Letters from Klara by Tove Jansson

Letters From KlaraWhen I saw that Thomas Teal had translated another set of Tove Jansson stories, I knew that the collection would be one of the books I bought for Project 24 – and, while I bought it two months ago, I was waiting to feel exactly in the mood to read it. That’s partly because I have to be in the right mood for any collection of short stories, but also because I’m savouring what little Jansson there is left to translate. I think the only remaining book is a 1984 novel which is Field of Stones in English. Why hasn’t it been translated yet, one wonders?

Letters from Klara was originally published in 1991 and was one of the final books Jansson wrote. I have to be honest from the outset – it’s probably the least good of the books I’ve read by her. I say ‘least good’ rather than ‘worst’, because it is still good – but I’ve come to have such high expectations of her work that it still came as a bit of a disappointment.

She is strongest in the longer stories. ‘The Pictures’ looks at the difficult relationship between a young painter and his father, when the painter leaves home with a scholarship. It has Jansson’s trademark subtlety in showing how two people who care deeply for each other can’t properly communicate; she is wonderful at showing the strain of silence in these relationships, where others might go too far in showing awkwardness. The final words of it show Jansson at her spare best:

The train stopped out on the moor, as inexplicably as before, and stood still for several minutes. It started moving again and Victor saw his father on the platform. They approached one another. Very slowly.

The other story that struck me as truly excellent is also the other long story: the haunting ‘Emmelina’. Emmelina is an old lady’s companion who inherits everything when the old lady dies, and who is one of Jansson’s enigmas. David – through whose eyes we see her, albeit still in the third person – falls in love, but cannot understand her, or where she disappears to. Emmelina has the sharp commonsense of many of Jansson’s characters, but also feels almost spectral. The story has no twists or conclusions, but it simply a wonderful example of how to keep a reader guessing, without quite knowing what the question is.

Elsewhere, some of the stories feel too short, too sparse. Jansson seems to have been experimenting with cutting down her prose further and further. Usually her spareness is a great quality, but in some of these stories we lost too much. An emotional logic was missing; the structure didn’t allow her usual character development. In ‘Party Games’, for instance, a school reunion is supposed to reveal hidden rivalries and resentments, but it doesn’t quite work – and female rivalries is a topic Jansson has addressed with startling insight in other collections, perhaps most notable in ‘The Woman Who Borrowed Memories’.

None of the stories in this collection are bad, but some feel like they just missed the mark – or never quite got going. The title story is a series of letters to different people that develop a character, but don’t cohere into a story. Other stories are good but belong in different collections – ‘Pirate Rum’ feels exactly like a chapter missing from Fair Play, being about two older women on a remote island (and presumably as autobiographical as Fair Play was).

So, I’m still thrilled that this book is available to read, and glad I read it, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a good place to start. Jansson has done much better. But thank goodness for any of her words finding their way into English – and thank you to Thomas Teal for all he does in translating her.

3 thoughts on “Letters from Klara by Tove Jansson

  • September 25, 2017 at 7:19 am
    Permalink

    The snippet you quote has the rhythm of a train stuttering to a halt – subtle but cleverly done – which makes me wonder a) whether this is true in the original, b) how this was translated into English and c) how clever/sensitive the translator is. It has the density of poetry rather than prose – is this why you like her so much?

    Reply
  • September 25, 2017 at 11:54 am
    Permalink

    Interesting and honest review, Simon. The temptation is to want to love everything a favourite writer produced, but even the best will have an off day!

    Reply
  • September 25, 2017 at 8:33 pm
    Permalink

    There’s an exhibition of her work coming up at Dulwich Picture Gallery which sounds very promising.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: