Travelling Light by Tove Jansson

BOOK REVIEW

The 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.

Tove Jansson, best known for her children’s 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.

This latest collection, Travelling Light, gathers a handful of tales with the loosely shared theme of travel.  The theme is perhaps extraneous to the reading of the stories, for Jansson’s 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.

“Tell me again how it’s going to be.”

“You’re 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 transparent…”

Jansson 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?    The 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.

Casimir 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.

The 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 naïve 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.

A 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 of seabirds rose chalk-white against the evening sky. 

The 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.

“She’s 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.

It was unbelievable, fantastic such a remarkable thing to see […]  And 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 up a 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.

We 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.

The estranged, 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 deeply chiselled.  It is same touch that we recognise in her illustrations, colourful, bright, imaginative and yet deeply troubling.

Travelling Light by Tove Jansson
Published by Sort Of Books
9780954899585

This review was published in The Short Review

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