Art in Nature by Tove Jansson
It’s been a little while since I read any of Tove Jansson’s wonderful prose, but I noticed the other day I still have two unread books on Mount TBR – “The True Deceiver” and this collection of short stories, “Art in Nature”. And as I’ve done fairly well with short stories recently, I picked up the latter.
Jansson seemed to be fond of the short story format, as she published several collections during her lifetime. The first I read was “The Winter Book” which is actually a compilation from the earlier books, but “Art In Nature” was originally published in 1978 under the title “The Dollhouse and Other Stories”, and translated in 2012. Once again we are in the safe hands of the excellent Thomas Teal, who’s brought us so many of Jansson’s works rendered for Anglophone readers, and this is a really wonderful collection.
There are 11 stories in the book, and I’m not going to cover each individual one; instead I’ll pick out themes, or the stories that impacted on me most. Jansson’s writing is, as always, simple but evocative, capturing the subtle human emotions portrayed here and giving a strong sense of place. Art and artists are, of course, a common theme, and we see them in all the differing types you can get: a sculptor with a pet monkey; contemporary art for the outdoors; an actress struggling with a part. But there are darker sides to art shown here, particularly in two of the stories; “The Locomotive” is a strange, ambiguous little tale of a train obsessive who finds an outlet for his emotions by drawing the locomotives of the title, and who strikes up a tenuous and rather odd relationship with a woman he meets at the station; and “The Cartoonist” tells of an illustrator taken on to produce a long running cartoon strip because the original creator has had a kind of breakdown, and the effect this has on his own sanity. I did wonder if the latter reflected Jansson’s slightly ambiguous feelings about her own creations, the Moomins.
But the effects of art become even darker in the original title story of the collection, “The Doll’s House”. Here, a retired upholsterer begins to construct a doll’s house out of boredom; the act of creation becomes an obsession and it takes over his flat and threatens his relationship with his partner, particularly when he brings another person in to help him with certain aspects of the building.
Not all of the stories are about artists however; another regular theme is that of ageing. “White Lady” shows us three sexagenarian ladies on a night out, contrasting their differing attitudes to life and the young; and “A Sense of Time” plays with our perceptions, giving us a pair of unreliable narrators (a young man and his grandmother) and leaving us uncertain about which of them has the strongest grasp on reality.
I could go on and on, but the more I read her the more I realise that Jansson was a consummate writer who could turn her pen to any number of subjects and capture their peculiarities brilliantly. Her writing is subtle – she never hits you in the face with what she’s saying, instead leaving you to draw out the meaning of the story, and I could happily read her every day. As it is, I only have a couple of unread Toves left (the aforementioned “True Deceiver” and “The Listener” which I’ve yet to get a copy of) so I need to ration her work so I don’t finish it too soon…