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Monday, 1 June 2015

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (Selected Stories) - Tove Jansson - translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella - 2015 Best Translated Book Award

What I am about to write may seem exaggerated, but the cornerstone of what I have to relate is really my single-minded devotion to objectivity. In truth, I am not telling a story, I am recounting facts. I am known for my detachment and precision. And what I am trying to covey is intended for me alone, to help me make sense of certain events.

Unlike a number of reviews I publish here, I think it is imperative that I include some basic background information on our writer, Tove Jansson. Daughter of a sculptor and a graphic designer and illustrator, Jansson, at an early age, was a published illustrator. Her creation “Moomintroll” was a long running comic strip and became a series of children’s books, films, television serries, an opera and even theme parks in Finland and Japan!!. Choosing to live on a secluded island and in a small cottage (with windows on all sides), with her artist partner, Jansson also wrote eleven novels and short story collections.

This collection is taken from five published works and contains twenty six short stories. Our collection opens with “The Listener”, a tale about the mental deterioration of a loved one from old age, this is first noticed through the change in her letters:

Letters, gifts, and affection’s glossy greetings are important. But the ability to listen face-to-face is even more important, a great and rare art. Aunt Gerda had always been a good listener, aided perhaps by her difficulty in expressing herself and by her lack of curiosity. She had been listening to friends and relatives ever since she was young, listening while they talked about themselves and each other, carrying them with her in a huge, artfully constructed mental  map of crisscrossing lives. She listened with her whole large, flat face, unmoving, leaning slightly forward, with downcast eyes, though she would occasionally look up, quickly and in obvious distress. She didn’t touch her coffee and let her cigarette burn down. Only in the short pauses that even a tragic tale leaves open for trivial but necessary explanations did she permit herself a lungful of smoke and a deep swallow of coffee before replacing the cup on its saucer carefully and without a sound. In essence, Aunt Gerda was not much more than silence. Afterward, it was difficult to reconstruct what she had said, maybe only a breathless questioning – Yes? Really? – or a quick expression of sympathy.

The story “Black-White (Homage to Edward Gorey)” tells the tale of Stella and her unnamed husband. She inhabits a glass house, all exposed, her husband is an artist who only wants to draw in stark lines, black and white, Reminiscent of Simon Mawer’s “The Glass House” from 2009, we have a tale of introversion versus exposure.

The fifth story, “The Wolf” is the first time a male name is mentioned in the collection. The story of a Japanese artist visiting to draw a dangerous creature. Throughout the work the majority of our characters are simply “she” or “he”, pointing not to specifics but the generalistic human condition.

“The Cartoonist”, tells of the fears of not being good enough to take over a daily cartoon strip, even though our artist is anonymous, the burden of taking on a popular comic strip leads to anxiety, self-doubt. The fear of burn out and an inability to fulfil the seven year contract bubbling along in the background.

The opening quote I used was taken from the story “The Locomotive”, a tale which switches from the 1st person to the  3rd person intentionally: “”He” is more objective than “I”. It seems to me.” A story of a single man, obsessed by drawing locomotives, who has never travelled, nor given any of his inner feelings away, is slowly lured to reveal himself to a woman who is attracted to railway platforms.

The first half of our collection is translated by Thomas Teal and the second half by Silvester Mazzaretta, as a collection which is chronologically based this is an interesting approach, with our translators taking different stages in Jansson’s writing career.

Our title story has a strong claustrophobic edge, with an artist returning to her “home” after fifteen years absence and her room is inhabited by an old “acquaintance” from her youth, but so are her memories. What has the intruder taken from the artist’s life and melded into her own?

Besides a recurring theme of “art”, through painting, drawing, sketching or writing, we have a strong element of “detachment”, our characters wanting to be left alone, they want nobody to interput their thoughts, no distractions from their singular mission, however an all pervading failure where they fall into the trap (subconsciously of course) of “connecting” with another. There is a strong correlation here to Tove Jansson’s own life, living as an artist on a secluded island!

One of the later stories “Shopping” has a futuristic setting, where it is implied that we have reached the “end of the world”, with two people trapped after an unexplained catastrophe in a devastated city. She goes out to “shop” (ie. Find) food at 4am each day, he forgets to wind his watch, they are now unable to tell her “shopping” time. And there are two strangers who have been spotted in the distance....

A work of introversion, looking at seclusion, creation of art through self reflection, this is a nice collection of stories to take you to an isolated place.


1streading said...

I've not yet read Tove Jannson - I think I'm still put off by the Moomins association! (not that I didn't love them as a child). However, so many people have been complimentary about her adult writing I think it's only a matter of time.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The more adult Jansson you read, the more the Moomin books look like adult literature. Or such has been my experience. There is a lot of continuity - it is how Jansson saw the world.

Tony Messenger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Messenger said...

To be 100% honest, with my "to be read" pile growing exponentially, unless another work of Jansson's makes an award longlist I'll not be revisiting her work. Whilst enjoyable with the introversion, it became a little repetitive, so not a writer I'd seek out!!!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The Moomins, of course, are highly social. Perhaps in the later, adult books, there is a retreat from the social world and from celebrity.