Coming out of any intense, dramatic period of living can make it hard to choose appropriate reading material.
Recently I found it difficult to sustain reading as it all seemed too far removed from life’s demands that I be very present and attentive to the needs of those around me.
It made me reflect on what and who can I read I turn to during these kinds of periods. Short stories and/or non-fiction. Tove Jansson and The Dalai Lama.
I chose Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal), because even her stories feel like they haven’t strayed too far from the reality within which they were inspired. I find immeasurable comfort in reading the words of this talented artist, the short form allowing a brief respite without requiring an ongoing commitment of a novel, when concentration spans are short.
Art in Nature is an intriguing collection of character studies, characters who happen to be creative, eccentric, obsessive, all curiously flawed in some way and Tove Jansson observes them in a situation until the cracks appear. They are a slice of life short narrative and any one of them could easily have morphed into a longer story such as her novel The True Deceiver I recently reviewed here.
The first story Art in Nature is about a caretaker watching over an exhibition of work in open air.
“He slept in the sauna down below the great lawn where the sculptures were set out among the trees.”
The day has its rhythm and characteristics and the evenings belong to the caretaker, the quiet contemplative time when he is alone among the unmoving silent works, still, post creation. He observes everything, every inclination, every watcher, he categorizes them and becomes attached to how things are.
“Almost all the feet moved respectfully. If they were with a guide, they’d stand still for a while, all turned in the same direction, and then they’d change direction all at the same time to look at something else. The lonely feet were uncertain in the beginning, then they’d move slowly at an angle, stop, stand with legs crossed, turn around, and sometimes they’d lift one foot and scratch with it because there were lots of mosquitos.”
Until one evening when a couple overstays, middle-aged adults breaking the rules, having a domestic argument. He intervenes, listens to them argue, provokes them with his own thoughts on the mystery of what art is.
The Cartoonist is a mysterious, insightful look into the daily work of an illustrator, a job that Tove Jansson’s mother did and one she dabbled in herself, making me wonder how much of this was inspired by the environment and circumstance of her mother.
A famous newspaper cartoonist has quit suddenly after 10 years and a new artist is required to assume his role without a break in the cartoon strip, without his fans knowing. The new artist slips easily into the role but becomes plagued with needing to know why his predecessor quit.
The Doll’s House is brilliant and shocking and quite different from anything else of Jansson’s I have read. Like The True Deceiver, it shows her deftness at spotting signs and cracks in character that over time can grow from barely visible flaw into raging psychological dysfunction when neither checked or dissipated.
Two recently retired men who have lived together and shared the same respect for the beautiful objects that surround them, are adjusting to the new routine of no longer having demanding day jobs. Alexander is a craftsman and Eric a retired banker.
“Alexander was an upholsterer of the old school. He was exceptionally skilled, and he took a craftsman’s natural pride in his work. He discussed commissions only with those customers who had taste and a feel for the beauty of materials and workmanship. Not wishing to show his contempt, he referred all the others to his employees.”
In the beginning they have difficulty adjusting to this new way of life, discovering that in such close proximity their interests aren’t as fine-tuned or in harmony as they had appeared when their time was absorbed by outside demands. Eric begins to take on more of the domestic role and Alexander begins a project to build a miniature house. He seeks the help of an electrician called Boy, who becomes his trusted helper.
“Boy came back almost every evening. He often brought little table lamps, sconces, or a chandelier that he’d found in some hobby shop or toy store. He came straight from work in his jeans and trailed street dirt over the rugs, but Alexander didn’t seem to notice – he just admired what Boy had brought him and listened gravely to his suggestions about improvements to the house.”
Just rereading these two quotes, makes me realise what clever insights Tove Jansson’s places into the text, the clues into character are there from the beginning and the simple daily events that follow turn these insights into something raw and dangerous.
Another excellent collection of stories from the Finnish artist and writer who would have been 100 years old next month.
Check out her books and events at TOVE100.com