Reviewed by Simon Thomas
It’s always interesting to see the genesis of a favourite writer. In Issue 1 of Shiny New Books, I was able to explore Jansson’s life and work through the eyes of her biographer, Boel Westin – now Jansson’s first collection of stories for adults, The Listener (1971), has been translated into English for the first time. Sort Of books and the translator they commissioned (Thomas Teal) are much to be thanked for making this collection available to English audiences. It doesn’t, perhaps, reach the great heights of The Summer Book or Art in Nature, but it shows where those talents began – and does not lag far behind them.
Of course, Jansson’s real genesis was as a painter, and then as a writer for children, but this is a different discipline. The themes of her later works are present from the outset. It’s been said that Jansson writes about isolation, but I think a more prominent thread through her work (for adults) is that of pairings. These aren’t always – or often – romantic pairings; think of the grandmother/granddaughter in The Summer Book or the fascinating allied antagonists of The True Deceiver. Even when it is a romantic pairing, as in Fair Play, romance is not mentioned.
In The Listener my favourite stories turned their attention to uneven dualities – where affection and enmity intermingle, and nothing is certain to either partner in the couple. The best example is ‘The Birthday Party’, organised by the Häger sisters – the party is for children, and both are fraught and anxious that it will not go well; Vera more so than Anja. The story is only six pages long, but it is a masterpiece of tension and emotion, never brought too near the surface, but evoking a life of worry.
Vera Häger stood in the doorway and watched the children. They were no longer stiff. They were all at the table, shoving and pushing. The little girl was building a house out of oranges. A boy was eating ice cream, sitting under his chair. She walked slowly closer. “Are you having fun?” she asked shyly. The children stopped eating and stared at her. For a long moment they stared at each other through the curtain of coloured streamers.
“When I was little,” Miss Häger said, “we’d never heard of ice cream. I believe ice cream came along much later. Now don’t worry about Daniela, she’ll probably be here soon, maybe any minute….”
Now the children were utterly motionless. The house of oranges fell apart and fruit rolled out across the floor. One of the oranges rolled right up to Vera Häger’s feet. She turned and went into the bedroom. Her sister was lying on the bed, reading.
“I don’t get it,” Vera said. “I just don’t get it. Why is there always something wrong with our parties? Not even when it’s children…”
This story could have appeared in any of her collections – it reminded me of ‘The Woman Who Borrowed Memories’ (which, incidentally, is the title story of a selected writings NYRB are publishing in October) – and demonstrates how in control of her craft Jansson was from early on.
That is not to say that this collection is entirely and absolutely successful. Although every story is good, and many are very good, some are experiments that she would leave behind – that is, they are too impressionistic. Jansson’s beautiful use of language works best when tethered to real actions and emotions, not when it is an end in itself. ‘The Rain’, for instance, paints a lovely word picture – but little else, and doesn’t offer subtle observations on human experience, in the way (if that claim is not too broad) that her best stories do.
Perhaps the most successful experiment in the collection is the final story, ‘The Squirrel’. It is about a woman who lives alone on an island – how often Jansson would return to depictions of islands – but even this story is not about isolation. Instead, it is about the interaction between the woman and a feral squirrel. If you’re thinking this will be cutesy and fey, you’ve not read any Jansson – it’s a mesmeric display of a woman’s need for companionship, wandering state of mind, and self-imposed barriers. Yet everything is always so subtle and contemplatively told that even the climax is smoothed into the rest of the narrative. It shows that, even in her first collection, Jansson was extraordinarily ambitious in her writing – and, even more impressive, was able to fulfil those ambitions.
Simon Thomas is Reprints Editor of Shiny New Books, and was briefly nicknamed ‘The Squirrel’.
Tove Jansson, The Listener (Sort Of Books, London, 2014) ISBN 978-1908745361, 157 pp., paperback.