Letters From Klara and Other Stories by Tove Jansson

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Translated by Thomas Teal

Reviewed by Kate Gardner

This penultimate collection of Finnish literary giant Jansson’s short stories has taken 26 years to be published in an English translation, but that is a reflection of our literary landscape, not of the quality of the stories.

Jansson was in her 70s when she wrote these, and I think it shows. Not only because she has honed her craft so that every story is exquisite, but also because the stories reflect the wisdom and the melancholy of age. They’re often very funny, with the sense of humour of an older person who has thrown caution to the wind and decided they can say whatever they damn well please.

In the title story, the elderly Klara writes sharply witty missives to friends, family, neighbours and strangers. She is brittle but not delicate, alone but not lonely. In just ten pages she comes completely alive, writing in her felt pen, listening to her radio. In ‘About Summer’ a girl narrates her summer holiday activities, from learning to row to painting a secret mural. With childish confidence she states how she will treat her own daughter differently, but the parents or guardians she is accusing are entirely absent from her tale, as if it’s just her and her own bit of land and sea.

I think when I have a daughter, I’ll teach her to whistle. It could be useful to whistle to each other in case we lost track of each other in the woods. If she doesn’t answer, then I’ll know she wants to be left alone…My daughter can wear any old trousers she wants to, and she can talk back to me, though not too much.

Jansson writes with such simplicity and yet often wrongfooted me with an unexpected outcome. It’s all very much rooted in reality – no fantasy or sci-fi here – but not mundane or humdrum reality. Jansson has a light touch – and, of course, that sense of humour – but her stories can get dark. In ‘Emmelina’, a man called David falls in love with the title character, but as he sinks deeper into depression she refuses to help him rise from it. When a friend of David’s expresses concern about a pet bird that is sick, Emmelina kills it with her bare hands – but whether to spare the bird suffering or to resolve the friend’s problem is not clear. Emmelina is a typically inscrutable character. There are no stereotypes here, though some eccentricities loom large.

Bob was in the class ahead of Anton. Actually, his name wasn’t Bob at all but something quite different, but for those who admired him he was Bob, short and forceful, like the crack of a bat or a punch on the arm. And he had that enviable nonchalance, that self-evident right to cordially despise the whole world. Bob did not use his position to beat up his classmates; he just shrugged his shoulders and smiled absently. His way of reducing them to absolute nothingness was perfection.

With few words Jansson brings people and places to life, sometimes including details that I just had to look up. In ‘Pirate Rum’. two middle-aged women are spending the summer alone at their island holiday home, when they suddenly must take care of a young man who has washed up on their shore and stumbled into their house. But what really got my attention was the recipe for the titular pirate rum! In ‘My Friend Karin’, a key turning point hinges on the music of Klaus Schulze – whose name meant nothing to me so I looked him up and spent the rest of the evening listening to his strange electronica (which, incidentally, is an excellent backdrop to short stories mostly set in Finland).

These are the kind of stories that linger. In a year I will remember one of these people and wonder when it was I met them.

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Kate Gardner blogs at www.noseinabook.co.uk

Tove Jansson, Letters From Klara (Sort Of Books, 2017). 978-1908745613, 160pp, paperback original.

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