Photo by Tristan Pokornyi on Pexels.com

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.

There’s Tove in the foreground.

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

* Featured image by Mari Huistinoja from Pixabay

15 thoughts on “Light in the Darkness: Literary Chiaroscuro in the Work of Tove Jansson

  1. I try to avoid darkness where I can. There are times when it can be quite overwhelming. I cling on to joy and goodness as much as possible because of that. So I guess you’re right. We can see and appreciate joy because there are shadows and sadness!

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    1. Yes, I get that. And certainly I’m not one for darkness along the lines of horror (unless it’s a zombie movie with humor) or even much gothic. Realism has enough darkness, especially right now. I think I’m always looking for contrast, because I read like a writer–in that conflict, even if only in mood or tone, pushes the story forward. In my life, give me steady joy! I appreciate your comment on this Monday morning here!

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  2. Hello, Rebecca! What a beautiful post you have here — in word & image! I, too (as I think I’ve already told you), am a Tove fan, and I absolutely love what you say here: “ Jansson’s short stories, likewise, remind me of a trick of light.“ I couldn’t agree more! I really like her work for its lack of action, if that makes sense; sometimes I think the Western tradition of action/movement/catharsis is so … well, Western. I keep wanting to write a more Eastern, Zen-like story, but the old workshop gene in me keeps saying, “Something has to happen!” But why? Though in Tove’s stories, something does happen, just not blatantly. You know, I found out about her at a wonderful independent bookstore in Traverse City, MI one summer. That store carried almost all of her books! I keep meaning to read her biography, which I have, and now with the movie coming out (thank you for an earlier heads-up on that — I did watch the interview with the cast & crew on YouTube) I will certainly do so. One unrelated “thing”: I recently met a young woman in my neighborhood — we were out walking our dogs — and found out she’s the ballet master & choreographer of our local company. I had a nice chat with her about ballet! Wishing you the best of writing & reading — your novel-in-progress sounds wonderful! (I’m reading Ferrante’s new novel, plus Mrs. Bridge.)

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  3. Yes! I love it that now–now that I’ve caught up–we have Tove in common, Deb! I think the short story form is perfect for stories that go “nowhere.” Unfortunately for me, I seem to also like to do that in my novels, which works less well, I think. Now that bookstore in Traverse City sounds fantastic–I hope it’s survived. I haven’t read her biography, but that would be good to read before seeing the film. For a long time she and her partner lived such an isolated life, which could be a little “boring” to view as a film, but I have a feeling they’ll do a good job of dramatizing Tove’s inner life, which was pretty dynamic, I think.

    How wonderful to meet your local company’s ballet master! I wonder if they are dancing now. I follow The Cleveland Ballet on social media and they’ve gotten creative, dancing a lot of small outdoor venues this fall.

    Ah, you’ll have to tell me how the new Ferrante is. I want to read the new Robinson, _Jack_, but I’m swamped by work (work that buys groceries) so my creative stuff is fit in the small cracks between jobs. I hope you enjoy your writing and reading this week, and thank you, as always, for being here. I appreciate your take!

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    1. Geez, Rebecca — I’m so sorry I’m just seeing your replay now (October 20)! I don’t know why, but I never received a notification from WP that you’d responded. So sorry!

      I picked up LETTERS FROM TOVE several weeks ago in Traverse City, and I can’t wait to get started reading it. I also picked up Ali Smith’s SPRING, which I very much enjoyed (although was somewhat confused by toward the end), and am currently reading MR. BRIDGE by Evan S. Connell for a book club meeting. But then … on to Tove! And, of course, I’m very much looking forward to the film.

      I understand about being swamped by work, but glad to hear you’re still finding the time to get to your creative work as well. I’ve been writing, but not sending out as much. I don’t know, this crazy world has made it difficult to focus (at least I’m finding that) and maybe once we get past the election … ah, who am I kidding?! Fortunately, though, writing, working does provide some relief/distraction from the world-at-large.

      Have a great week — stay safe — and be creative! Deb

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      1. Let me know how LETTERS FROM TOVE is, Deb. I’m loving her FAIR PLAY–a novel about partners in life and work that feels entirely new. Yes, certainly difficult to concentrate with all the madness around. All the same, I hope you have a great writing and reading week!

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  4. I’m reading the Seven Sisters series by Lucinda Riley. I’m on the second book right now, the Storm Sister – and interestingly the story is taking her to Norway, and there’s a character by the name of Jansson (if my memory serves me right!). Anyway, you’ve totally sold me on Tove and I’ll remember her for the future.

    As far as dark and light, I agree we need both, but during these challenging and quite dark times, I feel like we are losing the light, and it’s time to push back. Things are taken too seriously I fear. It chokes creativity, freedom of expression, and fails to even take into account the importance of failure and learning from mistakes. So I’m feeling hyper-aware that I don’t dive too deeply into melancholy or depression in my writing!

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  5. I don’t know Lucinda Riley, but I guess I should! All the Nordic-set stuff is so fascinating to me. My husband and I are watching Vikings on Netflix right now–I think it first appeared on the History Channel. It’s filmed in Ireland but certainly gives off the Nordic vibes, with oh so much snow.

    And I like your take on these dark times and agree that a lack of humor and humanness–maybe?–choke creativity. For this reason, I can’t hang around on social media much, so much that is depressing there. I hope your memoir writing is going well–I look forward to reading it!

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