A book review, with digressions: The Listener, by Tove Jansson

4 03 2015


I first purchased this book in 1981, but I have had to wait thirty-three-and-a-bit years to read it. For I originally obtained it in its initial Swedish form, as the book Lyssnerskan (in which form it was, I was told, even back then, already out of print, just ten years after publication; but, having ordered a job lot of some ten of Tove Jansson’s titles from her Swedish publisher, I received it in the company of the rest of the order — evidently, they succeeded in rustling up a copy of the book for me). Alas, learning Swedish did not turn out to be so straightforward an endeavour as I had hoped it would be, though I did manage to get about a third of the way through Jansson’s Den ärliga bedragaren (recently published, in English, as the novel The True Deceiver) before I admitted to myself, sometime in 1982, that I was missing far too many of the nuances of her prose in my halting attempts at dictionary-assisted-translation for the effort to be worthwhile.


From the above, you may get the impression that I am some sort of Tove Jansson tragic; and yes, I must concede that that is true. It has actually been some years since I have re-read the Moomin books, and yet they, and her hauntingly episodic novel The Summer Book, hold a place in my heart that no other works, by any other author, have yet succeeded in usurping. The belated availability, in English translation, of a steadily-growing list of Jansson’s work for adults – in her lifetime, her only non-Moomin books available in English were her heavily memoirish adult debut Sculptor’s Daughter; The Summer Book, also closely drawn from life (its protagonists represent her dying mother and her niece); and the not-always-convincing novel Sun City – is a cause for bittersweet celebration. It is, perhaps, inevitable that the renewed recognition she is receiving is posthumous; but I wish this had all come sooner, while she lived.

If you have read Jansson’s Moomin books, and if you are somewhat familiar with the body of work of her compatriot Jean Sibelius, you might, perhaps, note a similarity in development. The early examples of both canons are effusive, unrestrained, busy, rich in contrasts, and often very energetic; later examples show much greater restraint and a fine sense of subtlety, with a tendency towards minimalism or towards the use of negative space. (Listen to the tonal sparseness of Sibelius’s Tapiola, one of his last works, and compare it to the final Moomin novel, Moominvalley in November, which is such an exercise in negative space that the Moomins do not, in fact, feature directly at all.) While such a trajectory of artistic development, over the course of a career, is not necessarily unusual, it does seem as though in both Jansson’s and Sibelius’s case it’s taken rather to an extreme; I’m loathe to pin it down to anything characteristically Finnish, or more broadly Scandinavian, but one has to wonder. (I’m not aware, by the way, whether Sibelius and Jansson ever crossed paths, I suspect probably not, since he was fifty years or so her senior, though they did have at least one mutual friend: Sibelius’s biographer and confidante, Erik Tawaststjerna, was a childhood playmate of Jansson’s, and apparently features in Sculptor’s Daughter as the small runny-nosed child who is afraid of bears.) But I have probably digressed long enough. Isn’t this supposed to be a book review?

I was somewhat surprised to learn that The Listener was in fact Jansson’s second book for adults, published in 1971 and predating The Summer Book by a year. (I had always thought that The Summer Book followed directly on after Sculptor’s Daughter.) Reading these stories now, it seems a shame we have had to wait more than forty years for their English translation. They are in their quiet way (and so much of Jansson’s work is quiet) quite outstanding, and I would venture to suggest that The Listener may in fact constitute the best introduction to Jansson’s work for adults for those readers who know of her only as a writer for children. (This is not necessarily to say that The Listener is her best adults’ book per se – I still believe The Summer Book merits that title – but, rather, the collection of short stories provides a somewhat more accessible initial sampler of her work than does the episodic novel. And this first collection of her short fiction has the advantage that the stories are more classically plotted, for the most part, than is the case with her later stories, some of which hew so close to the dictum of white-space prose that they are essentially just lists, more-or-less eschewing an overt plot entirely …)

So, then: the stories in The Listener. There are eighteen in total, several of them so short as to be essentially mere vignettes – flash fiction, I suppose, although the term did not exist at the time of their writing. By and large, it is the longer stories that are the more memorable, for here Jansson has greater rein to show her ability to completely capture, in a sequence of deft, pure, carefully-chosen words, a scene, an event, a betrayal, a secret, a hidden truth that lies at the kernel of us all … I shan’t detail every story, believing it will serve you better if you discover your own favourites among the book’s pages, but the tales that particularly resonated with me were the title story, of a trusted aunt who finds herself so overwhelmed by the burden of familial confidences that she is prepared to take desperate measures; the wonderfully gothic ‘Black—White’, dedicated to Edward Gorey, in which an artist, under pressure to deliver a set of illustrations for a horror anthology, decamps to a relative’s house for some peace and quiet; ‘A Love Story’, in which a couple on holiday in Venice must decide how they are going to handle an obsession with a well-sculpted pair of buttocks; ‘Grey Duchesse’, in which a seamstress is fated to see when those around her are soon to face death, and to need to speak of this; the almost unbearably anticipatory ‘Blasting’, wherein a demolitions expert takes his behaviourally-challenged son out on an assignment with him to the skerries, where he has been contracted to dispose of a fifteen-ton boulder; and ‘The Squirrel’, the collection’s closing story and its longest, in which a middle-aged woman, living alone on a small, treeless Gulf of Finland island, engages in a madeira-fuelled, no-holds-barred battle of wits with a squirrel that arrives one autumn morning on a length of driftwood. The capsule descriptions offered above for these stories might well sound unprepossessing, but in Jansson’s hands the most seemingly innocuous or inconsequential item can become crucial, and utterly compelling; at their best, these are stories that just cannot be improved upon.




One response

9 04 2015

Intriguing! I confess to never having got around to reading the Moomin books – embarrassing for a children’s writer and reader and librarian – but this makes me think of when I discovered that E.Nesbit, author of Five Children And It, and other children’s books, also wrote horror fiction for adults. Who would have thought it? I’m betting that this collection you describe has never been out of print in Sweden, like the Jules Verne book which Sophie Masson’s press is about to translate for the first time in a century. Neve heard of it, but it’s well known in France.

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