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
It’s interesting. Books have always been my escape, a place of comfort, a haven from reality. And yet, like you, when I am anxious or under a lot of pressure I can’t concentrate. The words mean nothing and I find myself re-reading sentences over and over and still not able to make any sense of them. And it’s not just books — happens with magazines and the newspaper, too. Glad you found a book that worked.
Getting my mojo back slowly, find I am more inclined to write than to read for now, luckily had two reviews backed up needing to be written and browsing non-fiction volumes that aren’t for reviewing, just for dipping in an out out of during these times. 🙂
Thanks, Claire, I can’t wait to discover Tove Jansson.
You are in for a treat Valorie, she has so much to offer and has a wonderful voice and I’ve only read her adult work, she has a superb collection of philosophical children’s books I am looking forward to reading as well.
Hi Claire. I cannot always, as you, delve into full length stories, but read essays or short stories to satisfy the ever present need to read. I recently discovered the essays and short stories of George Saunders – most notably The Tenth of December. Have you ever read him?
Hi Candi, I have heard of that title but not read the author, thank you so much for the recommendation, I always like to have trusted short stories/essays to hand and Tove Jansson’s little known works for adults are real gems. I shall add George Saunders to the list and look out for this book.
I can’t imagine a clearer, saner voice than Tove Jansson’s for cleansing the palate. I have to admit that I regularly look at the Moomins cartoons she did too, for the same purpose.
I can not wait to start on them. Can you believe it, I have not read any of her children’s books yet!
Lovely post, Claire, and I’m glad you found solace in Tove. As a young girl, I loved the Moomins – they’re definitely worth a look (even for us adults!)
I really can’t wait to read the children’s books Jacqui, I think I shall have to acquire the entire collection in this, her anniversary year.
Thanks so much, Claire–I am looking forward to this book, being a TJ fan. Glad your mojo is coming back.
Always enjoy reading her work, good to know you are a fan too. 🙂
Sorry to hear that life is hard going for you at the moment Claire. Glad that you are finding solace and comfort within the covers of well chosen books. Thinking of you x
Thanks Edith, having a much quieter week thank you, reading and writing are such joys.
Art in Nature: ” I ordered the book” ! Your suggestion for RU ( Kim Thuy) was one of the best books I read in 2013!
I love Tove Jansson’s work and hope to read her biography this year as well, an exceptional talent and not just with words.
I discover recently Tove Jansson with the book of summer and I really liked it. I liked her writing, the atmosphere and the landscape, easy to read as well. It did make me want to read more of her novels. I’ll keep this one in mind 🙂
I read The Winter Book first and then A Summer Book, both of which I loved. Since then I read her novel The True Deceiver and now this collection. all her work is truly wonderful and there are still the children’s book to pick up one day!
This collection is more of a study of characters actually, I think the summer and winter books are more close to nature writing. All great in my opinion. 🙂
The more I read about Tove Jansson, the clearer it becomes that I should not waste another minute becoming really familiar with her work. I love the #Tove100 logo . . . and this would be the year — wouldn’t it? — to catch up on what I’ve missed.
It certainly would, I am sure you will enjoy her work Deborah, she’s certainly my kind of modern classic writer/artist.
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