woman who lives — in what the villagers call the ‘rabbit house’ — in a state of some seclusion, is painted as someone who deceives herself in her naivety. In the gradual interactions between the two women, what Jansson does is to bring each towards the other: Katri softens from her position of ice hardness; Anna tends the other way. The concern here though is that, even in this slow and careful movement which Jansson successfully unfolds, there is little love that can be shown to either character by the reader.

Indeed, it isn’t until we’re offered the insight into Katri’s true devotion to her brother, Mats (who is the loving reason for all her machinations amongst the villagers), that we see anything resembling something ‘true’. Katri schemes her way through the book: good at accountancy and in her advice to the villagers in lieu of a lawyer, calculating, cynical and ice-hard Katri ploughs all her focus into ways in which she can collect sufficient funds in order to commission a boat for Mats (whom she has looked after since his childhood, and for whom a boat is the dream). Mats volunteers his time, or is underpaid and taken advantage of to some extent, by the Liljeberg brothers, the boat builders in the small village of Västerby. It is Anna’s eventual affection for Mats — through their mutual love of adventure books — that, in part, leads her to offer to buy the boat that the Liljebergs are building (via the anonymous patronage of Katri, and until she can come up with the funds): Anna offers to buy the boat for Mats, unbeknownst to Katri.

These two insights are the moments in which Katri and Anna can be seen to shine in any way, but it is — to a certain extent — Mats who glues the story into place: without him, Katri has no reason for being, no focus, no devotion; without Mats, Anna’s reclusive lifestyle cannot be unsettled by Katri. Mats is the pivot, and Jansson has successfully sketched him in the neutrality that is required in order for Katri Kling and Anna Aemelin to be as shaded as they are.

The True Deceiver (Sort Of Books, English translation, from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, 2009; originally published as Den ärliga bedragaran, 1982), is certainly readable and, in places, sprinkled with the beautiful description that can be found in Jansson’s The Summer Book. In one scene, for example, Mats takes Katri into the Liljebergs’ boat shed, where everything is described as immaculately clean and looked after and in its place; Jansson describes the instance of dark gold light, and the moment described and the writing itself are fleeting yet lingering. What Jansson also creates, however, perhaps with full intention, is the overwhelming feel of something cold, winterstruck, and crisp yet troubling.

Katri Kling, in her hardness, and Anna Aemelin, in her softness, have perfect names for their characters. Whenever the reader comes across the word ‘Katri’ there is the icy crispness of its consonants upon the tongue, just as Katri Kling is etched as. ‘Anna Aemelin’, in a similar respect, is a whisper on the lips, as the character herself is in her waiting for the snow to melt, in her waiting for the soft moss below to show so she can paint it. The True Deceiver’s cold winterstruckness of being though is evident in all manner of difficult details: Katri, we’re told, has yellow eyes; the village of Västerby is only lightly sketched; Anna’s demeanour is unsettling in its oscillations between softness and tartness and in her annoying (to Katri, at least) habit of gently whistling. All of these elements, and more, leave the reader just a little askew in trying to keep hold of something that might resemble the ‘truth’ of any given character or place.

Perhaps Jansson has this in mind all along: ‘deception’, after all, is her eponymous focus, and perhaps there is a subtle intentional layer of trying to make the reader wonder what might and what might not be true in the formation of this written reality and these characters. There is certainly the element of uncertainty sewn, throughout, into the idle gossip of the villagers (regarding matters of what is true), the motives of the principal characters, the veracity of the ‘truths’ that Katri feeds Anna as a means of achieving her aim of providing for Mats’ dream. There are only a few characters who come out of the whole with any degree of consistent integrity though: Mats, in his neutrality, is one; the other is wise old Madame Nygård, who offers Anna Aemelin her occasional counsel; Edvard Liljeberg, the eldest and only named Liljeberg brother, can — despite Jansson’s efforts at unsettling his integrity here and there via minor slights — hold his head up too, perhaps because Jansson has the skill to make us believe (or even slightly deceive us into believing) the way of things from Katri’s perspective. She writes, for example:

Later that day, Liljeberg was standing outside the boat shed smoking when Katri came by on the road. ‘Hi, little witch,’ he said. ‘So things are starting to fall into place.’

Katri and the dog stopped. She liked Liljeberg.

The dog has no name. It is another of Jansson’s unsettling techniques. Anna later calls the dog Teddy, after Katri and Mats have moved into the ‘rabbit house’ with her, nominally as protection after Katri engineers a burglary in order to gain this outcome. It transpires though that Jansson creates the dog as a symbol of Katri’s belief that we’re more comfortable in quiet obedience of others (as she tries to engineer Anna to be towards herself). Anna ‘corrupts’ the dog, inciting it to ‘Fetch! Play!’ (Katri, she says, doesn’t play at anything; everything is ‘serious’ to her). The dog, of course, becomes confused and turns somewhat feral.

There are layers that Jansson has, undoubtedly, deliberately stitched into this book. She has created with as much loving care as Anna Aemelin paints her forest-floor-scapes (albeit paintings which she then corrupts with seemingly incomprehensible flowered rabbits — another aspect which can be read, eventually, as metaphor); Jansson writes with the care the villagers exhibit in the crocheting of coverlets in the long winter quietnesses of Västerby, with the care Mats takes in his boat sketch designs, with the care in which Mats and Anna open the regular book deliveries, and with the care which Katri takes in the accuracy of her accountancy. All of this is crisply evident.

What we are left with is something that lingers, certainly, yet there is also a slow restlessness: that is, what is it that is the heart of this book?
 
 

Book Review: The Summer Book (Tove Jansson)

Every so often in our adventures in reading we come across a book that is an object of astounding beauty. We think that we can’t let the pages run out. If we’re also writers as well as readers, we think ‘this is the book I wish I’d written’. Tove Jansson’s Summer Book is as delicate and as beautiful as an object found on a beach. It would be accurate to say that this book is not, and will not be, for everyone: there is no definite plot, no narrative sweep of direction, no main crucible or conflict for the characters to navigate. It is, instead, a string of beautiful arrangements told in the time of a small island in the Gulf of Finland.

Jansson’s island is based on a true place, as are the two main characters of Sophia (who starts off in the book as a six year old) and Sophia’s Grandmother (based on Jansson’s own mother, Signe Hammarsten). There is a sprinkling of other characters in the book, but these people are passers-by in the soft flow of the writing. This is a book of love, essentially: a book in which Jansson manages to sculpt the Grandmother’s character as benevolent, wise, humble, playful. It can be read as a love story to Jansson’s mother.

The publishers (Sort Of Books, English translation, from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, 2003; originally published as Sommerboken, 1972) have contributed greatly to Jansson’s content in the creation of an object of beauty. The Summer Book is finished to a high standard: it’s tactile, and even the typesetting is done in a pleasing manner. I turned the pages like handling pieces of eggshell. This is what must be done with such well-crafted works.

What we find herein are twenty-two ‘chapters’ or vignettes, spread over unspecified summer time. If these short vignettes are read slowly and thoughtfully, the characters of Grandmother and Sophia start to enmesh in a deepening relationship in which there is, at once, a delicate form of co-dependency and the slightest of tensions inherent in the generational dissonances. Grandmother (who is otherwise not named throughout), for example, is portrayed as sometimes seemingly aloof to Sophia’s ways and needs but nearly always in tune with her; Sophia, perhaps as might be expected for a child spending so much time not in the environs of other children, needs her Grandmother’s playful attention, thoughtful conversation, and every so often has an aching for all that modernity can offer.

Grandmother has awareness of time and nature; Sophia engages with this, but every so often Jansson drops in a moment to consider about the child and what she represents. In contrasting the two characters, Jansson writes of Grandmother: ‘And because it was June almost all of the wildflowers they had picked were white,’ (and we bow down to the nature knowledge and suppose that it is true); on the mainland, Sophia sees a bulldozer ‘an enormous, infernal, bright yellow machine that thundered and roared and floundered through the woods with clanging jaws . . . Grandmother was waiting by the boat out at the point. What a machine! Sophia thought.’

Grandmother’s wisdom shines through in this book. Jansson has her lying down in the ‘magic forest’ on the island, or examining the flora from extremely close perspectives; reflecting on age to a similarly aged friend who passes by the island ‘But you’re only seventy five’; waiting for the rain which she knows will come. None of this wisdom is dispatched in a holier-than-thou or preached manner though. Grandmother is loved and, indeed, learns things for herself. When she becomes worried about Sophia climbing the channel marker, ever higher, Grandmother deals with this as best she can but in the new-found knowledge that Sophia, after all, knows best about herself here.

Grandmother is many things to Sophia: teacher, protector, friend, playmate. Jansson tells an episode whereby the two of them decide to build their own version of Venice in the lagoon that is the marsh pool. The city gets washed away though, and Grandmother stays up all night re-carving the Doge’s Palace that has been swept off, in the hope that Sophia won’t notice the loss. Grandmother also attempts to assuage the anxieties or bravado in the child when she becomes overcome by stories of superstition, or by the fate of an accidentally sliced angleworm, or by a lack of confidence in swimming. Grandmother is a catalyst for the myth-building that can often take place in children: she carves from old pieces of wood and the two of them take the carvings to the ‘magic forest’ at, and only at, sunset.

The Summer Book is infused with such myth and love and play. I read with several lenses in places (flipping between them like flipping coloured glass to the page): writer, reader, analyst/reviewer, someone who has worked in- and continues to work in the field that is the study of children’s play. It is for this latter reason that the various infusions of this book are evident here. The question arises though, in this reader’s awareness, of whether Sophia can be seen as ‘a real child’. That is, it can be easy to slip into the trap of writing a child character in stereotypical sugary-sweet form.

Sophia is, by and large, real enough. She expresses herself in ways that are certainly true (‘How’s the water?’ Grandmother said . . . ‘Pretty bloody cold.’); she attempts other ways to communicate when relations are strained (shouting through Grandmother’s window, for example, ‘Is it true you were born in the eighteen-hundreds?’); expressing real emotions many an adult has heard before (‘I hate you’, Sophia writes in a letter pushed under her Grandmother’s door). That said, Jansson does also add the precocious and somewhat off-kilter aspect to Sophia’s character: I’m not convinced that an average child would want to use words such as ‘aristocratic’ in speech, or that she would finish off her ‘I hate you’ letter by adding ‘with warm personal wishes’. Perhaps Sophia is not an average child.

Where Sophia comes across well is in the details such as an episode involving a cat who, it transpires, kills birds, and this disturbs Sophia. Jansson writes one of Sophia’s interactions with Grandmother as:

‘You know, sometimes I think I hate Moppy [the cat]. I don’t have the strength to go on loving him, but I think about him all the time.’

A little saccharine, perhaps, but the episode of Moppy, and Moppy’s subsequently lazy replacement, are well-observed moments about a child who can’t think of anything but a cat who refuses to be affectionate. It is all that the world holds in the moment. If Sophia can be angry and expressive, thoughtful and precocious, she’s also written in places as funny in her earnest play. When a potion is made, an elixir, to help ward off the potential of harm to her father, Sophia announces:  ‘I’ve turned superstitious’, and when Grandmother says that her father won’t drink it anyway, Sophia replies that ‘Maybe we could pour it in his ear.’ Jansson presents this matter-of-factly and it resonates with a truth.

Where The Summer Book is most perplexing though is in Jansson’s treatment of the shadow figure that is Sophia’s father (Papa). He is on the island throughout, but it’s not until page 113 that we sense any real concreteness to him, and not until page 169 of 172 that he utters his first and only line. On the one hand, Jansson is concentrating on the relationship between Sophia and her Grandmother and this is appreciated; on the other hand, that Sophia’s unnamed father is always ‘working’ in some other room, or hauling nets whilst the trio are between islands, or he’s otherwise subtly eased off the frame of the page, is a little off-putting. On such a small island, we might expect his presence to have a greater impact on the female characters’ affairs. Sophia does become somewhat anxious about superstition towards the end of the book and of how all manner of signs may affect her father, but this is a little late to rescue his shadow in the pages of the book.

If we learn to quickly focus in on Jansson’s arrangements though, we can read some truly beautiful descriptions in amongst the wisdoms and balances of the generations:

‘The sunset was in different shades of red, and the light flooded in over the whole island so that even the ground turned scarlet.’

‘She ran behind a rock with the milk can in one hand and watched the machine pluck up huge boulders that had lain in their moss for a thousand years.’

The Summer Book is filled with clean, efficient, beautiful language. There is a degree of ‘head hopping’ taking place in the writing, but it hardly matters. Jansson holds the thread of the book well: despite its lack of plot or narrative direction, this book is built on love — a love of nature, for the island itself, for beauty (because undoubtedly Jansson has beauty in mind here), for Sophia (who is based on Jansson’s niece of the same name), for Grandmother (who is, in the fiction, Signe, Jansson’s mother).

Signe Hammarsten died shortly before Tove Jansson wrote this book. Through all my lenses combined, I read it as a daughter’s love story for her mother.