Warning: I am full-on author-crushing right now. The author: Tove Jansson (1914-2001), Finland’s most famous writer-illustrator, who introduced the world to the Moomins–a family of peace-loving trolls brought to life in illustrated children’s books–and also wrote some really fantastic literature for adults.
In light of the first feature film about Jansson releasing next month, I’ve recently devoted much of my reading time to her novel, The Summer Book, and her short stories. All capture Finland from the inside–in a way no travelogue ever could. Thank goodness for translations (and Thomas Teal, in particular, who translated much of Jansson’s work into English). Since I don’t read Swedish–Jansson was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority–or Finnish. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to capture moments in Finland’s history in my novel-in-progress, set in part in this Nordic place–at once beautiful and dangerous, light and dark, like the best photograph, painting, or story. I’m looking for and finding much inspiration in Jansson’s work.
Translator Thomas Teal provides the introduction to the edition of Jansson’s The Summer Book I’m reading. He informs us that Jansson wrote this novel the year after her mother died, and there is grief reflected in the story she wrote. However, as with all Jansson’s writing, the master of brevity used a light touch. This novel follows six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother through their days over a single summer, living in a small house on a very small Finnish island. It’s all fairly placid, in the way that living close to nature is. You could say nothing happens, if nothing is living in accordance (mostly) with the surrounding flora and fauna, water and weather, and the occasional human visitor.
However, the driving force behind the days and emotions experienced by these characters is, as Teal notes, a “single event, so fleetingly mentioned as to be almost occult: ‘Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.'”
The novel’s chapters, each with their own title, work as stand-alone stories; taken together we get a tapestry of summer days–ups and downs, ebbs and flows. These are simple, but not simplistic, stories, accumulating in a universe that feels like the Northern Lights must, like magic. Author and reviewer Ali Smith says it best, I think:
[Jansson’s] writing is all magical deception, her sentences simple and loaded; the novel reads like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth.Ali Smith
Jansson’s short stories, likewise, remind me of a trick of light. Their simple premises offer layers of meaning–like shading reveals a truer shape of a two-dimensional drawn object. From Jansson’s collection, The Listener (1971), some “simple” plot summaries: a squirrel invades the routine life of a lonely old woman. A Japanese artist comes to Finland seeking dangerous animals–“Very savage, if you please.”–and the narrator helps him find some. A storm comes, and a former lover calls.
In her introduction to the story collection at right, contemporary American novelist Lauren Groff notes Jansson’s education as an academy-trained painter, in Jansson’s recognition of the importance of shading in art of all kinds. “The darkness is as essential as the joyous and equally perilous light,” Groff writes.
“The light and the dark give each other definition.”
This long year of 2020 has dealt out a good bit of darkness–even during summer’s light. The trick is seeing it as shading that shapes and brings to the fore our concept of joy–shading I look for as I live and read and try to use what I read as inspiration for what I write.
Recently, in a virtual book club I belong to, we members were discussing another short story collection, and there was some grumbling about the lack of joy in the stories. I got to thinking about what a complicated thing joy is. Anybody who’s been around this blog a while knows what a fan I am of the poet and essayist Ross Gay, who writes a lot about “delights,” which typically don’t smack us on the head with joy but surprise us with small moments of the stuff. (Too much and we might not recognize it–become joy-gluttons, maybe?) Reading, for me, is a joyous act of discovery, made all the more delightful by traveling through darkness to reach a spot of sun, humor in defeat, or the absurd in the mundane. Light in the darkness. It’s worth the sometimes sad and even perilous journey–we writers know the act of writing can feel like that kind of cavernous darkness–to seek the light.
This isn’t just writer-reader talk here, but life talk. How hard my life would be if I went around expecting joy and light at every turn. And how boring! I’d much rather wander a bit, in life and art, swim dark waters, or traverse a dark forest once in a while, and be surprised by the delightful–even joyous–way the sunlight filters through the canopy of leaves above.
So, tell me, who are you reading? Do you read with the seasons? Do you read for joy, beauty? Are you inspired by your reading, to write? I highly recommend picking up absolutely anything by Tove Jansson. My boys are working their way through the Moomin tales right now.
And for one final thought:
We read Tove Jansson to remember that to be human is dangerous, but also breathtaking, beautiful.Lauren Groff