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.

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

Burning SecretBurning Secret (1913) by Stefan Zweig – translated by Anthea Bell and published in a lovely edition by Pushkin Press – was one of the books my friend Malie gave me for my birthday last year. Being honest, she gave me a voucher and I picked it – but I filled her in on my choices! It matches the Confusion edition I reviewed last year and now, of course, I want all of Pushkin’s Zweig series…

It’s another short and powerful novel – this one takes place in a hotel where the Baron is on holiday. He is bored and, for want of a better word, horny. I think that’s the first time I’ve used that word on this blog, but it’s the most apt.

He was welcome everywhere he went, and was well aware of his inability to tolerate solitude. He felt no inclination to be alone and avoided it as far as possible; he didn’t really want to become any better acquainted with himself. He knew that, if he was to show his talents to best advantage, he needed to strike sparks off other people to fan the flames of warmth and exuberance in his heart. On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box.

He casts his eye around the hotel for the most desirable woman to have a brief affair with, and lands upon a woman staying there with her young son, Edgar. He is 12, but this is the 1910s – so he seems very young and innocent to modern readers. The Baron decides that the best way to approach the woman is via her son – so he sets up a jovial friendship with Edgar – ‘Edi’ – in order to get closer to his mother; without this ‘in’, he couldn’t be introduced.

His ploy works. Edgar is flattered and entranced by this friendship with an adult – having been lonely through the stay so far – and his mother is quickly beguiled into an adulterous affair with the Baron. Once his goal is achieved, the Baron no longer puts any effort into charming the child – and Edgar is hurt, abandoned, angry. He knows something is going on between his mother and the Baron – but no idea what; only that they have a ‘burning secret’.

As I say, Edgar’s innocent naivety doesn’t quite translate to 2017 – but age him down a few years and it would. We don’t quite get prose from his perspective, it remains in the third person, but Zweig does enough to put us in the Baron’s mind and in Edgar’s mind in turn. Zweig is expert at bringing strong, painful, awkward emotions to the fore – and he masterfully interweaves Edgar’s fierce and confused anger through the narrative.

The story is simple, and short – 117 pages – but it is such a brilliant depiction of how unthinking unkindness can affect somebody, and how emotions that aren’t quite understood by the child experiencing them can reverberate and have their impact. Like Confusion, this is an excellent novella about the power of recognisable conflicts in recognisable places. I can see I’m going to have to buy more Zweigs…

The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery

The GourmetThis is one of those rare, rare occasions where I’ve actually joined in with a reading week/month etc. at the right time, and with the book I intended to read! I’m sneaking into the end of August to celebrate Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal/Biblibio.

One of my favourite writers is a woman in translation (in translation when I read her, at least): Tove Jansson. I could have re-read one of hers, or explored the Moomins more, but I decided to kill two birds with one stone and read a book with food as a theme – which is on my Book Bingo scorecard. And, embarrassingly, I’ve had The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery on my shelf since 2010, when I was given it as a review copy by Gallic Books. It was originally published in French in 2000, and translated by Alison Anderson for this 2009 edition.

Perhaps one of the reasons it had stayed on mount tbr for so long was that I hadn’t been entirely enamoured by the Barbery that everyone has read: The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I thought it was rather overwritten (either by author or translator, or both) and couldn’t quite see why it was so praised. I was rather snarky about it. So, how would I fare with this one?

First things first: the concept. It’s an intriguing idea. A celebrated food critic is dying, and longs to capture a taste from his past. It was the most delicious food he’d ever eaten, but – since it came before the days of his knowledge and fame – he can’t remember what it was. Around him, his adoring but poorly-treated wife, his rightfully resentful children, and his fantastic cat, wait for the end to come…

Pierre Arthens is a monstrous character. Monstrously selfish, monstrously uncaring (he doesn’t feel any guilt at not loving his children), and monstrously single-minded in pursuit of food. All this makes him a fascinating character, and easily the most interesting one in the book. Barbery made the decision to give alternate chapters from his point of view, while the other alternate chapters come from a wide variety of characters, most of whom only get heard from once. That was rather a flaw, I thought; it’s just not interesting to hear the in-depth thoughts of a person whose not been heard of before or since. I ended up skimming the non-Pierre chapters, and waiting to hear more about his culinary (and other) experiences throughout his life. It’s mostly musings, rather than plot, but it works well from his self-obsessed persona.

And the writing? I still found it a little overwritten at times. Again, I don’t know whether it’s Barbery or Anderson (I assume Anderson conveyed the sort of writing Barbery chose), but there’s no excuse for sections like this:

The cave of treasures: this was it, the perfect rhythm, the shimmering harmony between portions, each one exquisite unto itself, but verging on the sublime by virtue of strict, ritual succession. The meatballs, grilled with the utmost respect for their firmness, had lost none of their succulence during their passage through fire, and filled  my professionally carnivorous mouth with a thick, warm, spicy, juicy wave of masticatory pleasure.

Shudder. But, for the most part, I could cope with the overblown rhetoric – it worked for the character. In fact, if I hadn’t read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I might not have noticed it as much.

I don’t think I embraced all aspects of Arthens’ culinary memories as much as I have done, but that’s because most of the luscious descriptions are about meat and fish, which don’t appeal to this vegetarian. The odd moments when, say, asparagus took his fancy, I could enjoy it rather more.

So, has this Woman in Translation become a firm favourite? No, but I enjoyed reading the book, and certainly like Muriel Barbery more now than I did before.

Have you joined in Woman in Translation month? If not… it’s not too late!