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.

The Listener by Tove Jansson

It’s no secret that I love Tove Jansson, and I was pleased to get the chance to read the latest collection of her work from Sort Of Books; a new translation (by Thomas Teal) of her first collection for adults, The Listener (1971).

I read it for Shiny New Books; my review is here. You can also win a copy – along with the other editors’ favourites from their sections – by entering the competition on the homepage. And then have a browse!

It feels a bit lazy to be pointing to my reviews elsewhere, but then I remember that I still spent time writing them… probably more time, as I do more double-checking etc. for SNB reviews! And I hope that regular SIAB readers still have fun looking at those reviews.

Tove Jansson

You probably know that one of my very favourite authors is Tove Jansson – but I didn’t know very much about her beyond what she’d put of herself in her fiction. So I was thrilled to learn that a biography of her was going to be published by Sort Of Books – indeed, translated (by Silvester Mazzarella) as, unbeknown to me, it was actually published in 2007.

And you guessed it – I’m pointing you towards my Shiny New Books review of Boel Westin’s biography of Tove Jansson!  Not only that, though – Silvester Mazzarella very kindly agreed to write a brilliant piece about translating the book.  It’s a long and interesting book that I don’t feel I entirely did justice to in my review, written when cold-ridden, but I always think it’s difficult to write properly about a biography – because, almost by definition, they have so much, and so much variety, in them.

Art in Nature – Tove Jansson

I’ve probably mentioned before my envy of those readers who can eagerly await the latest novels from their favourite writers, doubtless following them on Twitter and keeping an eye out for their appearances on late-night BBC programmes, etc. etc.  Well, I don’t have any of that.  All the authors I love are dead.  But one thing I do look forward to with joy is Sort Of Books commissioning more translations of Tove Jansson’s books, mostly under the excellent translating skills of one Thomas Teal.  These are slowly and steadily emerging, so that I can track their arrival with the same keenness which others (I presume) await tid-bits from @margaretatwood.

The latest-translated Tove Jansson book was published in 1978 as Dockskåpet which, I have no reason to doubt, is rendered into English as Art in Nature.  It is a collection of short stories, with ‘Art in Nature’ as the first.  Usually I have to be in the right mood to tackle a volume of short stories, but there are two short story writers – Jansson and Katherine Mansfield – whom I found so good that I will love them whenever I pick them up, whatever mood I am in.

As usual, Jansson rather defies any attempt to spot a unifying theme.  The blurb has opted for ‘witty, often disquieting’ in which Jansson ‘reveals the fault-lines in our relationship with art, both as artists and viewers.’  It is true that there are a number of artistic people who crop up in these stories – from a cartoonist to an actress, from the painter of trains to the constructor of miniature furniture – but Jansson’s gaze is, as usual, turned upon the wider canvas of humanity itself.  It always feels a little pretentious to say that Jansson’s topic is human behaviour, because isn’t that what all writers and artists use as their topic? – but someone Jansson seems more perceptive and more precise in her examination, so that the matters of plot and setting fall away beside the details of human life she unveils.

But that is too vague for a review.  It’s how I always feel about Jansson’s writing, but it doesn’t really help you know how this collection differs from any of her others, does it?  Well, Art in Nature contains two of my favourite Jansson stories yet.  One is ‘A Sense of Time’ which is about a boy and his grandmother – the grandmother has lost her sense of time; she will wake him up at 4am to give him his morning coffee, or insist that he goes to sleep in the middle of the afternoon.  It’s a rather clever little story, more reliant on beginning-middle-end than Jansson usually is.  It also includes a little sentence which helps illustrate what I like about Jansson’s subtlety:

Grandmother let her thoughts move on to John, wondering in what way he’d grown old.
I loved that she didn’t write ‘whether or not he’d grown old’, or even ‘how old he’d grown’, but ‘in what way he’d grown old’.  It immediately makes me think of all the possible ways of growing old; how Grandmother has identified different manifestations of age in her different friends; her experience of aging.  Lovely.  My other favourite story was ‘The Doll’s House’, where Alexander begins to build a model house, gradually excluding his partner Erik.  It’s all very gentle and slow and observant.  It feels appropriate that Katherine Mansfield should have written a story with the same name, albeit a very different story.  Here’s another instance of a small matter of phrasing revealing Jansson’s cleverness (I’m assuming the Swedish does the same):

The house rose higher and higher.  It had reached the attic, now, and had grown more and more fantastic.  Alexander was in love, almost obsessed, with the thing he was trying to create.  When he woke up in the morning, his first thought was The House, and he was instantly occupied with the solution to some problem of framing or a difficult staircase or the spire on a tower.
The word ‘almost’!  It turns the story on its side, a little.  I had prepared myself, by then, for a tale of obsession – for the reductio ad absurdum narrative of a man whose life is taken over.  And indeed that quality is there, in the background, but that ‘almost’ shows how measured Jansson always is.  These are still recognisable people; their actions and reactions are unlikely to be extraordinary or irrational.

Here’s another excerpt, from the story ‘White Lady’, about three women going for drinks together and reminiscing:

Regina said, “Green, white, red, yellow!  Whatever you’d like.”  She laughed and threw herself back in her chair.

“Regina, you’re drunk,” Ellinor said. 

Regina answered slowly.  “I hadn’t expected that.  I really hadn’t expected that from you.  You’re usually much more subtle.” 

“Girls, girls,” May burst out.  “Don’t fight.  Is anyone coming to the ladies with me?” 

“Oh, the ladies’ room, the eternal ladies’ room,” said Ellinor.  “What do you do there all the time?  The whole scene was like something from an early talkie, with too much gesturing.  It wasn’t a very good film; the direction was definitely second-rate.  “Just go,” she said.  I want to look at the fog on the ceiling.”
Jansson excels at depicting awkwardness, disappointment – particularly the disappointment between expectation and actuality.  Which is ideal for creative subjects, of course, as well as the tensions between friends and relatives.  Whenever Jansson writes about illustrators (as she does at length in The True Deceiver, for example) it is tempting – if reductive – to read her own experience with the Moomins into them.  In ‘The Cartoonist’, the popular cartoonist of weekly comic strip Blubby absconds:

“It was their eyes,” said Allington without turning around.  “Their cartoon eyes.  The same stupid round eyes all the time.  Amazement, terror, delight, and so on – all you have to do is move the pupil and an eyebrow here and there and people think you’re brilliant.  Just imagine achieving so much with so little.  And in fact, they always look exactly the same.  But they have to do new things all the time.  All the time.  You know that.  You’ve learned that, right?”  His voice was quiet, but it sounded as if he were speaking through clenched teeth.  He went on without waiting for a reply.  “Novelty!  Always something new.  You start searching for ideas.  Among the people you know, among your friends.  Your own head is a blank, so you start using everything they’ve got, squeezing it dry, and no matter what people tell you, all you can think is, Can I use it?”
How much did Jansson recycle from her own life?  How much did she feel her own ability to depict amazement, terror, delight, and so on – whether with pen or paintbrush – was redundant?  Possibly not at all; possibly Allington is just a character in a story.  I don’t know.  But she certainly had no need to feel inadequate – in fact, considering how many of these stories are about creativity, I suspect she did recognise the value of the creative arts, and she is one of my favourite practitioners of them.

There were two or three stories in Art in Nature which didn’t work for me – one about a monkey, a couple longer ones towards the end which seemed to meander a bit – but I have enough experience with Jansson to suppose that I’d probably enjoy them more another time, or under different reading conditions.  For the most part, this collection is yet another arrow in a quiver of exceptionally good books.  Do go and pick this up, or any of her previous books (although people tend like Fair Play least) if you have yet to try this wonderful writer.  And thank you, Thomas Teal and Sort Of Books for continuing to make her novels and short stories available to an English-speaking audience.  Long may you keep doing so!  As Ali Smith says, on the back over, ‘That there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure.’

Moominpappa at Sea – Tove Jansson

You probably know that I love and adore Tove Jansson.  She is, indeed, one of my all-time favourite writers, and the only author whose books I eagerly await.  (Yes, she’s dead, but they’re being steadily translated – a newly translated collection of short stories coming soon from Sort Of Books!)  Until now, though, I hadn’t read any of the Moomin books for which she is best known.  Aware of this, Margaret Szedenits very kindly gave me a copy of Moominpappa at Sea (1965) which is actually the final book to feature the Moomin family, except some picture books.

Only the beginning of Moominpappa at Sea takes place in Moominvalley, and only the Moomin family appear.  Apparently there are lots of other characters, but I got to know thoughtful, adventurous Moominpappa, wise, diligent Moominmamma, anxious, imaginative Moomintroll, and fearless, feisty Little My.  They have a map on their wall, a dot on which marks an island (or perhaps, Little My suggests, some fly-dirt) with a lighthouse – Moominpappa decides that the family will move there.

“Of course we run the risk of it being calm tonight,” said Moominpappa.  “We could have left immediately after lunch.  But on an occasion like this we must wait for sunset.  Setting out in the right way is just as important as the opening lines in a book: they determine everything.”
After a wet and windy journey across the sea, they arrive on the island – deserted, except for a taciturn fisherman – and head towards the lighthouse.  Everything is not quite as they hoped.  The beam of the lighthouse doesn’t work, there is no soil for Moominmamma’s garden, and worst of all – the lighthouse is locked and they can’t find the key.  Without being too much like an educational TV programme, Tove Jansson incorporates many different responses to change – whether it intimidates, infuriates, or energises people.  Moominmamma is definitely the family member who most wishes they had never left.

In front of them lay age-old rocks with steep and sharp sides and they stumbled past precipice after precipice, grey and full of crevices and fissures.

“Everything’s much too big here,” thought Moominmamma.  “Or perhaps I’m too small.”

Only the path was as small and insecure as she was.
And then it all gets a bit surreal.  Not only is are they followed by the Groke – a curious creature which fills them with fear and turns the ground to ice – the island itself seems to be alive.  The trees move, the sea itself has a definite, often petulant, character.  The Moomins take this in their stride – they almost seem to expect it.

Moominpappa leaned forward and stared sternly at the fuming sea.  “There’s something you don’t seem to understand,” he said.  “It’s your job to look after this island.  You should protect and comfort it instead of behaving as you do.  Do your understand?

Moominpappa listened, but the sea made no answer.
So, what did I make of it all?  I definitely enjoyed it, and I especially liked Tove Jansson’s deceptively simple illustrations throughout – they enhanced the story, and also softened its edges, as it were.  The emotions and actions of the Moomins are often quite human, and the illustrations remind us that we are in a different world – they give the prose a warm haze.

And yet I never felt I quite knew what Jansson was doing.  I was expecting that it might all be a sort of allegory, in a way, for how humans respond to change.  But the Moomins aren’t simply there to represent types of response – they form a family unit as valid as those in any novel, even if there isn’t quite the same depth of development in these relationships (in this book, at least.)  The characters certainly often speak wisely, or demonstrate their feelings through actions (as Moominmamma does with her painting), but I couldn’t ever forget that this was a children’s book – and that, in this case, the children’s book really did feel like a watered-down version of the adults’ novels.

I wasn’t sure how Tove Jansson’s books for children would relate to the wonderful novels and stories I’ve already read.  It seemed to me, after reading Moominpappa at Sea, that it was like the skeletal equivalent of something like Fair Play.  Janssons’ great talent is her deeply perceptive descriptions of everyday interactions between people – incredibly nuanced and yet subtle.  She only gives the bare bones of this in Moominpappa at Sea.  Well, more than the bare bones – more, I daresay, than a lot of adult novelists – but not with the finesse of which I know her capable.  I still loved reading it, and I’m very grateful to Margaret for giving me the book and the opportunity, but I now feel comfortable that I have not been thus far missing Jansson’s greatest work.  She may be best known for the Moomin books but, based on what I have read of her oeuvre so far, she saved her finest writing for elsewhere.

Travelling Light

I still have a small pile of novellas to talk about (I’ve realised that it doesn’t necessarily take any less time to write posts on short books) but I haven’t yet written about Tove Jansson’s Travelling Light – which has leapt, as I rather assumed it would, onto my list of favourite books this year.

Regular readers of S-i-a-B will know that Tove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, and a new translation of her work (this one by Silvester Mazzarella, with another brilliant introduction by Ali Smith) will get me into the literary equivalent of a tizzy. I have to be in the right mood for reading short stories usually, but when they come from the pen of Tove J, they race to the top of the reading pile. And these were no exception.

Unlike Jansson’s best known adult work, The Summer Book, these stories don’t share the same sorts of settings and characters. We range from familiar Scandinavian islands to mysterious woods to the cabin of a ship to – most innovatively – an almost post-apocalyptic town. Though the scenarios vary wildly, each is clearly the work of the same writer, for Jansson brings to each and every story a stirring and extraordinary insight in the workings of the human mind and – more especially – the interaction of people. These people often covertly clash with each other, or don’t let on everything they are thinking; they feel awkward, distrustful, inadequate. Characters often say things which are disconcerting because they are so unexpected, but also because they are so perceptive and true.
“Anyway, solitary people interest me. There are so many different ways of being solitary.”

“I know just what you mean,” said X. “I know exactly what you’re going to say. Different kinds of solitude. Enforced solitude and voluntary solitude.”

“Quite,” said Viktoria. “There’s no need to go into it further. But when people understand one another without speaking, it can often leave them with very little to talk about, don’t you think?”
That comes from ‘The Garden of Eden’, one of the longest and one of my favourite stories in the collection. The mid-length story is so difficult to get right – it doesn’t have the quick impact of a five page story, but also shouldn’t meander too much. ‘The Garden of Eden’ gets it just right in its depiction of Professor Viktoria arriving in a mountain village west of Alicante, and trying to create a truce between two warring women. There are so many layers to the story, none of them overblown, and the whole piece is wonderfully more than the sum of its parts.

But Jansson’s insights into human character don’t preclude her beautiful descriptions of the natural environment. I was particularly taken with this, from the same story:
At that exact moment the setting sun broke through a gap in the mountain chain and the twilit landscape was instantly transformed and revealed; the trees and the grazing sheep enveloped in a crimson haze, a sudden beautiful vision of biblical mystery and power. Viktoria thought she had never seen anything so lovely. She remembered once a set designer saying, “My job is to paint with light, that’s all it is. The right light at the right time.” The sun moved quickly on, but before the colours could fade, Viktoria turned and walked slowly back to her house.I don’t really read in a visual way, as it were, but this description really worked for me – and it’s typical of the beautiful images that Jansson places congruously alongside the interaction of flawed and interesting characters.

If I had to choose just one story as my favourite, it would be ‘The Woman Who Borrowed Memories’ – a deliciously, deviously clever story concerning the reunion of two women, and the disunity of their shared recollections. One is vampirically changing and appropriating the other’s memories – all shown very subtly, very believably. It represents everything I love about Jansson’s ‘touch’.

‘The Summer Child’ is about a disconcerting child visitor, anti-social but not malevolent:
When it came to giving people a bad conscience, he was an expert. Sometimes all he had to do was just look at you with those gloomy, grown-up eyes and you would instantly be reminded of all your failings.I wonder if Jansson was thinking of her own writing when she wrote those words. The human mind and soul cannot be held up to such close inspection without the reader glancing at their own. But although Jansson exposes so many home truths, entirely without sentimentality, Travelling Light is far from a depressing or distressing collection. Instead, it makes you marvel with fascination, soak in the wonderful prose, and be grateful that there existed someone with so precise, perceptive and unpredictable a view of the world.

The True Deceiver

Since most of the authors I like are dead, it’s unusual for me to wait with excitement for a book to be published. I can normally just buy the backlist from abebooks, and work my way through them… well, Tove Jansson is dead, but she also wrote in Swedish, so I’m having to wait for the wonderful Thomas Teal to translate them. Tove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, and I couldn’t wait for The True Deceiver to be published – it’s coming out in October, but I begged an advance copy because I just couldn’t wait any longer.

All my reviews of Jansson’s previous books are under this link, which will take you to my thoughts on The Summer Book, A Winter Book, and Fair Play. Those who don’t like Jansson call her books boring – and if you read books primarily for plot, then she won’t be the author for you. But if you choose your books for character, writing style, and atmosphere – I’ve never come across any better writer. As Ali Smith writes in her wise introduction, Tove Jansson is ‘the opposite of charming’. Her books do not charm, they are far too honest for that, but they certainly appeal. She does not believe that the opposite of charming is repulsive – the opposite of charming is truth. So many modern novels assume human nature is disgusting, and that the only significant acts are ugly ones – Tove Jansson’s writing quietly, mesmerically shows characters who are beautifully real.

The True Deceiver is a little different from the other Jansson books I’ve read. Still set in snowy Sweden, still focusing on the co-existence of two women (a theme found in The Summer Book and Fair Play), there is more of an edge to this novel. Katri Kling is blunt, friendless, and entirely honest without being malevolent. She is blunt not because of malice, but because she sees truth as far more important than etiquette, and isn’t encumbered by emotions. She loves only two things – numbers, and her brother Mats, ‘a bit simple’. Katri’s character is shown in the way she is said to speak: ‘Other people talk, you make pronouncements’. Living away from the village, in ‘the rabbit house’, is Anna Aemelin. She is a disorganised, semi-reclusive illustrator of children’s books (yes, Tove was the illustrator of the Moomin books, but the very opposite of disorganised). Anna’s talent is the depiction of the woodland floor, in great, caring detail. But she has to include rabbits in her pictures, and the rabbits are covered in flowers – all the letters from fans, young and old, ask her why they are covered in flowers, and she always makes up a different answer. She never works on these books in the winter, so her paintbrushes are hibernating, as it were.

Katri takes some food up to Anna’s house, and develops an interest in the lady… but why? She fakes a break-in at the elderly artist’s home, to persuade her that she needs companionship… and so, with her brother and her dog, moves in. The motives for her actions are mysterious; the unacknowledged battle for power between Anna and Katri continues silently and subtly. Who is deceiving whom? And what effects are the women having on the lives and personalities of each other?

Katri starts sorting out Anna’s muddled finances and contracts. A portion of each financial victory is set aside for her brother – ‘Every time she wrote a captured sum of money into her notebook, she felt the collector’s deep satisfaction at finally owning a rare and expensive specimen.’ She even perfects the forging of Anna’s signature, and her writing style. And yet her motives remain unclear.

“Attention,” Anna said. “Giving another human being your undivided attention is a pretty rare thing. No, I don’t think it happens very often… Figuring out what someone wants and longs for, without being told – that probably requires a good deal of insight and thought. And of course sometimes we hardly know ourselves. Maybe we think it’s solitude we need, or maybe just the opposite, being with other people… We don’t know, not always…” Anna stopped talking, searched for words, raised her glass and drank. “This wine is sour. I wonder if it hasn’t stood too long. Don’t we have an unopened bottle of Madeira in the sideboard somewhere? No, let it go. Don’t interrupt me. What I’m trying to say is that there are few people who take the time to understand and listen, to enter into another person’s way of living. The other day it occurred to me how remarkable it is that you, Miss Kling, can write my name as if I’d written it myself. It is characteristic of your thoughtfulness, your thoughtfulness for me and no one else. Very unusual.”

“It’s not especially unusual,” Katri said. “Mats, pass the cream. It’s simply a matter of observation. You observe certain habits and behaviour patterns, you see what’s missing, what’s incomplete, and you supply it. It’s just a matter of experience. Get things working as best you can, then wait and see.”

“Wait and see what?” said Anne. She was annoyed.

“How it goes,” Katri said, looking straight at Anna, her eyes at this moment deeply yellow. She continued very slowly. “Miss Aemelin, the things people do for one another mean very little, seen purely as acts. What matters is their motives, where they’re headed, what they want.”
Jansson’s talent lies in showing the great depths of human interaction in the most unassuming ways. Skim through The True Deceiver and it might seem that not much happens, but read at the gradual pace her writing deserves, you realise what an unusually talented writer Jansson is. I haven’t read anything better than her collected output, especially in terms of style, from the last fifty years. Of course I am reading at one remove, and I cannot praise Thomas Teal’s translation enough – though I can’t compare it to the original, the result is so perfect that I can only assume Jansson and Teal are on the same wavelength. A real treat, and I do hope desperately that Sort Of Books continue to publish further translations of Jansson’s novels – and in such beautiful editions, too.

Book Group: The Results

I’ve talked so much about Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, without actually saying anything, that many of you will probably think Book Group was months ago. Well, I’ve just come back from it, and nine other people who had read Jansson’s book over the past six weeks. So here is my opinion of Fair Play, and what the group thought of it, so pile in with your feedback too, please! The cartoon is recycled, and not as appropriate to the topic for today, but I like it as an image of the bookish blogging community, and it’ll appear whenever I report back from my terrestrial Book Group.

I’ll start off a little defensively – I don’t think Fair Play was as good as Tove Jansson’s other works, those I’ve read anyway. Have a look at A Winter Book and The Summer Book by searching in the blog searcher, if you like – short stories and a sort of vignettey-novel respectively. Having said that, Fair Play was still a delight. Marketted as a novel, it is in fact a series of short stories/ideas/vignettes/snapshots featuring the same characters. Jonna and Mari live on the same, small Scandanavian island, artist and writer, and… well, that’s about it. Jonna rearranges Mari’s pictures; a girl obsessed with Mari’s mother comes to visit; they discuss their fathers; they watch an old film; edit one of Mari’s stories, and so forth. Each chapter has a small incident occur, and Jansson wraps her delicious prose around it. By the end she has provided a beautiful portrait of an unconventional couple, co-dependent and close rather than affectionate. Jansson doesn’t allow the narrative to become twee, but she does give beauty. This was especially true on my re-read (the first time in many years I have re-read a novel immediately) where I could just wallow in the prose.

So, what did the Book Group think? I must confess, I was worried whilst I was reading it. Plot is quite far down on my list of priorities when evaluating a book, but I know that’s not the case for a lot of people – Jansson’s novels are either viewed as beautiful writing, or just fairly pointless. One guy definitely took the latter view – just couldn’t see the point, engage with the characters, or be bothered to read on. A few others agreed to a lesser extent. That’s fine – I deliberately suggested one I hadn’t read already, so that I wouldn’t be too sensitive about people’s reactions. Most of the group found the writing to be very good, the novel to be gentle and evocative, and the characters intriguing, if slightly distant from a depiction of ‘love’, which the introduction suggested. Nobody loved it, desperate to read more (if only they’d started with The Summer Book!) but a few said they would if they came across some.

So, not a failure, not a success – but people were happy to have read something they wouldn’t otherwise have come across, and that is, after all, one of the main reasons that people join Book Groups.

Over to you! As far as I know, Curzon and Carole have read Fair Play – and of course anyone else is welcome to join in. Thoughts?


I was going to chat about all the books I read on holiday, but I’m too sleepy to do so. Have just come back from a village pub quiz, to which I went with my family. We managed to come first, and I contributed about eight answers, two of which were ‘Dolly Parton’. Worrying. And only one of which wasn’t already given by someone else on the team. No literature round, you see.

ANYWAY I’m supposed to be talking about books, aren’t I? So I’ll kick off with my favourite of the four, Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book. Cue picture.
As you may remember, The Summer Book was the first book to feature in my ’50 Books…’ (though that list isn’t in any particular order), and so I was merely exercising my civic/blogic duty when purchasing this publication from ‘Sort Of Books’ (an offshoot of Penguin, I believe). I worried a little that sunny beaches wouldn’t put me in the right frame of mind for a wintery book – but I needn’t have worried. The lack of sun was a dampener on parts of the holiday, but put me in completely the right position to read about chilly Finland. Finland? One of the Scandinavian countries, I can never remember which.

On the other hand, the contents belie the title anyway – this collection of stories, taken from various other collections, aren’t all wintery. Some of them are positively scorching – and Jansson is so brilliant at writing about temperature and weather, that you feel it. In fact, the term ‘evocative’ could have been invented for Jansson’s writing – perhaps because it’s a translation, but every word in this anthology has such depth, and feeling, and is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Except for The Summer Book.

The stories are mostly from the perspective of Tove as a child, though some towards the end focus on old age. Each one is slight, with little of significance occuring – in ‘Jeremiah’, the child competes for the attentions of a foreigner collecting bits and pieces on the beach; ‘Snow’ describes moving house, and the consequent interpretations the child transfers onto the snowdrift; ‘The Iceberg’ concerns, surprisingly, an iceberg arriving at the coast, which the little girl can’t quite reach: “It lay there bumping against the rocks at the end of the point where it was deep. and there was deep black water and just the wring distance between us. If it had been shorter I should have jumped over; if it had been a little longer I could have thought: ‘What a pity, no one can manage to get over that’. Now I had to make up my mind. And that’s an awful thing to have to do.”

I get quite irritated by books which boast of how much you’ll learn about the nation, culture etc. When I read fiction, I don’t want a travel manual. But Jansson achieves something much better – the reader is immersed in the life of the child, country and all, and all sorts of local details flood in, without being obtrusive.

Perhaps it is underwhelming to end a review with simply “read it”. I’m sure Karen will do better when she reports back. But I’ve rarely had a more involving and beautiful reading experience than with Jansson’s short stories, and if I could have two books by the same author on my ’50 Books…’ list…

Second favourite short story writer. Can you guess the first?

50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About

1. The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
I don’t think I’ll be causing too much of a literary storm if I suggest that Chaucer and Tove Jansson are odd bedfellows. But, nevertheless, they share the dubious acclaim of being the first authors to be heralded. And Tove is kicking off something I hope to continue intermitently for quite a while: 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.

Hopefully I’ll be able to bring a few to people’s attention, which they wouldn’t discover on the 3 for 2 tables, and of course I welcome recommendations – which will be ingested, and perhaps appear in this countdown (which is, I hasten to add, in no particular order) in the future. I played around with HTML for a while yesterday, but failed in adding a third column – so a list will be kept of the 50 Reads, down there somewhere on the far left.

I’m easing you in with The Summer Book, which I think has already done the rounds of blogs – certainly spotted it on Cornflower. Translated from the Swedish, and by the author of the Moomin Books, this falls between being a collection of short stories, and a fragmented-but-continuous narrative of the relationship between Sophia and her grandmother. More than anything else, it is a mesmerically beautiful evocation of Summer. Maybe it’s because it was originally written in another language, but there is an atmosphere of ethereality and airiness throughout this work. Finding it difficult to put my finger on why this book is so evocative, but I’m going to give up and just say: it is! Rarely have I left a novel, especially one not especially comedic, loving the characters so much, and appreciating the style of an author more.

Here’s the first line, to entice you:
‘It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, all the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.
“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia’

Do read on. And it’s a beautiful book to look at, which can’t be a bad thing. That’s right, folks, two days in and I’m already judging a book by its cover.

Anyone read it? Or The Winter Book, the sequel currently sitting on my shelf?
Countdown begins…