before in his life had Arne thrown anything straight and true, but he
did so now. "
by Olivia Heal
Jansson, best known for her childrens tales of the Moomins, was
brought into literary consciousness through the posthumous publication
of her adult writing in English translation, revealing her as a serious
and very singular writer.
birds started screeching before dawn, like a thousand furies
spoiling for war. Their feet tramped over the sheet metal roof as if
laying siege to the cottage. They were everywhere.
This latest collection, Travelling
gathers a handful of tales with the loosely shared theme of
travel. The theme is perhaps extraneous to the reading of the
stories, for Janssons writing tends often towards something of travel:
exiled, singular characters wander alone in vast and strange
worlds, gazing upon their surroundings with the fresh, open and often
surprising gaze that is that of the traveller. Of the traveller,
or equally that of the child.
One particular story from this collection, The Gulls, is not only exquisite,
but also exemplary of her literary originality. The Gulls tells of Elsa and Arne,
who take a trip to one of the Scandinavian islands in a plea to cure
Arne of his angst.
spent much of her life and based many of her tales on the Finnish
Island Klovaharum. This provides the setting for her first novel
published in English, The Summer Book,
for many of the stories in the collection A Winter Book
and two in this collection. Is not an island, that writerly
retreat, the espace exemplaire of the imagination?
me again how it's going to be.
sitting in the bow and you've never been in the islands before.
With every new skerry, you think we're there, but no, we're going all
the way out, right out to an island that's hardly a shadow on the
horizon. And when we land, it won't be Papa's island any more,
it'll be ours, for weeks and weeks, and the city and everyone in it
will fade away, till in the end they won't even exist or have any hold
on us at all. Just pure peace and quiet. And now in the
spring the days and nights can be windless, soundless, somehow
Scandinavian islands have been brought to us in the dark, poetic films
of Ingmar Bergman, shot on the Swedish Island of Faro. They again
came into the public consciousness last summer with the shooting on
Norwegian Utoya. Where the latter is deeply disturbing and contemporary
to our society, where Bergman is heavy in his poetry, Jansson is light,
hers a feathertouch, her islands are more air and sky than land
mass. In trying to evoke the lightness I come to think that the
touch of her pen recalls that of a watercolour. This is not
anodyne, for Jansson was equally an artist and illustrator,
illustrating all the Moomin tales herself.
particular and creative perspective that becomes apparent when reading
her adult fiction explains the popularity of her children's writing -
one understands Jansson to be writing in that boundless childworld of
the imagination. It would however be erroneous to depict her as
childish, her writing as na´ve or gentle. It is in fact the
unfettered gaze of the child that one recognises in her adult fiction.
Far from being pretty fantasies, the worlds Jansson conjures are often
sinister, full of rift, terror or anxiety. They face unflinching into
the crucial reality of life with an abrupt lucidity, but subjects are
broached with the paintbrush of the imagination, creating a duality
between the light and joy of the world with the dark.
came. The same persistent piercing cry, the same strong soft wings
touching her face, the same firm grip on her hand. She laughed out
loud, let the dish fall and grabbed the gull with both hands,
overcoming the powerful resistance of his wings. It was just
exactly as she had imagined it, a great silken-smooth life force caught
and held in her hands. To her astonishment, the rare furious joy
of clasping the creature in her arms, suddenly went right through her
and took her breath away - and at that moment the huge bird twisted out
of her grasp soared out over the shore and vanished.
indescribable beauty of the islands, the sense of being protected from
the outside world, is thus not marred by, but married to the horror
induced by the whirling seabirds. For Arne, an eider waiting for
her eggs to hatch comes to represent safety and healing.
warm sunset still lingered over sky and sea. It was dead calm and
indescribably beautiful. The large islands were soon behind them,
and only very low skerries marked an invisible horizon. Arne was
sitting at the bow. From time to time he'd turn and they'd smile
at one another. [...] When they arrived a screaming cloud of hundreds
seabirds rose chalk-white against the evening sky.
asleep," he whispered. "When the leaves open, she'll feel more
protected. Don't you think?"
The chicks hatch out and Arne likewise comes out of himself.
are too often oblivious to how literary fashion dictates narrative
style, to how terribly narrow the breadth of tone and voice of
literature published in English is. Only when reading something so
utterly singular and unafraid as Tove Jansson's writing, does one
recall the expanses that literature can explore. I thank Sort Of
Books for having the courage and insight to bring her writing, which
refuses comfort and subverts convention, to an English speaking
audience. For, reading Tove Jansson widens the literary
horizon for readers and writers alike by explicitly challenging the
short-sightedness of our literary tastes.
was unbelievable, fantastic such a remarkable thing to see
at that moment came a powerful beating of wings and a great white bird
dived out of the sky and seized one of the chicks. As Arne watched
in helpless horror, the eider chick disappeared down the bird's throat
bit by bit. He screamed, rushed forward, picked upa stone and
threw it. Never before in his life had Arne thrown anything
straight and true, but he did so now. The bird fell on the granite
slope, wings outspread like an open flower, whiter than mist, with the
legs of the eider chick still sticking out of its mouth.
irreconciled characters that populate Tove Jansson's stories, the
grim-but-human subjects, all are told in a voice that is expansive,
breathy and yet sharply chiseled. It is same touch that we
recognise in her illustrations: colourful, bright, imaginative and yet
Heal, writer and
translator, studied at Trinity College Dublin and UniversitÚ Paris
VIII. She has translated the writing of Monique Wittig and Nicole
Brossard among others. Having long lived between France and Ireland,
she now writes, reviews and blogs from her home in North Norfolk.