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.